The last time Özil featured in a matchday squad for Arsenal was on 25 June against Southampton. It’s doubtful whether he’s even been to the Emirates Stadium very much since then
Alt-0214, or the alt code for the letter Ö, is likely to be mothballed for the near future by football writers covering Arsenal Football Club, but in truth, its use had begun to fade nine or 10 months ago. Nevertheless, there will be an outpouring of Alt-0214 on physical keyboards and long-presses on the O key (before selecting Ö) on mobile devices for a few days at least as we all try to make sense of how a match seemingly made in heaven fell apart so spectacularly.
Or in the words of Milhouse Van Houten, “How could this have happened? We started out like Romeo and Juliet, but instead it ended in tragedy.”
Mesut Özil made his way last Sunday from London — his home for the past seven-and-a-half or so years — to Istanbul on a private jet filled with all sorts of Fenerbahçe SK scarves, flags, banners and assorted paraphernalia. Even the baseball cap (from his M10 Streetwear label) sitting proudly atop his head was branded with the navy blue and yellow of the Turkish Real Madrid. The move was as good as complete and the deal was as good as done except, as Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta would explain, for the quarantine situation which was proving to be “the longest ever” final step.
Over the course of the next few days, the quarantine SOPs had been followed, the medical had been completed, the paperwork was done, the Is were dotted, Ts were crossed and Os were umlauted and a week since his departure from Arsenal, he was unveiled as a Fenerbahçe player to much fanfare, on social media at least. Notable amidst the flurry of tweets to mark the German’s arrival at the club he supported as a child, was one carrying the words “HE’S ÖURS NÖW!” in Trumpian all-caps followed by a smug smile emoji. And this one:
Meanwhile, both Arsenal and Özil exchanged warm and, by all accounts, classy farewell messages, with the latter even going as far as to proclaim, “I will be a Gunner for life — no doubt about that.” And why take him at anything less than face value for that proclamation? After all, Arsenal’s one-time record signing has been mostly dignified, serene and tactful publicly (that statement in October last year notwithstanding) in the aftermath of his post-March exile from the squad. It could certainly be argued that he’s had little reason to be anything but, considering the solid circuit-breaking machinery at his disposal. After all, why would you need to say a word and sully your reputation when you have an outspoken agent like Dr Erkut Söğüt or devoted teammates like Skhodran Mustafi to speak on your behalf?
There are three parts of the Özil tale; at least there are in this version of it.
In his disappointingly short and dare-I-say parsimonious (a different topic for a different time) memoir, My Life in Red and White, former Arsenal gaffer and FIFA’s current Chief of Global Football Development Arsène Wenger describes the arrival of Özil at the Emirates as ‘one of our most iconic transfers’ and ‘our biggest signing for years’. He isn’t wrong.
On a transfer deadline day back in 2013 that will live long in the memory of many a Gooner for years to come, the Real Madrid midfielder moved to Arsenal with minutes left on the clock. At the time, the move was seen as a marquee signing for the ages and fans went suitably bananas. After all, they had just seen talismanic striker Robin van Persie leave for Manchester United in the previous summer transfer window. The combination of seeing the Dutchman cite Arsenal’s lack of ambition as one of the reasons for his departure and then watching his rich haul of goals earn Sir Alex Ferguson his 13th Premier League title had been a lot to take in. Nearly a decade since its last trophy, Arsenal’s credibility was at an all-time low: Never mind attracting the best players in the world, here was a club who couldn’t even retain its best players.
But this was 2013. Things had changed. A great burden of debt had been lifted off the North London club’s shoulders and it could now cough up top
dollar pound (just doesn’t sound right) for top, top players. For fans though, the idea that they now had Özil blew a lot of minds. In fact, even the song cobbled together in his honour expressed that sentiment:
“We’ve got Özil,
I just don’t think you understand.
He’s Arsène Wenger’s man,
He’s better than Zidane;
We’ve got Mesut Özil.”
The German’s arrival — despite admitting later that he didn’t want to leave Real Madrid — signalled the dawn of a new Arsenal unencumbered by the restrictions of the Emirates era thus far. And for a while, it was.
One brings two, they say. And the year after recruiting one of the most exciting Real Madrid players, the club pulled off the signing of an equally exciting Barcelona player: Alexis Sánchez. During that very transfer window, Wenger had also made a play for then-disgruntled Liverpool striker Luis Suarez with a perfectly legitimate but fiendishly petulant £40,000,001 bid, demonstrating Arsenal’s ability and willingness to splash the cash.
