To appreciate Mesut Özil, look no further than Dennis Bergkamp
Today Gooners, we’re going to talk about one of the most talented players Arsenal has ever had. Some called him inconsistent and not always a factor on the road in Europe, but he was great, nonetheless. A player who had no patience for defending but whose vision, intelligence, touch and skill were absolutely vital to the team.
He is also a player that at various parts of his career was highly criticized like this:
“I don’t think he will succeed in England. Of course, he is still one of the best players in the world, but he’s weak mentally. He’s not a winner. He’s a loser. He’s a cissy.”
Who do you think we’re talking about here? Mesut Özil? No. If you said Dennis Bergkamp you’d be right.
I’ve often felt that to truly appreciate Mesut Özil and how he plays the game you need look no further than Dennis. Both players at their height were/are considered generational players.
They are both blessed with vision and touch that few others possess. They both have an uncanny ability of making the extraordinary look ordinary. Dennis’ goal vs Newcastle comes top of mind and so does the Özil bounce pass/shot he has used on numerous occasions.
Now before we go further, let’s be clear, Dennis Bergkamp is legend and what he did at Arsenal is without a doubt incomparable. The point is that both he and Mesut have very similar qualities and when you look at the height of their careers you see similarities that are so striking, we decided to take a look.
Developing their technique
Both players came from working class backgrounds. Though Mesut’s German upbringing was slightly harder given the fact that his parents were living in a migrant neighborhood with limited social mobility.
However, both early on possessed traits that would serve them well into their professional years.
Dennis and Mesut spent a lot of time with the ball at their feet. For Dennis as stated in autobiography Stillness and Speed
“Most of the time I was by myself, just kicking the ball against the wall, seeing how it bounces, how it comes back, just controlling it. I found that so interesting! Trying it different ways, first one foot, then the other foot, looking for new things: inside of the foot, outside of the foot, laces… getting a sort of rhythm going, speeding it up, slowing it down. Sometimes I’d aim at a certain brick, or the crossbar. Left foot, right foot, making the ball spin. Again and again. It was just fun. I was enjoying it. It interested me. Maybe other people wouldn’t bother. Maybe they wouldn’t find it fascinating. But I was fascinated.”
For Mesut his skill was nurtured and developed in the Monkey Cage (a local hardscrabble “pitch” littered with rocks and surrounded by fences) in the German Bismarck district of Gelsenkirchen. Regardless of the weather, Mesut went there every day and began to develop his skill set.
Joachen Hermann from Özil’s secondary school called his fascination with football “a little bit autistic and I always had the feeling he even took the ball to bed”
The way both players went about learning their skill- the fascination each had with mastering the skill through kicking the ball repeatedly, often on their own- is what would eventually elevate the players in their game.
Johann Cruyff defined technique as:
“passing the ball with one touch, with the right speed, at the right foot of your teammate”
Think about when Dennis and Mesut are their best; think about their technique and you can see that both had a love for the ball that was honed over hours and hours of uninterrupted learning that resulted in them acquiring a technical proficiency that is impossible to coach.
When Arsenal fans criticize Mesut Özil, they often cite a lack of competitiveness or fire. They use body language as some sort of stick to beat him with but in reality, Mesut is fiercely competitive and it, like his skill, was nurtured in his youth.
Mesut Özil has always been an introverted player. Off the pitch he was always quiet, but once they got him on the field he was as extroverted as they came. In a school that also featured Manuel Neuer, Julian Draxler, Benedikt Howedes and Joel Matip, it was Mesut Özil whom his teachers would call the superstar of the team.
In 1992, the Times called Dennis Bergkamp “Clark Kent,” a nod to the changing demeanor of the player on the pitch who had ice in his veins, but off it was as quiet and reserved as they came.
Again, like Özil, it was a trait that would be built, but for Dennis this came under the eye of the Dutch master himself, Cruyff. Bergkamp was naturally shy and rather than go out, he would go home and spend time with his girlfriend. This, especially during his time in Italy, was interpreted as aloofness or weakness.
But Dennis as we all know did his real talking on the pitch. At Arsenal it was said he had ice in his veins, and it showed.
Competitiveness is shown many ways and for Dennis it was in his goals and what he contributed to Arsenal’s success during his time at the club. For Mesut, it is the cerebral way he goes through a match and can dictate play without anyone realizing what he has done.
Amy Lawrence in the Guardian said it best:
“Perceptions about Özil have been revised over the past year. Where his languid body language made critics carp, now it represents clever, elusive movement. Where opposing defenders sought to rough him up and squeeze him out of the game, now they know he is strong enough to handle it and slice them open. Where fans doubted he would be the protagonist in the biggest challenges, now they expect him to wave his wand.”
Amy’s conversation with Arsene Wenger highlights the similarity in their competitive nature even further:
“He’s not an extrovert, as you know,” says Wenger, “but he’s demanding from his partners.” That description applied to Dennis Bergkamp, and the comparison made Wenger’s eyes light up. Bergkamp was a huge figure in the dressing room in his time. He could be an introvert but was also funny, sharp, observant, and spoke with piercing accuracy. “Yes, Özil is a bit like that,” adds Wenger. “He is not that guy who stands up and speaks too much but every time he says something it is just straight to the point.” The manager snaps his fingers for emphasis.
