Arsenal playmaker Mesut Ozil showed signs of returning to his magisterial best during the second half of the Gunners’ 4-0 victory over Newcastle. He scored the third goal of the game and generally impressed with his range of passing, drive and willingness to receive the ball in dangerous areas.
However, such a performance is always a double-edged sword with Ozil, as it has fans and pundits questioning why he cannot do it every week. He has been accused of relishing the role of flat track bully, thriving when the team is on song and wilting when the going gets tough. But has he simply been mismanaged?
Long Live the Assist King
The German World Cup winner has the ability to conjure up moments of magic that turn games on their head. He sees passes that others cannot spot, and he has the ability to thread the ball through the eye of a needle in order to pick out a teammate. “How may I assist you?” became a catchphrase among the Arsenal fan base on social media when referring to Ozil.
He joined the club in a blaze of glory back in September 2013, sparking scenes of jubilation among the Arsenal faithful. They had grown sick and tired of watching stars like Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie leave for greener pastures just as they were entering their prime. Arsenal had become a club that bought rough diamonds, turned them into world-class stars and sold them for a profit in order to balance the books, always falling just short of silverware as a result.
Suddenly, Arsenal were a club that bought world-class players in their prime. Ozil initially lived up to that billing. He slalomed about the pitch, his creativity was phenomenal and he banged in a fair amount of goals too.
In the 2015/16 season, he provided 19 assists. He was directly involved in 27 goals. He was named Arsenal Player of the Year and Kicker awarded him its prestigious Best German Abroad gong. His partnership with Alexis Sanchez was deadly, and Arsenal’s trophy drought ended with three FA Cups.
Gunners fans were delighted when Ozil chose to extend his contract after the Chilean decided to decamp to Old Trafford in January 2018. By then, injuries had stilted his progress, but optimism abounded that Arsenal could build a team around his mercurial talent. Yet it has not worked out, as Arsene Wenger – Ozil’s cheerleader in chief – was axed, and replacement Unai Emery made a point of ostracising the German playmaker.
Does He Bust a Gut?
Critics of Ozil always bemoan his languid style, the seemingly lackadaisical response to losing the ball and losing the game. Even after the Newcastle game, Graeme Sounness sat in the Sky Sports studio and ripped into Ozil for failing to “bust a gut” on a regular basis.
“He’s got unbelievable quality,” said the former Liverpool captain. “He sees a pass in tight areas. It’s the same old accusations: does he bust a gut? No, he doesn’t always do it.”
Sounness grew increasingly incoherent as he tried to sum up the Ozil conundrum, but his refrain was so familiar that Arsenal fans knew what he meant. Many of them have lamented the same issues – a tendency to go missing in big games, a questionable attitude, a failure to exert himself, a lack of productivity on a consistent basis.
It was these traits that Emery identified, and his treatment of Ozil was suitably brutal. The number 10 was regularly left out of matchday squads during Emery’s tenure, as he said “other players deserved it more”. Some fans applauded his hard-line approach, but it seemed counterintuitive to abandon your most technically gifted player, particular when he was being paid such extravagant wages.
Creativity became almost non-existent in his stead, the goals dried up and Emery turned to Ozil in desperation during the final weeks of his ill-fated reign. The German was reinstated, but it was not enough to save Emery, whose constant tinkering, negative tactics, poor man management and communication issues saw him axed.
Ozil a Crucial Cog
Interim coach Freddie Ljungberg was quick to build his team around Ozil, but it felt like he was being overindulged. Perhaps Ozil requires a carrot and stick approach. Wenger and Ljungberg were all about the carrot, while Emery was all about the stick, and Ozil did not respond particularly well to either approach.
New manager Arteta was asked about Ozil in his inaugural press conference. “Of course he’s a massive player,” said the former Gunners captain, who won the FA Cup alongside Ozil. “I worked with him and I know when he ticks what he can bring to the team. My job is to get the best out of him, of course. What I want is I want to understand how they’re feeling and what they need.”
It was a revealing interview. Arteta spoke at length about the need for Arsenal’s underachieving players to buy into his philosophy – “my job is to convince everybody that this is how we’re going to live; if you’re going to be part of this organisation it’s going to be this way” – but also promised to put an arm around his players, address their concerns and help them improve.
So far it seems that Arteta offers the right blend of carrot and stick. He is eloquent, passionate and open in press conferences and post-match interviews, but he clearly has a steely determination about him. Players like Ozil, Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi have been given a second chance to prove their worth to the team, and they have all improved, but Matteo Guendouzi was quickly cut from the squad after a reported bust-up in training.
A Diligent Approach
So far it looks like Ozil has responded well to the new regime at The Emirates. He has Arteta’s trust, and he has become a key member of the starting 11 once again. He has enjoyed a free role at the tip of a three-man midfield, with Xhaka and either Lucas Torreira, Guendouzi or Dani Ceballos sitting behind him.
That is where Ozil does his best work. He cannot affect a game so well if he is shunted out on the wing, but if he can drift into space and operate between the lines, he can be deadly.
His work rate has also improved significantly. He ran 10.7 km in that win over Newcastle. Only Xhaka covered more ground, running 10.8km. Ozil also covered more ground than almost anyone on the pitch during a victory over Man Utd. Like Dimitar Berbatov before him, Ozil is a supremely gifted player cursed with the sort of nonchalant body language that can actually belie a more diligent, passionate approach.
There are signs of significant improvement under Arteta. Man City may be the favourites in the Champions League betting, but they have been axed from next year’s competition. Unless they mount a successful appeal, whoever finishes fifth in this season’s Premier League table will qualify. Returning to Europe’s top table would give Arsenal a huge financial boost and help them attract a better quality of player.
Right now, they are well off the pace, but the fixture list looks relatively kind in the weeks ahead: Everton and West Ham at home, followed by a trip to Brighton, a visit to Southampton and then bottom club Norwich at The Emirates. These are the sort of teams that Arsenal can sweep aside if they play like they did in the second half against Newcastle, and Ozil could serve as the conductor of the orchestra if he retains his current confidence, determination and work rate.
He is a key pillar in Arteta’s team. The deep lying midfielders regularly feed him the ball, and he has the ability to receive it under pressure, shimmy into space and set away Arsenal on dangerous attacks. The Gunners have plenty of quick players bursting forward. Nicolas Pepe, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Bukayo Saka and Hector Bellerin might all be charging up the pitch, but it requires a deft pass from a visionary playmaker to pick them out.
Ozil fits the bill perfectly. Xhaka and Ceballos are good passers of the ball, but Ozil is on another level when he gets going. He needs to know that he has the manager’s trust, but that it will be removed if he fails to uphold the standards expected of him. That blend of fear and confidence could inspire him to return to the heights he reached in 2015/16, leading Arsenal up the table.
The win against Newcaslte was a game of two halves. It’s the oldest cliche in the book, but it is apt. Arsenal were sluggish, unadventurous and laboured in the first half, and Newcastle looked good value for a 0-0 draw. Then Arteta delivered a stirring half-time team talk, urging them to play on the front foot, take more risks and display great levels of ambition.
It paid off, as Arsenal went on to win 4-0. Ozil impressed by driving forward, playing key passes to teammates in advanced positions and converting Lacazette’s cross in the game’s dying embers. Over the past couple of years, he has developed a habit of passing sideways, when he should be taking risks and trying to pick out the rapid forwards ahead of him.
If Arsenal can regularly get him on the ball, and encourage him to be adventurous, they really should surge up the table in the weeks ahead, and they could even win the Europa League at the third time of asking.