Over the next few years, a combination of the availability of finances and the return of credibility saw Arsenal bring in such big-money signings as Alexandre Lacazette, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pépé. Their performances and form for the club are another matter, but the fact was that the club was now able to attract the sort of players that would’ve been impossible to bring in after leaving Highbury, having incurred major costs building an expensive new stadium.
More than what it did for Arsenal in a footballing sense, the biggest benefit of Özil’s arrival was the message it sent out to the world that the Gunners were back in the game.
I return to the venerable Wenger and his pamphlet masquerading as a memoir (that’s it, this is definitely the last time) for a quote to kick off this part of the story. “Özil is an artist who feels football through all the pores of his skin and soul,” he writes, “There is something magical and simple about his playing style. The Premier League is a train that goes by at 200 kilometres per hour, and Özil doesn’t always go at this speed, but you always have great affection for his artistry.”
That the midfielder didn’t always go at this speed might have been somewhat generous considering he rarely went at it, but what was unarguable was that aforementioned artistry. Whether it was those no-look passes, the perfectly-weighted through balls, the insanely accurate lobs or his crisp and well-timed finishing, Özil rarely seemed to ever kick a ball, he caressed it. Kicking is an inherently violent act, especially when executed by the likes of Roberto Carlos or Lukas Podolski. But there wasn’t an iota of violence in Özil’s game. Everything was a refined and finessed version of the game played by mere mortals.
Coupled with that remarkable vision that let him preempt how his teammates, opponents and the ball would behave, his eye for a killer pass meant his game was always ahead of everyone else’s by two steps. At least. His finest showing in Arsenal colours came in the 2015-16 season (the one in which everyone barring Leicester City performed woefully), during which he scored six goals and racked up 18 assists, and in the process, netted himself a PFA Player of the Year nomination. It should be mentioned at this point that when you consider his prolific start to the season, his final tally of assists could’ve been a great deal higher had it not been for the Arsenal strike force collectively forgetting how to score goals midway through the season.
Nevertheless, 2015/16 saw Özil the artist at his most sublime. And through it all, he rarely ever went at the ‘200 kilometres per hour’ speed of the Premier League, barely tracked back or attempted to help shore up the defence. But then, there was and has always been a lot of ‘affection for his artistry’. Arsenal and Özil seemed to be a match made in heaven and the midfielder looked like the perfect chef to cook up the sort of beautiful football Wenger always hungered for.
Check it out for yourself:
Wenger left Arsenal Football Club in 2018, but not before gleaning enough to leave us one last nugget of wisdom in his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it (this is totally the very last time) autobiography: “[Özil] needs to be constantly encouraged and he needs to feel close to his coach and have a relationship of trust with him. Being hard on him doesn’t work. Like all artists, he needs to feel supported in his creativity.”
Hindsight and the experience of three successive managers (one in an interim capacity) after Wenger — Unai Emery, Freddie Ljungberg and Mikel Arteta — teaches us that the requirements laid out by the legendary Arsenal manager may have been a bridge too far. For one reason or another, there seemed to be friction between Özil and Emery (that saw the player left out of the Spaniard’s plans in the final stretch of his stint in North London), Özil and Ljungberg (that saw the Swede issue a very thinly-veiled public warning to the player about his behaviour after the latter sulkily kicked his gloves away upon being substituted off), and Özil and Arteta (that culminated in the former Manchester City assistant manager dropping the player from his Premier League and Europa League squads and conceding that he had ‘failed’ with Özil).
But it wasn’t always that way. Right from the preseason tour to Singapore in July 2018, Emery had earmarked Özil as a key part of his plans, even naming his as one of his captains. I had speculated back then that giving the German more responsibility might actually turn him into a far more productive player for Arsenal. Regrettably, I was wrong. Ljungberg too had positive things to say about the midfielder when he took over following Emery’s sacking. And Arteta, who had actually played alongside the 2014 World Cup winner at Arsenal, was enthusiastic about working with Özil and featured him in the starting lineup quite regularly up until COVID-19 put football, like most other things, on ice in March last year.
Before we get to the latest freeze, it’s instructive to look a little further back. At around the time of his move to Arsenal, Özil’s manager at Real Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti, had commented that he would “prefer to have Angel Di Maria for the team’s balance. Di Maria is better than Özil for group dynamics”. After a few seasons in North London, it became clear that Özil had the tendency to fade out, grow despondent and, for want of a better phrase, ‘go missing’ in the big games. Over time, it would be the big games and those that required more ‘physicality and intensity’ that would see Özil either benched or not even part of the matchday squad.
