Finding Mesut

Imagine your team being 7-0 up with just a few minutes remaining, thanks to a four-goal blitz in only six minutes making the score 5-0 before the half time whistle blows. And even taking the foot off the gas in the second period, your team adds two more goals and look good to set an unprecedented record in the World Cup Semi-Final.

And then with a few minutes remaining the ball is at your feet thanks to a brilliant, incisive pass that split the opposition’s already-ragged, deflated defence. All you have to do is get the shot on target and your team’s name will be in the history books after a night to remember, and a night to forget for your rivals, the embarrassed hosts of the biggest football event in the world.

But it’s not to be. And soon after you miss, the opposition score a consolation, ruining your record and dirtying your clean sheet. That was how Mesut Ozil’s night ended on July 8 2014. Although the Arsenal star played a role in two of Germany’s goals, he didn’t get on the scoresheet himself. His golden chance came in the last moments of the match, when he was sent through on goal by a smart pass from Julian Draxler and although he did manage to get around a weary Julio Cesar, he fluffed his lines.

Little more than 20 seconds later, Germany’s chance to go 8-0 up becomes Brazil’s chance to score a consolation as Oscar nabbed their only goal of the game. It was obviously not enough to ruin the spectacular efforts of Die Mannschaft, who humiliated Brazil in a manner not seen since their 1950 defeat to Uruguay, losing in the final on home soil, but it didn’t save Ozil from criticism. It was ridiculous logic, and just a minor blip on an otherwise-strong performance by the then-25-year-old, who had joined Arsenal at the start of the prior season.

It cost what was then a club record £42.5m to prise Ozil from Real Madrid and with that kind of outlay, supporters were expecting something spectacular. Yet despite helping Arsene Wenger’s side end their nine-year trophy doubt as the Gunners clinched the FA Cup shortly before the World Cup, Ozil often found himself criticising for his perceived lack of effort. A dearth of ‘work-rate,’ a ‘tendency to disappear,’ ‘apathy’ and overall ‘lack of pace’ were among some of the complaints directed at the Germany playmaker. Even in his homeland, he wasn’t safe from negativity. Former World Cup winner Paul Breitner went so far as to call for Ozil to be dropped from Germany’s starting XI during the team’s successful World Cup run in Brazil 2014.

And despite contributing to Germany’s first World Cup in almost a quarter of a century, criticism of Ozil has hardly abated, especially over his club form. For some, the bigger the game, the harder it is to find Ozil on the pitch. At the start of the 2017-18 season, Arsenal were humiliated 4-0 by Liverpool and the finger was pointed at Ozil and his failure to track back for the Reds’ second goal.

The player himself was unrepentant, biting back at club legends who questioned his effort and insisted they ‘talk less and support more.’ But covering the ground has never been his game, and throughout his career, Ozil has never even been a particularly prolific scorer, unlike others who play in his No. 10 position. He’s never accumulated more than 12 goals in a single season, back in 2016-17, and it’s clearly in assists that he makes his contribution. Former teammate Cristiano Ronaldo notably considered him the ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice,’ for the magic he would weave, conjuring a pass out of nothing for the Portuguese ace to convert.

It’s this that Ozil has attempted to replicate during his time with Arsenal, but the success seen previously at club level or with his national team hasn’t always been there. As a creator, not a scorer, the measurable definition of his success — the number of assists he claims — is heavily reliant on those in front of him. In short, he can create numerous chances but if his club colleagues can’t convert them, the opportunity goes begging and Ozil’s statistics take a battering.

 

 

As for his alleged ‘lack of interest,’ the Liverpool drubbing was not the first time the issue was raised by frustrated Arsenal fans. His nonchalance is something of a double-edged sword. Watching the Gelsenkirchen native without fully considering his role then, at first glance, he could be accused of putting in less than a full day’s work. But when he does pull off a pass that seems casual but results in a goal, his cool head wins plaudits. Yet, the tendency to throw up his hands when losing the ball, or not producing in do-or-die moments, can’t be disputed. Arguably the worst case was his absentee display when Arsenal fell 10-2 on aggregate to German giants Bayern Munich and crashed out of the Champions League. It’s been different at international level.

In Ozil’s defence, perhaps the explanation is simple. At Arsenal, he was brought in to play a leading role and help the club catch the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United. Arsenal have struggled to keep pace for years now, even being overtaken by North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur, and have had to settle, usually, for fourth place — so often, in fact, that some younger supporters accept that as the norm.

With Germany, however, he isn’t the focal point. Rather, he’s a part of a working machine — a key part, for sure — that keeps things ticking. If he does have an off-day, then the likes of Draxler or Toni Kroos can pick up the creative slack, while Sami Khedira is among the reliable options to cover in defence. Ozil has to do a lot less for Germany than for Arsenal and, as a result, is able to enjoy his football a lot more. In turn, that helps the team as a whole.

Germany Coach Joachim Low has figured that out and Ozil has largely thrived during his tenure, even when struggling for Arsenal. In qualifying for World Cup 2018, Ozil chipped in with two assists and a goal against the Czech Republic and Norway on September 1 and September 4 respectively. This just so happened to be a few days after that humiliation by Liverpool.

Ozil is a complicated player but for Germany, where there are players to share the attacking and defensive burden, he is able to do his work. It’d be unwise to bet against him making an impact again for his country this summer as they defend their World Cup crown. And maybe, if he gets the chance to score in the semi-final this time, he’ll take it.

 

Factfile

Name: Mesut Ozil

Born: October 15, 1988 (Gelsenkirchen, West Germany)

Ht / Wt: 1.80m / 76kg

Position: Midfielder

Club: Arsenal

 

Club stats

Season                       Club                           Apps    Goals

2006-07           Schalke                        23        0

2007-08           Schalke                        16        1

2007-08           Werder Bremen           14        1

2008-09           Werder Bremen           47        5

2009-10           Werder Bremen           46        11

2010-11           Werder Bremen           1          0

2010-11           Real Madrid                53        10

2011-12           Real Madrid                52        7

2012-13           Real Madrid                52        10

2013-14           Real Madrid                2          0

2013-14           Arsenal                        40        7

2014-15           Arsenal                        32        5

2015-16           Arsenal                        45        8

2016-17           Arsenal                        44        12

2017-18           Arsenal                        28        5

Correct to April 4

 

International stats

Year                Apps    Goals

2009                7          1

2010                14        2

2011                9          5

2012                13        6

2013                9          3

2014                10        1

2015                8          0

2016                13        3

2017                5          1

2018                1          0

Correct to April 4

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