Few players in the Premier League divide opinion quite like Mesut Özil. Often the subject of analysis and discussions, most people have something to say about Arsenal’s number 10 and current captain. Some love him, craving his artistry and finesse, whilst blaming Arsène Wenger for stifling his creativity. Others loathe him and will indulge any opportunity to berate his apparent laziness and rue how a player reportedly on £300k per week can disappear in games so frequently.
Firstly though, let’s think about why we’re banging on about Özil so much. It’s because he is a sublimely skilful footballer. This is a player who possesses a remarkable appreciation of the space around him on a football pitch. The extraordinary Avatar-eye vision, allied with supreme technical ability, manifests itself in those glorious, implausible defence-splitting passes. Özil is unique because few playmakers of his delicate ilk exist anymore, particularly in the Premier League. That’s why when he delivers we stand up, take note, and marvel about it as we do for few others. Last Monday is a prime example, when he inspired Arsenal to a comeback against Leicester City which turned Twitter into a virtual Özil appreciation evening. Rarely have keyboards had to deploy the umlaut (the two dots over the ‘O’) so relentlessly.
When Özil arrived on British shores in the summer of 2013, he was lauded and quickly crowned the ‘assist King’. It didn’t take long for the dethroning, and since then a pattern has recurred often. No sooner does Özil resume that mantle than he has to step down yet again. Little wonder that he’s tired. But last Monday at The Emirates, Özil was the man in possession of the captain’s armband and everything seemed to be looking up.
Then came this weekend with Arsenal at Crystal Palace. Captain Özil was barely involved and hit the headlines after he was hooked by manager Unai Emery with 22 minutes to go. In a textbook ‘toys out of pram’ manoeuvre, he angrily reacted to being substituted, throwing his gloves to the ground in dismay, making no eye contact with his boss. The Spaniard defended his captain post-match, saying it’s good to show character and all players should want to play. It is true that Özil’s apparent anger at failing to reproduce his influential Leicester performance can be viewed positively. But is ignoring your manager as you depart the field the kind of behaviour you expect from an experienced 30-year-old World Cup winner? The captain of a team reacting in this manner is unacceptable.
Özil can feel aggrieved about being played out of position in the past and has every right to be disappointed at being substituted, but this still does not excuse him blanking the manager who has put so much faith in him by giving him the armband.
Of course, we’ve seen criticism levelled at Özil before. Typically, a sub-par performance leads to ‘laziness’ complaints headed by pundits such as Graeme Souness. The latest iteration of this saw the Scot mock the German on Saturday for showing more passion than he’s ever seen him show after the Selhurst Park strop. These are then swiftly countered by some irrelevant stats showing that Özil actually covers more distance in 90 minutes than Mo Farah. Simply put, Özil is not a ‘lazy’ player. No, he doesn’t track back, but that isn’t the point. Gary Neville once commented that he and his Man United team mates didn’t mind Cristiano Ronaldo not tracking back in games, as they knew he had the ability to go and win the match for them. The same should apply to Özil.
Criticism which is perhaps more valid though is that concerning his attitude. His tendency of late to miss games with ‘illness’ has been picked up on. Indeed, since January 2017, Özil has missed games with illness at least six times, including a trip to Liverpool in March 2017, with the latest instance being this August for the visit of West Ham. Is this really illness, or is it part of a wider attitude issue? When you ally this with his sullen demeanour during many games, you have to question whether he stands out as captaincy material.
So why did Emery hand Özil the armband? Maybe to get the best out of Özil, but this is problematic. Indeed, for a player subject to extremes, who is either praised to high heaven or unceremoniously lambasted, shouldering the burden of the captaincy only serves to magnify this attention. This current Arsenal squad may be lacking in obvious captaincy candidates, but surely Emery can find better alternatives. Perhaps Özil purposely made a scene on Saturday to get himself stripped of the armband. After all, it’s far easier to disappear with ‘illness’ if you fancy when you’re not the skipper. Emery seemed determined to put his own stamp on this side as he leads the Gunners into a new era, and indicated that no player will be more important than the team, as he experienced with Neymar at Paris Saint-Germain. But in affording him the privilege of the captaincy, is he risking putting too many of his eggs into a flimsy, Özil-shaped basket? Time will tell.
So perhaps we can be a bit kinder to Özil, but equally, his attitude can be improved. Let’s not forget that this is a player who was widely considered to be the best ‘number 10’ in the world just a few years ago, a view expressed by José Mourinho. Guess who won Germany’s Player of the Year award in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016? Özil. He recently became the highest scoring German in the Premier League and with three goals in seven Premier League appearances already this season, he might be on his way to his highest scoring campaign. Özils don’t come around very often, particularly in this country, so maybe if we berate his ‘laziness’ less, his attitude will improve, and we can all spend more time marvelling at Mesut’s magic.