Last week, Mesut Özil put an end to months of speculation by signing a new contract with Arsenal. Having already lost Alexis Sanchez, the Gunners were staring down the barrel of a PR and footballing disaster by losing both of their headline acts in the space of a few short months.
So to say Özil’s contract extension is a cause of relief and celebration for the club is an understatement. From a footballing perspective, Arsenal holds onto its best player in his peak years. With the Puma and Fly Emirates deals up for review this summer, the club undeniably need Özil as a mannequin on which to sell its wares too.
Especially if the club spends a second successive season out of the Champions League. One season can be written off as a hiccup, two starts to look like a managed decline (which, let’s face it, is exactly what it is). If the retention of Özil can help Arsenal leverage those key commercial deals (yes, I have just been sick in my mouth too, but welcome to modern football) then his reported £350k a week salary becomes an investment.
Arsenal must have made an almighty pitch to the German to persuade him to spend his peak years at the club. Mesut doesn’t have a lot of time to waste in terms of his own career, so we should be enthused that he was convinced enough by the short term project to commit his peak years to it. One imagines Arsenal threw the kitchen sink into this deal and not just financially.
Selling the likes of Francis Coquelin, Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud, as well as the reluctant loss of Alexis, has cleared space on the wage bill. Arsenal’s historically flat wage structure just cannot work within the current scope of elite football. But one imagines that the club would have poured quite a lot of honey into Mesut’s ear.
“Sure, you can go to another club, but they will probably make you play on the wing and drop you for the big games. They won’t love you like we do. Look at the tripadvisor reviews for the Turkish restaurants in Manchester, Mesut. ‘The Meze tasted like cat shit.’ Is that what you want Mesut? Meze that tastes like cat shit while Mourinho plays you at left wing-back? Is it? IS IT?!”
Different players require different treatment and, ordinarily, your top class playmaker is the sort that needs a little indulgence. Barcelona turned a blind eye to Ronaldinho’s fitful attitude to training. Herbert Chapman allowed Alex James the odd ‘duvet day’ in the 1930s. Certainly during the last couple of seasons, Mesut has missed a smattering of away matches with a case of the sniffles.
It’s all part of man management, but there is a balance to be struck. The club were in a similar position with Thierry Henry’s contract back in 2006. They promised Thierry the keys to the house and, in the end, he probably became a little too big and important to do the basic household chores.
As Theo Walcott discovered, with increased salary comes increased expectation. Theo always divided opinion, but I think there was a bit of a swing against him after he signed a contract worth £140,000 a week. People began to expect more than cameo performances. Özil is used to being scrutinised, often unfavourably, and that will kick up a notch in light of this pay rise. (I should clarify that Özil is certainly a more seasoned and accomplished performer than Walcott and that the comparison was a relative one).
Mesut had Arsenal over a barrel with his new deal, but to an extent, he still does. He owns the gaff now and will expect his cushions plumped and his usual chair on reserve. However, Mesut is a creator and a more collectively minded player than Henry, for example. Mesut’s game is less individualistic, at his best he oils the wheels rather than revs the engine, so we ought to be spared the diva behaviour on the pitch.
Earlier this month, Arsene Wenger dismissed the idea that Arsenal are under pressure to ‘build around him’, as the popular phrase goes. “I never understood completely what that means,” said the manager. “Because I think a team goes naturally through its strong points. So you cannot artificially create that. And he is a natural focal point, so the team naturally gives him the ball. A team has a subconscious intelligence.”
I wouldn’t be so bold to suggest that this was in any way The Plan™, but the sale of Alexis Sanchez to Manchester United, as opposed to City, has probably helped Arsenal to retain Özil. With £400,000 a week or so sunk into Alexis’ salary, I would imagine United’s interest in Mesut cooled. It’s probably significant that the contract extension was agreed at the end of the winter transfer window, when Özil’s people would have had a better idea of what precisely was on the table for him elsewhere.
On the pitch, the team belongs to Mesut and, suddenly, out of nowhere, the squad has taken a significant stylistic jump towards him. Alexis and Özil obviously enjoyed playing together, they combined well and often on the pitch. Yet there was always an unspoken tension I think between Arsenal playing Sanchez’s game and playing Özil’s.
Mesut’s best spell of form in the last few seasons was the middle of the 2015-16 season when Sanchez was injured. They were useful as opposites but the two players rarely hit top form at the same time. That barrier is removed for Özil now, he is no longer sharing top billing. Henrikh Mkhitaryan has also been tossed into the deal, a player much more aligned with Özil’s vision for swiftly constructed collective play, as we saw against Everton.
Mesut’s link up with Lacazette was already beginning to show some green shoots and in Pierre Aubameyang, he has the sort of striker he ought to live to serve. Özil is a technical leader but not really a dominant personality. Aubamenyang potentially gives the Gunners a sprinkle of that attitude and decisiveness that seems to be lacking in Lacazette at the moment.
Concerns have been voiced about Aubameyang’s attitude, but history shows that Arsene loves a rascal upfront. He inherited Ian Wright and signed the likes of Anelka, Wiltord, Henry, Adebayor and van Persie and made forlorn attempts for Vardy and Suarez. In the last 15 yards of the pitch, it pays to be ruthless and, in theory at least, Aubameyang adds that sprinkle of spice to the mix.
The engine of the attack is in place (the rear spoiler not so much) and now Özil holds the keys. The team will look to him even more now Alexis has left. What he has effectively been given is a promotion- and there’s little doubt it is deserved- but when the champagne corks have been popped and the celebration has subsided, the reality of that increased responsibility kicks in.
Mesut is now the undisputed star of the team and its technical leader. The situation is analogous to when Arsenal sold Thierry Henry and handed the team over to Cesc Fabregas. Wenger cleared the likes of Henry and Vieira out to suit the young Spaniard and, whether by accident or by design, Arsenal have furnished the place in accordance with Özil’s tastes. Mesut, it’s Över to you.