Imperfect 10

Since penning a bumper new contract in January, 2018 has not exactly gone to plan for Mesut Özil. Arsenal floundered and failed in their Europa League objective, the German was troubled by a back injury before enduring a nightmare World Cup with his country. Arsene Wenger slightly altered the way that he utilised Özil during his last two seasons in charge. He went from playing him in every minute of every game to handling him with kid gloves.

Özil’s tendency to develop a bad case of the sniffles for long distance away matches has promoted a creeping suspicion among Arsenal fans, as Arsene began to handle Mesut delicately, like a frail porcelain vase. Wenger’s revelation that Özil was suffering with a back problem and unable to fulfil Arsenal’s final fixtures of the season was met with widespread scoffing.

The diagnosis was subsequently corroborated by Germany boss Joachim Löw, who left Özil out of Die Mannschaft’s final warm-up friendly against Saudi Arabia in Leverkusen citing his back inflammation. The World Cup this summer was a disaster for a dysfunctional Germany team, who finished bottom of their group and were eliminated in humiliating fashion.

Özil was dropped by Löw for the Sweden match, Germany’s only victory at the tournament. Few in the German squad have borne the brunt of public opinion in Germany like Özil. As Raphael Honigstein illustrates in this piece, Mesut has been caught in the political crossfire as anti-immigration rhetoric swirls around upcoming Federal elections.

Prior to the tournament, Özil and his teammate Ilkay Gündoğan were pictured with controversial Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan- a move that was widely derided in the German media. It further encouraged the idea that Mesut, whose grandparents are Turkish, identified more as a Turk than a German and that he was not integrated with his country of birth. Tellingly, his mournful post tournament tweet contained the hashtag #SayNoToRacism.

Özil was jeered by sections of the crowd as Germany fell to a 2-1 friendly defeat to Austria in June. Lothar Matthaus complained that “Özil doesn’t look happy in the Germany shirt,” in his Bild column following the chastening group stage defeat to Mexico. Once again, Mesut’s languid body language has been forged into a stick to beat him with.

When Mesut does experience criticism, his cerebral, almost otherworldly demeanour frustrates many people. Anyone that expects Özil to respond to adversity with a clenched fist and gritted teeth is always going to be disappointed, as such, it creates a maelstrom of ill-feeling around him, as if we are watching a man standing idly by while his best friend takes a pounding.

“Why don’t you fight back?!” wonders the watching world as ennui permeates his features. After Arsenal’s Europa League exit in Madrid, Martin Keown slammed Özil for “not making the team tick as Vieira would have done”, which, to my mind, is a bit like complaining that your steak doesn’t taste like ice cream.

Özil is, of course, no stranger to criticism. He is one of the foremost provocateurs for debate in world football. Scores of fans are seduced by his effortless genius, he enjoys a cult following as tribal as any club fan base. He is the embodiment of Newton’s third law, every criticism meets an equal and opposite rebuke from his army of admirers. To criticise Özil is to be tricked by his languid style and is to not be perceptive or smart enough to ‘get’ him.

He attracts fierce criticism and fierce loyalty, the atmosphere around him is so weaponised that it is difficult to hover around the half spaces of his output- which is ironic given that his greatest strengths as a creator involve feats that are close to imperceptible. On the pitch, Mesut is a player that skirts around the game, seeking out nooks and crannies in which to chisel out miniature creative masterpieces.

Off the pitch, the discourse around him is conducted with fervour and impatience. You are either with him or against him. And all the while, Mesut sits mute at the eye of this storm, his expression a little weary, his eyes a little glazed. His reputation with his national team has been seriously damaged in the last few weeks and months, to the point that there are rumours of his impending retirement from Die Mannschaft.

The sheen of World Cup glory four years ago has faded. Meanwhile, at Arsenal, with an increased wage packet comes increased responsibility. As I wrote in February, his £350,000 a week salary will swell expectations. Many outside of Arsenal accused him of staying in North London for more of the easy life under a fading legacy coach. (In truth, I think he signed because Arsenal came up with the best financial offer).

Die Ziet newspaper described him as having been ‘Wengered’ in the build up to the World Cup, implying that Mesut had been allowed to pick up bad habits in a lax training regime. However, Özil must have been given some indication that Wenger was not longed for Arsenal when he signed his new deal back in January. He must have been anticipating a change of regime.

It remains to be seen how Unai Emery will utilise the German, whether he will be able to create a system that allows Özil to maintain the privileges and freedom associated with his new squad number. Emery has been keen to talk up a high pressing, frenetic attacking style, which seems at odds with Özil’s more considered approach. Mesut is not exactly the blood and thunder type but he is a better and more intelligent presser than people realise.

While his reputation is hardly circling the u-bend in N5, I think it is fair to say that next season will go a long way to forming some kind of consensus on Özil. He has yet to justify his refurbished pay packet, but the second half of last season hardly provided the environment for growing one’s reputation. In this social media age, where every player’s reputation is distilled into either #Fraud or GOAT, it feels like judgment day is approaching.

He has a fresh start under a new manager, a new salary to justify and he is entering his peak years. At the moment, he is trying to process the biggest professional disappointment of his career. We know by now that he is not likely to respond by windmilling punchbags against the strains of ‘Eye of the Tiger’, but people will expect a reaction of sorts.

Next season will go a long way to deciding how he is ultimately viewed- talented, but frail, or the connoisseurs choice? He has the ability of an elite player, but he is going to have to demonstrate it on a consistent basis, or else the vultures will circle. That doesn’t mean he has to turn into Lee Cattermole, but regularly trading in the currency of assists would go a long way to silencing the naysayers.

Emery has a reputation for approaching matches against top sides with intense caution. The first two matches of the campaign will tell us a lot about how much he trusts Mesut. Aged 29 now, Arsenal’s new number 10 is reaching a career crossroads. How he negotiates these choppy waters could come to define his legacy.

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Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available to order here.