Everybody Hates Özil

Tim Stillman column Arseblog

Arsenal’s summer has been dominated by the dual contract sagas of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil. The situation of the former has ignited far more debate, rumour and innuendo than the latter. With Alexis involved in Confederations Cup duty, the man himself has literally been a high resolution presence in Arsenal’s summer at times.

Meanwhile, Mesut Özil’s contract is also in the 12 month red zone, yet the level of water cooler talk around his future has been considerably quieter. Özil was spared Confederations Cup duty with Germany and took a holiday in the US. Ordinarily, this would be an opportune time for a player and his representatives to begin wafting the smoke of transfer rumour- either as an act of leverage, or because they genuinely want to find a new club.

The differing level of noise around the Gunners’ blockbuster duo reflects their on pitch personas. Alexis is all hustle, bustle and brow sweat. Whilst Özil is an ephemeral, almost ghostly presence on the margins of the game. His USP is to creep unnoticed into nooks and crannies of space. Alexis’ situation is very much centre stage, whilst Özil’s is silent, lurking, but still undoubtedly there. It all feels very familiar.

The German is at the clutch phase of his current deal, he is a 28-year old World Cup winner and one of the first names on the teamsheet for the German national team. So why hasn’t there been more transfer speculation? The simplest answer seems to be that he has not generated an awful lot of interest- especially as he is reportedly holding out for a salary of around £300,000 a week.

Özil turns 29 in October and his next contract will be the last optimal deal he can expect in his career. The chance of sharp physical decline any time soon seems unlikely, given his style. Mesut’s game is built on appreciation of space, a quality which, if anything, ought to enhance as he approaches his 30s.

Mesut’s wage demands might be giving teams cause to back off at this point in time, but he knows full well that £300,000 a week which be much more agreeable to his suitors if they do not have to pay a transfer fee. So his negotiating hand remains pretty strong, even if Arsenal could point to an apparent lack of interest as reason to rebuff his estimation of his own worth.

But why is there such a lack of interest in an elite player in his prime years? I think the most obvious reason is tactical. The reality is that few teams play with a pure number 10 in Özil’s mould at the moment. Teams often adopt hard working advanced midfielders that harry and press the opponent’s deep lying midfielders, much like Christian Eriksen at Spurs. Eriksen is a creator, but he serves an important off ball function too.

Or else, top teams tend to play with fairly tight midfield 3s, with one slightly advanced runner whose job is to arrive in the box late and finish off moves. Arsenal already have one of these in Aaron Ramsey, but his Gunners career has, arguably, been stunted by the presence of a pure trequartista like Mesut Özil. The German is a player that would not easily fit into any of Europe’s elite teams at the moment, given their shape and structure.

Özil has proven tough for Arsene to accommodate at Arsenal. He has largely played at the head of a midfield three, but his desire to drift away from the ball to find space means he often disconnects himself from the other central midfield players. Özil is not the most rigorous defensively, so he does not exactly sprint back to support them and his pressing game from the front is not especially fastidious.

At the beginning of Özil’s second season at Arsenal, Wenger briefly moved him out to the left, before the player and his representatives planted several stories in the press suggesting that he was unsatisfied with the role. The signing of Özil brought the curtain down on the era of austerity and once again Wenger found himself handling elite talents, which can be tricky when trying to create a functioning collective.

Diaby and Denilson don’t really complain when you put them out on the wing for a couple of games. A talent like Mesut Özil is a little more high maintenance. Playing Mesut in his natural position obviously ekes the best out of him and it keeps him out of the newspapers, but it carries a debt of sorts. Other clubs will have observed this and wonder whether it is worth the hassle of reimagining their setup to mould it in his image. Not dissimilar to Cesc Fabregas, whom Barcelona and Chelsea have sacrificed during his spells at each club.

That said, Bayern’s decision to sign James Rodriguez from Real Madrid was curious. James’ best position, like Özil, is as a pure number 10. The Colombian gave Madrid a tactical problem they could not solve. With Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo already in the forward line, they could not play a true number 10 as well without significantly upsetting the balance.

Since benching James and introducing defensive midfielder Casemiro in his stead, Real have toppled Barca in Spain and in Europe. Bayern do not play with an obvious number 10, so their interest in James is curious and suggests they may be entertaining a change of shape (or else they may give him a wider starting point). But it still begs the question as to why Bayern opted for James ahead of Özil.

There is still a suggestion that Mesut remains mercurial, he drifts in and out of form as often as he drifts in and out of games. (This, by the way, was also true of Dennis Bergkamp, who had more quiet periods than nostalgia permits us to remember). Özil is a creative and inspiration can be a fickle mistress, it can elude you for months at a time.

It could be that Özil’s periods of ‘writer’s block’ make him a risky acquisition for elite clubs. He doesn’t seem to have inspired any sort of interest from Manchester City, who already have David Silva, or Chelsea, who have handed out all of their creative licensing to Eden Hazard. Manchester United still struggle to carve out a niche for Juan Mata.

Barca and Real have the sort of front threes that require little in the manner of assistance. Besides which, their respective shapes could not withstand the liberty of another player free from defensive duties. As mentioned, Bayern have just acquired James Rodriguez. So Özil’s situation looks deadlocked, unless he breaks the current impasse by signing a new contract, which he suggested recently he would like to do.

Maybe Özil’s intention has always been to stay at Arsenal and he and his representatives have therefore simply not courted interest from others and planted stories to that effect. But even if that’s the case, he is clearly trying to juice the club for more generous terms and it’s unusual not to use the interest of others to that end.

Anecdotally, Mesut does seem more likely to commit than Alexis and if the Chilean leaves, Arsenal are over a barrel when it comes to the German’s demands. They simply cannot afford to lose both of their star players on Bosman deals, at the very least the sting of losing one will need to be soothed by the balm of new terms for the other. I suspect Özil’s future will not be resolved until Alexis’ is and the club have no wiggle room left in the thumb war of negotiation.

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