When the official Arsenal Twitter account announced the starting line up to take on Bournemouth last weekend, there was a now predictable deluge of replies to the effect of “where’s Ozil?”, “good joke now announce the real team”, and a few shouts of “No Ozil? Emery out”.
Divisive and isolated
The German World Cup winner has as many fans as he does detractors, but watching the subsequent Arsenal performance- largely listless and lacking in creativity- it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that this was a game Mesut Ozil could have contributed massively to. Arsenal’s only goal came from a set piece, and they had two shots on target in total.
In isolation that can be written off as a gritty three points, but it instead follows an alarming trend of Arsenal’s season so far; struggling to dominate games and- although Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang didn’t score on this occasion- thanking their lucky stars they have one of the most prolific strikers in Europe hoovering up the few chances that do come his way.
Ozil’s role in the side under Unai Emery’s stewardship has been unclear at best, and baffling at worst. In and out of the side, in favour sometimes and most of the time clearly not. That despite a constant message from Emery that he “needs Ozil”, and that the attacking midfielder is one of his “leaders” in the squad. That message though, in the past couple of weeks, has changed.
Ozil hasn’t featured in the league since the 2-2 draw at Vicarage Road, and has just a League Cup appearance- the 5-0 demolition of Nottingham Forest- to his name since then. This is despite being one of Arsenal’s better performers against Watford, and the best player on the pitch against Forest. Whether he should be a guaranteed starter is one thing, but for a player of his obvious quality to be frozen out as he appears to be, when Arsenal don’t appear to have replaced his creativity and composure on the ball, seems an interesting hill to die on.
Getting the best out of Mesut
There is also the question of whether Emery gets the best out of the playmaker when he does include him. What defines Ozil is what he does on the ball, but that is impacted hugely by what he does off the ball. Under Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid, he was given license to position himself to be the focal point of some of the most devastating counter attacking football in recent years. Under Arsene Wenger, he was given license to find space and position himself to be a creative outlet when the Gunners regained the ball. Under Unai Emery however, his instructions when Arsenal don’t have the ball have been to stick tight to his man and be more defensive minded.
That means in turn he has been easier to mark out of games when possession does turnover, and the attacking impact he has is diminished. It is not a question of whether he has tried to adjust to what Emery has demanded of him- it is perhaps simply that he can’t. Even then, he has created more chances- 46- than any other player in the Premier League since the Spaniard took charge.
And that is where the division lies between Arsenal fans. Should Emery be more flexible and adapt his system to accommodate an obviously supremely gifted player, or should Arsenal move on from a 30 year old with questions hanging over him about his physicality and a paycheque that puts a considerable dent in the club’s budget?
The answer to that- and this often only serves to stoke the angst surrounding Ozil’s future- has long been unclear, with mixed messages and journalistic anecdotes muddying the waters. Earlier this month it looked like Emery had come to a clear decision, saying he was not including the German because “other players deserved it more”. This week though has seen a u-turn from the head coach, saying “the last two or three weeks [Ozil’s] improved with us training and I think it’s good. I didn’t close the possibility to play with him because if he is ready and giving us a good feeling every day in training, he can play.”
That, combined with a surprisingly frank and staunchly defensive exclusive interview given by Ozil to The Athletic- where he shot down accusations of a rift with his head coach, defended his close relationship with Turkish President Erdogan, and maintained he is determined to train hard and stay at the club until his contract ends in 2021- offer more hope of a brighter future for Arsenal’s number 10.
The waters are still muddied, and it would be no surprise if this week’s media showings from both parties are a false dawn, but it appears there is still a place for Ozil at Arsenal. Whether he fits into that space remains to be seen.