After the apparent indignity of being made to play and captain a team made up of youngsters looking to stake their claim for a first team spot, squad players and some returning from long-term injury against Nottingham Forest in the League Cup a couple of weeks ago, Mesut Özil seems to have gone missing again. It was no surprise at all that he was judged surplus to requirements for the trip to Old Trafford, but the fact that he was then left out of the squad for the home encounters against Standard Liege and then Bournemouth, surely provide strong affirmation that Özil’s time at Arsenal has finally run its course. If Unai Emery can’t or won’t trust him for a couple of fixtures that are relatively sedate in comparison to others, then when will he?
It all started so very differently, on Transfer Deadline Day back in 2013, the acquisition of the mercurial Germany playmaker was seen as a statement signing by Arsenal, an indication that the financial shackles imposed by the building of Emirates Stadium had finally been removed and the club was at last able to compete for major acquisitions. We hoped above all hope that after years of mediocrity this was another signing akin to those of Bergkamp and Henry that would be the catalyst for a brighter future.
As much as it was clear that Özil possesses a broad package of subtle skills and superb vision, the ability to see what others couldn’t and the talent to deliver the pass exactly as required, in truth some of the early performances felt somewhat underwhelming. Even from the very beginning there seemed to be something missing, a sense that Özil didn’t fit with the rest of the team, a lack of appetite for the fight that is essential in the high-octane end-to-end football of the Premier League. That sense was made even stronger when he was joined in Arsenal’s front line by the one-man whirlwind that was Alexis Sánchez.
While Sánchez’s never-say-die, all-action style endeared him instantaneously to the Gooner faithful, even if over time his increasingly self-indulgent displays of frustration with teammates not being up to his standard convinced us all that his stay at the club would always be relatively short, Özil seemed to drift through games very much on the periphery, never seeming to take a game by the scruff of the neck, or to exert his influence to the extent that his undeniable talents made us feel he should have.
Then at the start of the 2017/18, as both of Arsenal’s ‘star turns’ entered the final year of their contracts it seemed almost certain that Sánchez would leave given reported interest from Manchester City, Manchester United and a host of other elite European clubs. While hindsight suggests that the Chilean may have been something of a jaded busted flush given how things have worked out for him at Old Trafford, at the time he was very highly coveted. The same cannot be said of Özil who stayed almost by default due to a lack of interest from anyone willing or able to take on his wage demands, eventually inking a reported £350,000 a week deal to keep him at the Emirates. From that point forward his performances have waned to such an extent that rather than being held in the highest esteem as a thrilling playmaker capable of moments of unquestionable genius, his retention is now seen as a seemingly highly costly mistake by Wenger, Gazidis & co passed on to the new management regime.
The absolute nadir for Özil came in last season’s ill-fated Europa League Final in Baku as he ambled off the pitch with us 4-1 down with just over ten minutes to go to a cacophony of boos from the beyond frustrated travelling Arsenal support. If not before, that very moment suggested that his Arsenal goose was well and truly cooked and that the only way to resolve this mess was to move him on, even if it meant swallowing a significant portion of his exorbitant salary to encourage someone, anyone, to take him off our hands.
As the summer played out Özil remained at the club even as Raúl Sanllehí worked his transfer market cunning and secured the services of Dani Ceballos, a seemingly more dynamic option in attacking midfield, on a season long loan from Real Madrid; while at the same time through a number of highly promising pre-season performances youngster Joe Willock, Özil’s replacement that night in Baku, played himself into contention as a further option.
On the eve of the new season Özil and teammate Sead Kolasinac were the victims of a frightening attempted carjacking at knifepoint and both were understandably left out of the travelling party to Newcastle for Arsenal’s opening match of the Premier League campaign. While Kolasinac was back on the bench for the first home game against Burnley, Özil was not for the first time ruled out with an unspecified illness and did not feature in a game until he started against Watford at Vicarage Road in mid-September, missing the trip to Anfield altogether and being an unused sub in the home derby against Spurs.
So far this season Özil has managed a grand total of 140 minutes of football in the eleven matches that Arsenal have played, which follows on from last season where he was also used sparingly for the most part, most notably away from home due to a perceived lack of ability to be able to cope with opponents’ “physicality and intensity”, as stated by Emery.
In actual fact there seems to be very few circumstances where the head coach would ever actually use Özil, speaking ahead of the trip to Old Trafford a couple of weeks ago Emery suggested: “He can play how I want, but now we have a lot of players being competitive in each position on the pitch and they deserve to be able to help and to play,” as clear an indication as any as to where the 2014 World Cup winner now sits within the pecking order. Both Willock and Ceballos came on in the second half of that match as Arsenal finally started to try and play on the front foot.
It would be easy to explain this freezing out of Özil by Emery as a thinly veiled scheme to convince him to leave in January or to force him to see out the remainder of his contract on the outside looking in. It is however doubtful that the moneymen at the club would accept the latter option given the reported lack of available cash at the club. However completely bafflingly Emery has selected Özil as part of his leadership group, one of his (in)famous “five captains” and yet it is difficult to fathom what impact the player can have if he isn’t even in the matchday squad?
Perhaps the modern interpretation of the game with its insistence on high intense pressing, as characterised by Liverpool and Manchester City, doesn’t allow for a traditional drifting Number 10 who concentrates his efforts in the attacking phases of the game and is unable or unwilling to put in the requisite defensive shift. Yet Arsenal’s recruitment over the summer seems to be focused on the creation of a pacey, counter-attacking front three, who would undoubtedly benefit from a player capable of supplying the ammunition to such an extent that he was once described by a certain Cristiano Ronaldo as: “the player who best knew my moves in front of goal”.
As difficult as it is to discern a coherent playing strategy within Emery’s constant formation changing and overly cautious approach, if it is to be based around the high-speed attacking trident of Pépé-Lacazette-Aubameyang, maybe there is a future for the man who used to be the ‘king of assists’ and Arsenal’s head coach is merely holding him back unto he is ready to unleash that potentially devastating set-up on the Premier League. Or is that just wishful thinking?