Last week’s announcement that Mesut Özil had been voted German Player of the Year for the fifth time in six seasons raised some eyebrows among fans of the English game. Perhaps because it had come after a period of absence for the Arsenal man, or maybe the lax performances against Everton and Manchester City were still fresh in their mind. Either way, one would be forgiven for thinking that this particular accolade was unjustified.
To contextualise the award, let’s look at the other players who came closest to toppling Özil. In second place, with 33.9% of the vote, was Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos. The central midfielder won the Champions League with his club and, like Özil, was part of the side which took Germany to the European Championship semi-finals. Not only that, but Kroos was instrumental in both tournaments. He was named in a composite XI for both of them and also earned a place in the FIFPro World XI for the second time in his career – a feat Özil has yet to accomplish. During this season, Kroos has seen Real Madrid top La Liga as well as winning the FIFA Club World Cup. In terms of both team and individual accomplishments, it is hard to look past Kroos.
In third place was Jonas Hector of FC Koln. With just 4% of the vote, he was never a serious threat to the top two, but to establish himself in the German national side last year was a spectacular achievement, particularly when Die Mannschaft have been without a solid choice at left-back for so long. Indeed, Hector is the only player who starts with regularity for Germany who is not a part of one of Europe’s major club teams. His performances saw him scouted by the likes of Liverpool during the summer yet he remained in Germany and has helped Koln to 7th in a highly competitive Bundesliga this season. To have come third in the ballot despite no major awards, either individual or collective, is a testament to how important a part of the German team he has become.
In terms of the rest of the field, Manuel Neuer and Jérôme Boateng may both feel aggrieved not to have been in the discussion. The former retained his place in the FIFPro World XI while the latter was part of the team of the tournament at the Euros and both won a league and cup double with Bayern Munich. Thomas Müller has not had a particularly good year for club or country, while Marco Reus has been plagued with injury for a few years now. None, however, had the impact either domestically or internationally that Kroos did.
But how does Özil stack up? He had an absolutely excellent season for Arsenal last year, dropping just one short of equalling the Premier League assist record in a single season. In addition to this, he has been in excellent form this season and has added goals to his game. He scored eight times last term, yet this season he has nine already. He continues to be a key part of the national side, too, with three goals and two assists in nine starts.
Özil and Arsenal lost out on the Premier League in 2016 to Leicester City while they look set to be one of many playing bridesmaid to Antonio Conte’s Chelsea. At a very base level, his achievements both individual and club do not come close to Kroos. Again, however, it is not this black and white. His surroundings represent mitigating circumstances which Kroos has not had to confront; playing in a team with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale will undoubtedly be more conducive to success than playing in a team with Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud. For Özil to still stand out despite Arsenal’s debilitating knack for falling apart at the seams at times is an achievement in itself. Özil also suffers from mythical perceptions concocted by lazy observers of the game. The notion that he does not step up in the biggest games is at odds with the facts; goals and assists against Manchester United, Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Chelsea in the last year or so should go some way to dispelling the myth completely.
So, while the award this year is perhaps a surprise, it’s not without significant justification. It’s certainly nowhere near as cut and dry as many would have you believe. Both Kroos and Özil made huge claims for the award and it just so happened that the latter won. It needn’t be as adversarial an issue as some fans have made out. There’s no reason why the Arsenal man should not have won; there are only reasons that Kroos should have.
With a year to go until the 2018 German Footballer of the Year is announced, it’s currently unclear who will make their mark. But one thing is for certain — come next January, Kroos and Özil will be near the top of the pile.