Gradually, sick leaves would begin to pile up — a sore back here, a mystery virus there — and soon, Aaron Ramsey would lend credence to a theory that was gaining a great deal of momentum, particularly among such pundits as Martin Keown: That Özil picked and chose which matches he wanted to play. It’s not clear if this is what Wenger meant by being ‘supported in his creativity’ or that ‘being hard on him doesn’t work’, but at a salary of £350,000 per week, the German had a massive bull’s eye painted on his back. Ultimately, it wasn’t Özil’s fault that he was offered a contract with a bumper salary — Arsenal’s fear of losing its two highest-profile players for free at the same time probably contributed greatly to it — but it did mean that he would be judged more harshly by pundits, fans and (whatever the hell the cartoons on Arsenal Fan TV are) than other lesser-earning players for every little thing he did.
Footballing reasons, Uighurs or pay cut?
Having played a whole 89 minutes against West Ham United on 7 March last year, fans probably expected to see Özil in the starting lineup or on the bench at least when football resumed and Arsenal took on Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on 17 June. But it was not to be. The last time he even featured in the matchday squad for Arsenal was on 25 June against Southampton. It’s doubtful whether he’s even been to the Emirates Stadium very much since then. His exile has polarised the Arsenal fanbase almost as much as the Wenger Out versus Arsène Knows Best battle that made the atmosphere during the 2017/18 season so toxic and vitiated.
So what happened? Why was Özil discarded like an aging central defender who had outlasted his utility amid a pool of younger, faster and arguably better central defenders? Without the benefit of inside information, the most accurate way to to sum it up is to say that a variety of incidents may have in one way or another contributed to his exclusion, but right now, it’s impossible to say with any degree of certainty which factor and how much.
a) Political activism: In 2018, Özil posed for a photograph with fellow Premier League footballers Cenk Tosun and Ilkay Gundogan, and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This drew a major backlash from a section of fans, primarily in Germany. Arsenal chose not to comment on the matter at that time. In December 2019, the footballer put out a statement condemning Muslim countries for not speaking up for Uighur Muslims subjected to abuse in China. This drew a massive backlash from China, including a demand that Özil be pulled from the video game Pro Evolution Soccer 2020. This time, Arsenal did issue a comment. But it was only aimed at distancing the club from his comments, which were deemed to be personal in nature.
b) Refusing a pay cut: History will take Özil’s side on this one, it should be noted. In the coronavirus -inflicted break in the 2019/20 season, Arsenal’s players and staff were asked to take a 12.5 percent pay cut. Özil reportedly refused to accept the pay cut unless the club could provide assurances that there would be no job cuts and indicate how the money would be spent. The club refused to do so and in August — mere days after lifting the FA Cup, Arsenal laid off 55 employees. Özil stood vindicated in his decision not to acquiesce to the club’s demands without necessary assurances, but it was all for naught.
c) On-field (In)action: That the game has moved on and left specialists like Özil in the dust is debatable. That Arsenal’s approach to football has moved on, rendering old school No 10s like Özil redundant, is less so. Coupled with the tendency to switch off when the going got tough and the numerous sick leaves, Özil has not seemed like an ideal fit for the sort of football Arteta wants Arsenal to play for the longest time. Some, the German maestro included, have lauded Emil Smith Rowe for demonstrating the utility of a No 10 even in the modern era. However, just as Smith Rowe is no Özil, Özil is no Smith Rowe. The lack of a willingness to get stuck into the battle, to put in the sprints, to track back to help out with defence and most critically, to evolve as per the demands of the modern game, was likely Özil’s undoing.
As it stands, we still have no clear idea and there’s nothing — beyond extremely emotional fans who get loud, abrasive and abusive at the slightest criticism of their theories about Özil — to suggest which, if any, of these reasons played the biggest role in Özil’s exclusion, exile and eventual exit. However, the exit represents a major positive for both the player and the club: While the club can get a rather large chunk of change in terms of salary off the books and reinvest it elsewhere, the player can actually get back to doing what he does best and play some magical football, and maybe even pick up a few trophies while doing it.
As for the fans… they can start familiarising themselves with Alt-0216, the alt code for the letter Ø.
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