Few players in world football have divided not only a fan base but an entire nation and continent like Mesut Özil does. Few people are neutral on Özil, he is footballing marmite. Up until the World Cup last summer the majority of opinions on the Germany international were positive. There were those that were determined to hate him whether because of his languid style, his race or because of who he played for. However, those in the know and those without prejudice knew Özil was a very very good player and potentially a world class one.
However, in the 12 months since the world cup the overwhelming opinion on Özil has soured. He still has his loyal fans, those that say he can do no wrong but they are now the vast minority. In the Europa League final, Özil was booed off. That is a cataclysmic moment in his career. Even during the season when himself and Arsenal were underperforming, Özil was still applauded on and off the pitch like a treasured son. He gets a warm reception with every corner he takes and is one of few Arsenal players to have his own chant. Being booed off is unprecedented and highly unfair.
Özil didn’t play well last Wednesday night in Baku, he hasn’t been good all season and it would be hard to argue against that. Was he Arsenal’s worst player on Wednesday night? Certainly not. He wasn’t one of the worst four or five players on the pitch. That isn’t saying much, a £42 million asset on £350k a week should be better than simply not being the worst. Özil is underperforming and has done for a long time, but not bad enough to be booed by his own fans.
Arsenal fans will likely say he is lazy, doesn’t care and took too long to walk off the pitch (Arsenal were 4-1 down at this point) and that is why he was booed. That may be true and if it is then it reflects badly on those Arsenal fans. Whatever the result and however badly a player has played, no one deserves to be booed on a football pitch, especially not a player who has done so much for Arsenal in a relatively short amount of time.
Özil was the first consensus world class player to join Arsenal in over a decade. He was Arsenal’s record signing, more than doubling the previous high. He won Arsenal their first trophy in 8 seasons. He scored the first goal in that FA Cup quarter-final against Everton and unlocked the Liverpool defence for Arsenal’s second, and ultimately winning goal, in the round prior. A Liverpool team that scored five against Arsenal a week earlier. He was on course to have the best playmaking season in Premier League history until the strikers he was providing inexplicably stopped scoring. He should have been player of the year in a title winning season but for reasons out of his control.
His last year under Arsene Wenger was mixed, he didn’t hit the heights of his best seasons at Arsenal but there was still more good than bad. He scored four and assisted eight in his 26 Premier League appearances, in an Arsenal team that struggled and clearly prioritised the Europa League in the final months. Under Wenger, Özil was always a threat even when he wasn’t on top form. On top form he was unstoppable and with a better team around him would have won more than the three FA Cups.
That isn’t to say he was faultless under Wenger. Özil doesn’t work hard enough off the ball and for a player of his talent hasn’t produced enough world class performances to outweigh the lack of effort. Often Özil can be seen half-heartedly closing down a player and committing himself without a hope of blocking a clearance or making a tackle. In doing so he takes himself out of the play, a passive aggressive form of laziness.
Under Unai Emery, Özil is still the same player when Arsenal don’t have the ball, Emery was supposed to be the coach that made Özil work harder off the ball. Twelve months in there is little sign of that coming to fruition. To worsen matters, Özil has dropped off significantly in the attacking phases of the game. Emery’s more pragmatic tactics have stifled his most creative player. Under the Spaniard, Özil provided two assists in 24 appearances, under Wenger he averaged 10 assists a season. Özil created three big chances last season, under Wenger he was averaging 12.2 a season. That is such a dramatic drop off that it cannot be attributed to Özil falling off a cliff athletically or technically.
Clearly Emery’s tactics and game plan don’t suit Mesut Özil. For much of the season, Emery played with 5 defenders and 2 defensive midfielders, even in home games against the lesser teams. Leaving Özil and two other attackers to provide all of the attacking threat. The link play between the midfield and Özil was non-existent at times meaning he was forced to drop deeper to receive the ball, creating an even bigger gap between the strikers and the rest of the team. Emery’s sole attacking game plan seemed to rest on Sead Kolasinac pulling the ball back for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Alexandre Lacazette. When you have a £42m No. 10 in your ranks, that feels like gross mismanagement.
Despite not getting along with Emery or his tactics, Özil was not faultless. He had poor games and the accusations of him not “turning up” in the big games had some truth to them. Few times you would walk away from a top 6 clash and think Özil was the best player on the pitch and for a player of his undoubted ability that’s certainly a mark against him. There were times Özil deservedly had that best player tag. In tandem with Alexis Sanchez he destroyed Manchester United and Chelsea at the Emirates on a couple of occasions and in the Champions League he had performances against Monaco and Napoli that should be remembered more fondly.
Özil’s reputation has been damaged due to Arsenal’s failures in recent years. Defensive mishaps aplenty and the lack of a clinical striker until the last two years were deficiencies that any player would have found hard to overcome. Özil doesn’t deserve as much blame as has been placed on his shoulders in recent years but like every sport the majority of the blame when a team underperforms is placed on the best player in that team.
His new £350k a week contract has become the most common stick used to beat him. Using a player’s wage as an argument is a grotesque one. He isn’t taking the fans money, whether you want to think he is or not. Arsenal’s billionaire owner Stan Kroenke would be charging the highest ticket prices in England with or without Özil on the team. The only person being inconvenienced by Özil’s large wage is Kroenke himself, a disliked American billionaire and not someone we should feel sorry for. You don’t praise a player more when they’re on a low salary, it might be a footnote at the bottom of an article, so why do we use a high salary?
Özil is polarising, lazy and underperforming, yet despite all that he is one of Arsenal’s best players and a player their fans should want to keep. He clearly loves Arsenal as much as a foreign player can love a club and he enjoys living in London. On his day he can win a match by himself, and surrounded with better talent will win more matches more often. Under a less restrictive coach you will see a better Özil and a better Arsenal as a result.
If Arsenal fans manage to chase out the best player they have had since Thierry Henry then good luck to them, there will be another club in Europe ready and willing to take him who will reap the benefit of Özil’s considerable talent. And Arsenal can continue to underperform, concede sloppy goals and watch their rivals pull further away. Perhaps Arsenal fans will turn on Aubameyang next, for scoring too many tap-ins?
By Thomas Pain.