I still remember vividly Monday the 2nd of September 2013, the day that Mezut Özil was confirmed as an Arsenal player, in the same way as I remember those days in the recent past that Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry signed; more specifically I recall the excitement that it sparked amongst the Gooner faithful. As so often in recent years, Arsenal had got off to an uninspiring start to the season losing 3-1 at home to a mediocre Aston Villa side on the opening day after a summer where the club had dithered in the transfer market, capping it off with the purely embarrassing £40million +£1 bid for Luis Suárez that succeeded only in drawing derisory insults from JW Henry and the Liverpool ownership; there was a fair degree of unrest amongst the Arsenal support, to say the least.
Those of us who remembered Özil’s arrival on the world stage at the 2010 World Cup and who had followed his performances for Los Blancos of Madrid, were relishing the prospect of this mercurial talent donning the famous red shirt with white sleeves and transforming our attacking play, returning us to the halcyon days of the Invincibles’ surgically clinical counter-attacking football; hell we even hoped he might make Theo and Giroud look like proper strikers!
As is always the case with star name, big money signings, the expectation levels were through the roof for Özil, maybe even more so given the years of austerity brought on by the stadium build from which the club was beginning to emerge. His every touch of the ball was anticipated as an indication of the magic to come. While we vehemently kept the faith, it is probably fair to say that his first few months with the club were slightly underwhelming, culminating in him being accused of ‘nicking a living’ by respected football journalist Neil Ashton, host of Sky Sports’ Sunday Supplement show, after an albeit injury-hindered but completely anonymous first-half performance in Munich which saw him subbed at half-time.
Through the following seasons there were probably two schools of thought on our maverick playmaker, you either felt he was over-rated or ineffectively utilised; some saw the phenomenal number of assists and him cleverly orchestrating the Gunners’ attacking play, where others felt he drifted through games lacking the sheer grit, determination and will to make things happen as so effectively characterised by the pocket whirlwind that is Arsenal’s other world class star Alexis Sánchez.
This season the shift to a more dynamic and fluid attacking structure utilising the never-ceasing energy of the Chilean in a central role benefited Özil and for a few months he truly looked like the player we thought we had signed three years previously. The absolute crystallisation of just how good the two might work in tandem was never plainer than in the 3-0 destruction of Chelsea back in September. Özil was on fire before Christmas, his genius encapsulated by that goal in Ludogorets, losing him through not paying him what he was worth was at that stage simply not worth contemplating. However then came the defeats away at Everton and Manchester City in quick succession, which highlighted Özil’s defensive slackness and were bereft of any meaningful contribution from him in either game.
Recent weeks have seen Özil miss matches through reported illness and injuries, however seasoned Wenger watchers will remember previous occasions when convenient ‘injuries’ have occurred to allow him to take underperforming players out of the firing line; equally the player has gone public in his feelings that he is unfairly targeted for criticism when the team performs badly, saying: ‘When the team’s on a bad run, somebody needs to be singled out, sadly most of the time it’s me.’
As Arsenal try and salvage something from the wreckage of their season and with Özil having returned to action for Germany during the international break, it feels like it is very much a key juncture in his Arsenal career. The only glimmer of hope in recent weeks (the first half at home to Bayern and the first half hour of the cup game against Lincoln City) has come from the deployment of a more robust 4-3-3 shape, with a midfield of Xhaka, Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain; a shape that simply doesn’t suit the German’s game, as he needs to play as a liberated number ten. When he has played in a 4-3-3 it has almost exclusively been from a wide position as he did for Germany’s World Cup winners, but his contribution is almost always muted. Equally, his unwillingness to put in a defensive shift would in such a system leave the right back exposed, a particular problem at Arsenal given the offensive emphasis given to Hector Bellerin, assuming we are somehow able to hold onto him this summer.
Özil has gone on record about the importance of Arsène Wenger to him signing for the club originally and in the decision that he will eventually make with regard to whether he signs a new contract or not. Adopting a cynical perspective, it may well be that Özil recognises that the only way for him to continue to be afforded the ‘free-role’ without defensive responsibility that he enjoys in Wenger’s favoured 4-2-3-1 system, is for the manager to stick with the same gameplan and to continue to indulge his talents. A change in system either by Wenger or, almost inevitably, by a new progressive young manager may result in Özil finding himself having to adapt or face being out in the cold. The debate for Arsenal fans is whether that is necessarily a bad thing?
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