Soccer

Mesut Ozil’s Arsenal legacy: Sometimes a star, always polarizing, how will Ozil be remembered in North London?

In the end Arsenal lost one of their greatest talents of the post-Invincibles era for nothing and it feels like a relief. They will be paying Mesut Ozil to go away. It’s the right decision.

That is not a comment on the quality of the 31-year-old, which is simply unknowable after nearly a year without a competitive minute. It is rather that having a figure as big as the club on its peripheries created a tension around Arsenal, their supporters and Ozil that was not conducive to success for anyone.

On Instagram Arsenal have 18.8 million followers on their official account. Their best paid player has 23.2 million. The same is true on Twitter, where Ozil beats his employers 25.7 million to 16.9 million. At times the Emirates Stadium felt rather like a medieval kingdom, where the barons held as much sway and influence as the king.

When Unai Emery was on the throne the number 10 was Arsenal’s prince in exile and in the autumn months of 2019 “we’ve got Ozil” was as much a rallying cry for the disaffected as “oh Jeremy Corbyn”. Who knows, maybe if supporters had been in stadia in 2020 the battle cry might have been struck up again amid Mikel Arteta’s most trying moments.

Both Arteta and his predecessor wanted to move Arsenal away from their star attacking midfielder. The difference between them was that Emery never quite had the strength of his convictions to fully dispense with Ozil, despite having the endorsement of the club hierarchy to move on from a player whose $475,000-a-week contract was regretted by those who did not offer it.

A pattern emerged with Emery. He would try to reposition the team away from Ozil, results would go wrong and the former Germany World Cup winner would be his white knight for a time…at least until the cycle began again.

Arteta’s approach was rather more forthright as he removed any temptation from his path at the start of this season by not naming him in the Premier League or Europa League squads. It is a decision he has owned, insisting the move is entirely related to football and saying in October: “My job is to get the best out of every player, to contribute to the team performance. Here I feel at the moment, today, that I have failed.

“I want the best possible Mesut for the team. And in some moments I was able to get close to that, and at the moment I have not been able to do it because I have to make the decision to leave him out of the squad.”

He had made an effort to reintegrate Ozil on his appointment with the club’s best-paid player starting every Premier League game between Arteta’s appointment and the season’s COVID pause in March. But when he felt his No.10 was not performing to the standard required in training, the consistent internal view as to why he was not featuring, he would not waver even when it was clear that Arsenal could use a player like Ozil to address their creative issues.

With Arsenal struggling to create in open play and Ozil not getting chances conspiracy theories were rampant. The explanation could not be as simple as was being portrayed by Arteta.

They were trying to force him out, it was suggested on social media. Certainly the club have long made clear that their best-paid player is free to depart. Alternatively it was suggested that his refusal to take a pay cut that much of the rest of the squad agreed to led to his exile. Arsenal insist that it was not the case and it should be noted others did not agree to it and still played.

Some of his most vociferous supporters argued it was punishment for Ozil’s comments on the plight of Uighur Muslims in China, comments that cost him endorsement deals in the country and also saw the Gunners’ games being taken off Chinese television for a time. Though, that does not explain why the veteran was a starter when Arteta was appointed in the aftermath of that incident.

What the past few months in particular have proven is that some Arsenal supporters who are deeply invested in Ozil. The reasons for that are plain to see. Aside from the brilliant vision he has brought to the football pitch he is a deeply admirable individual off it. He is proud of his immigrant status and is open about his Muslim faith. It is not easy being either of those in the current climate.

He donates significant funds, understood to be over $2.5 million a year, to charitable causes all over the globe and is not afraid to speak his mind about the treatment of Muslims around the world. His association with Recep Tayyip Erdogan may make some feel uncomfortable considering the Turkish president’s record on human rights, but Ozil has previously said that he is respecting the office rather than the individual. As with so much else with Ozil, the matter is up to polarizing interpretation.

Ozil posing with Erdogan ahead of the 2018 Turkish elections
Getty Images

It’s undeniable that Ozil has gone through significant difficulties in recent years. He was the scapegoat for Germany’s 2018 World Cup exit. The following year he and teammate Sead Kolasinac were the subject of an attempted armed robbery and several incidents outside their homes. He is also not responsible for Arsenal’s decision to blow apart their wage budget to keep him at a club just as they were slipping away from the riches of the Champions League. He is, however, the beneficiary of that decision.

Nor is he responsible for the media landscape that surrounds him, but it has had a draining impact on the wider Arsenal community. Emery and Arteta would bristle at continual questions about Ozil that they felt had already been answered. Meanwhile on social media criticism of his performances was often an open invitation to abuse; to suggest that his 2018-19 season had been below the standards he has set for himself in such an exemplary career was to summon on oneself a string of abusive messages and death threats. Equally there was a no less militant strain of Arsenal fandom that will accept no praise or admiration for a player they wanted gone long ago. 

Amidst all that noise it became all but impossible to have a conversation about football, which you may notice has been largely absent from the preceding 1,000 words. Even among the hyper-athletes who transcend traditional lines of club support Ozil seems to have gone further: He transcends the sport itself. Conversations about him are rarely framed around what he can do between the lines.

At the peak of his powers in an Arsenal shirt in the first half of the 2015-16 season he was the best player in England, bending matches to his will with his vision for passes no-one else could even conceive of. As Jose Mourinho said, there was no-one quite like Ozil in his pomp, not even “a bad copy”. It is said that when he turned his back on training at Real Madrid he could tell when Ozil had struck the ball, it just made a sweeter sound.

Yet the truth is that player was seen fleetingly in the years that followed Arsenal’s failed title tile. That is not all Ozil’s fault, his club’s desire to end their expensive union meant a selection policy that left the World Cup winner without rhythm when he did play. Equally the player never reached the stage in his development where a precise ecosystem needed to be constructed to bring the best out of him. Remove him from a 4-2-3-1 with runners either side of him and a deep-lying playmaker behind him and he was never quite the same force. The game moved on to demand more pressing of advanced players, something he could not carry out with the intensity Arteta and others demanded.

Ozil would not have known it at the time but his final act in an Arsenal shirt would have been a fitting farewell, an impudent flicked header to set up Alexandre Lacazette’s winner against West Ham from a position where so many others would have looked to score themselves. That should be a moment that sticks with those who followed his career in England. If not that perhaps his litany of “chopped” finishes to embarrass goalkeepers, the thrilling counter-attacks he led in big wins over Chelsea and Manchester United or the three FA Cups he won.

In time they may be Ozil’s abiding legacy and yet one fears that instead his time at Arsenal will come to be defined by everything else: the contract, the politics, the social media. For a player who was such a joy to watch at his best, that would be a cruel ending.



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