I think it is possible that Arsenal fans have slightly overrated Mesut Özil in the past. Maybe ‘overrate’ is not the right word, given the obvious breadth of his football talent. But I do think we can be overprotective of any perceived criticism towards him. Shamelessly pilfered though it was from West Ham’s ode to Dimitri Payet, the second line of Özil’s terrace chant is rather apt, “I just don’t think you understand.” Certainly when Mesut first moved to England, this was absolutely the case.
His nonchalance was often misinterpreted as indifference, his subtlety went undetected by many and, consequently, his gifts were underappreciated. Now, only the dullest minds in the punditocracy (hi Michael, hi Robbie) reheat 2014’s half remembered critique of the German. Even Neil Ashton cheerfully withdrew his infamous ‘nicking a living’ line, which has the potential to rival Alan Hansen’s ‘you’ll never win anything with kids’ in the ironic repetition stakes.
Ashton’s haughty dismissal from March 2014 has been held up as the established press line for Özil, in reality it was a mere wind up piece from the loony end of the opinion spectrum. The cynicism Özil’s performances drew irked Arsenal fans and sparked them into action. He was, and still is, our record signing and his signature represented a watershed moment for the club. Not taking him seriously meant not taking Arsenal seriously and Arsenal fans had waited a long time to be considered a world force in the market again.
Özil’s subtle charms become obvious when viewed regularly. Arsenal fans ‘got’ Özil, but many less frequent viewers were later to the party; yet Arsenal fans wanted other observers to understand and admire him. When you break out the posh cutlery, it’s because you want your dinner guests to notice. As such, the discourse around Özil was challenged constantly and noisily. Arsenal, with its Internet hyperpresence, is probably the club best equipped to mobilise for such a digital charm offensive. In a period of great division amongst Arsenal fans, it’s an issue that’s united them more than any other.
In just about every way I can think of, Özil is the ideal player for the digital age. In the past, hackneyed analysis about his body language and work rate would have persisted unabated. Arsenal’s cultural dominance of the internet saw these views rabidly denounced. He is very much a player for the data age, his manipulation of space sometimes gives the impression that he’s hiding in plain sight. But the numbers always had Mesut’s back and they armed his legion of defenders with the weaponry to disarm the naysayers.
Distance covered, touches, key passes; figures repeated on a weekly basis to make people understand. During his spell at Arsenal, Gilberto Silva was bemoaned and questioned constantly. I am convinced that in a contemporary context, data would have been used to convince and educate people about his contribution. Indeed, he has been canonised in hindsight (though frankly, every significant member of the Invincibles side is now remembered as entirely infallible). In 2016, recognising the importance of the defensive midfielder is no longer the sole reserve of the footballing sophisticate.
Özil’s popularity runs corollary to football’s increasing cult of the individual. Players are much more readily set against one another and compared in the digital playground. Just execute a Twitter search for accounts named ‘football battles’ or similar, each inviting you to ‘retweet’ or ‘like’ in support of your favoured player. Tribalism around individuals is increasing. As such, Mesut is constantly set against similar players from other clubs.
Philippe Coutinho, Dmitri Payet, Kevin de Bruyne, Fabregas, Delle Alli, di Maria when he was with Manchester United. The contribution of each is emphasised and exaggerated in the pursuit of this game of internet top trumps. It is possible that the value of the assist, Özil’s chief statistical currency prior to this season, has been inflated in this very quest for one-upmanship. Every shimmy, every defence splitting pass, every metre covered is now coveted as a kind of victory.
Özil’s shrewdness also makes him ideally suited to the Vine generation. Inside the stadium, his most outrageous pieces of skill barely scan in real time. His flipbook of tricks, flicks, feints and disguised passes often only register with repeat viewings. Usually his skills are so worthy of playback because they enable one to appreciate his audacity exponentially. His goal against Ludogorets on Tuesday evening is a prime example of this phenomenon.
It’s not until the third or fourth viewing that you appreciate that final half feint before he slots the ball into the net, shortly after he has rounded the goalkeeper and sent two Ludogorets defenders sliding hither and thither. One of them actually half threatens to correct his posture and throw himself in the path of Özil’s eventual shot. Much like the bullet riddled movie villain that regains consciousness and makes one last dramatic grab for the discarded handgun.
Mesut appreciates this and actually executes some barely detectable slight of foot before applying the finish. The German is possibly the most Vine-tastic footballer on the planet. The six second clip of his no look pass against Chelsea went viral, largely because barely anybody noticed it in real time. Nowadays, momentary enterprise only has to be noticed by a single observer and within seconds, the television is paused, rewound, the moment captured for posterity, repackaged into a bite-sized clip and viral content is born.
If Özil’s innate attributes make him a player for the digital age, then his PR team are internet savvy in a far more deliberate manner. As players, Alexis and Mesut operate on a similar plateau. They are quite different of course, Özil the thoughtful and methodical yin to Sanchez’s explosive, electric yang. Both are similarly talented, but I would argue that the German is ever so slightly more popular. A lot of this is due to Özil’s peerless social media presence. He has an impish, inoffensive boyband charm that is outstripped only by Neymar on the world stage.
Alexis is a little more arcane, he grants few interviews – even via official club channels. Through the Chilean’s social media, we know that he likes his dogs a lot and that he spends a lot of his downtime running up mountains whilst tethered to a Volvo. Both of these traits are endearing enough, but we get less of an insight into his personality (or at least, an imagining of his personality) than we do with Özil. This matters, especially in 2016. Having a catchy song also helps. Lukas Podolski was unduly popular largely because of his Instagram content and because fans liked his terrace chant.
Mesut Özil’s winning goal against Ludogorets on Tuesday night was, on the face of it, a pretty straightforward one on one with the goalkeeper. Certainly peering from behind the goal, I was aware of his patience and composure, but it wasn’t until I saw the replay 3-4 times that I truly appreciated the footwork. It was similar to Bergkamp’s famous goal against Newcastle in that respect (though not nearly as good, in my opinion).
The goal resonated far beyond the Arsenal fan base on this occasion, with observers neutral and not so neutral gushing in admiration. Özil is scoring more goals this season, which always helps people to notice you, I guess. Mesut was a cause célèbre that Arsenal’s digital army took to their hearts. In a bygone era he may well have remained underappreciated, but now, everybody understands.
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