We, as fans define competitiveness and leadership through visual stimuli – what we see on the pitch. But there is so much more to it than the “pashun” displayed on the pitch.
There’s more to it and sometimes, those on the field displays are just what they appear a momentary reaction to an event.
The fact is that to get to the level of Dennis or Mesut and stand out among your peers, the level of competitiveness you have to hold has to be greater than most, or they’d have never stood out.
I am sure that as people read this, their natural instinct will be to look at the most tangible way of identifying the differences between the two players. They’ll look to exactly what Arsenal have won.
That may be a flawed analysis, but it is how we tend to think and there is no denying that what Arsenal achieved during Dennis’ tenure at the club is leagues ahead of what Mesut has accomplished in North London.
For Dennis his list of honours looks like this:
- Premier League: 1997–98, 2001–02, 2003–04
- FA Cup: 1997–98, 2001–02, 2002–03, 2004–05
- FA Charity/Community Shield: 1998, 2002, 2004
Individually he achieved:
- Premier League Player of the Month: August 1997, September 1997, March 2002, February 2004
- PFA Team of the Year: 1997–98 Premier League
- FWA Footballer of the Year: 1997–98
- PFA Players’ Player of the Year: 1997–98
- Premier League Goal of the Season: 1997–98, 2001–02
- Premier League leader in assists: 1998–99
For Mesut his club honours are:
- FA Cup: 2013–14, 2014–15, 2016-17
- FA Community Shield: 2015, 2017
- Premier League top assists: 2015–16
- Arsenal Player of the Season: 2015–16
If you are using the results of the team as the measuring stick then its clear that Dennis has achieved more both as part of a team and individually.
However, in this modern era we like to scratch the surface a little more and start bringing in stats. For this part we’ll look at career stats and here’s why:
When we look at both players at Arsenal, the two weren’t exactly surrounded by the same level of talent. Dennis’ teammates drip off the pages of Arsenal lore – Henry, Pires, Freddie, and so many more. For Mesut not so much.
Additionally, the teams were set up different. Wenger set up the Arsenal squad in a manner that complimented Dennis. Dennis played in a system that suited him to a tee whereas arguably (and obviously), Mesut has always been better in a direct system rather than a possession/build up system (see his time at Werder and Real.)
However, when you do look at their careers, Mesut does get the advantage of playing with some greats like Benzema, C.Ronaldo, Di Maria, Kaka, Modric, Higuain, X.Alonso, Marcelo, Ramos, Sanchez, Aubameyang, Lacazette and Ramsey. When you add that talent around Mesut he shines and becomes the player we want him to be and his stats reflect it.
In 524 matches played, Mesut Özil has 86 goals and 213 assists in his senior career. For Dennis he has 245 goals and 87 assists in 700 senior appearances. Mesut beats out Dennis slightly in the goal participation ration (0.57 vs 0.47)
Prior to arriving at Arsenal, Dennis Bergkamp went through some of the worst moments of his career. Playing at Inter he found himself playing an unfamiliar style of football, often times as a lone striker.
His second season at Inter got worse and he was a shell of the man we’d eventually see at Arsenal. Things were so bad that a dubious award once called the “donkey of the week” was renamed the Bergkamp of the week.
His own country men were all over him too.
The quote early in this piece is attributed to Ron Westerhof of Voetbal International. He would go on to say this:
“Look at the way he allowed Ruben Sosa, who is an inferior player, be the boss at Inter. Berg-kamp’s free-kicks and penalties are famous in the Netherlands. His problems are between his ears. A lot depends on Bruce Rioch, but if you want the best from Bergkamp, you have to build a team around him and play in an intelligent, attacking way. I don’t know if Arsenal can do this.”
That was in 1995 at the time he signed for Arsenal. A year later he got a manger who did just that and the rest is history.
The criticisms launched at Mesut Özil are well known, they aren’t too dissimilar to the ones Dennis got. But in today’s hyper-connected world they seem more pronounced.
I’ve always wondered how Dennis would’ve been received at Arsenal with comments like Westerhof’s out there.
It is clear that given their demeanor and approach to the game that they were often times misunderstood and that leads to incorrect perceptions about the talent they both possessed.
Wrapping it up in a bow
The point here wasn’t to say Mesut Özil should be considered in the same pantheon as Dennis Bergkamp in terms of Arsenal lore. But when you look at the two players, you see that these are very similar players stylistically, and they are generational talents.
They were, of course, different players in that one was a goal scorer and the other a creator to drive he team, a point not lost on Arsene Wenger after Arsenal had just beat Bournemouth 2-0:
“Look at the numbers. On the assists they speak for him. He has become a complete sensational football player. I am very, very happy with his performances. He is one of the best in Europe certainly. In his position, he is sensational. Bergkamp was more goalscorer than him, while he has always been more of an assists man, but now he has become more of a goalscorer, they really are comparable. He has remarkable technical quality and something that I enjoy very much is the timing of his passes. If you think in the stand give the ball now, it is now. You have not finished your thinking and the ball has gone already.”