On a Monday evening in October 2018, the Premier League witnessed one of its outstanding individual displays as Arsenal came from behind to seal a 3-1 victory over Leicester City at the Emirates Stadium. The hosts produced a scintillating comeback, all orchestrated by the brilliance of Mesut Ozil, who served a reminder of the profound extent of his ability.
Handed the captain’s armband for the night, the 2014 World Cup winner was the instrumental architect for all three of his team’s goals. He netted the first himself, making a difficult volleyed finish look dismissively easy after linking up sumptuously with right-back Hector Bellerin. His defence-splitting pass then helped set up the second for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who also scored the third, following a breath-taking move where Ozil was involved no less than three times in the build-up.
It was a truly memorable performance, yet sadly for the playmaker it acts as an exception to the rule in what has largely been a frustrating season. Instead, lengthy absences from the starting XI and persistent rumours of an uneasy relationship with manager Unai Emery have combined to cast serious doubt on his future, with a move away in the summer for Arsenal’s highest paid player beginning to look an increasingly realistic prospect.
More or less an automatic first choice during the previous regime under Arsene Wenger, Ozil has found himself in and out of the team in 2018-19. There’ve been times where he’s remained on the substitutes’ bench for the full 90 minutes, or even omitted from the match day squad altogether, apparently for tactical reasons. It’s therefore ironic that he’s been named as captain for a number of the games he’s started.
When given the opportunity this season he’s only delivered occasionally, with that performance against Leicester the high point. In some games, he simply struggled to make a telling contribution, and afterwards the manager has not been afraid to move him to the sidelines. He’s swiftly become a victim of the rotation policy, often competing with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Alex Iwobi, and the Juventus-bound Aaron Ramsey for a place in the team.
It has acted as a curious sub-plot throughout Emery’s reign to date. A player of Ozil’s calibre and creativity should be continually thriving in an Arsenal side that’s full of exciting and ruthless attacking talent, but instead it has seemed that in some games, Emery has viewed him as something of a tactical liability and decided to leave him out.
This has led a number of other questions to be asked. Does Emery not trust Ozil to perform a certain role for the team? Has anything been happening behind the scenes? Are there doubts over the player’s commitment?
There’s definitely an argument to say that Ozil doesn’t quite have the capacity or indeed the mentality to play the kind of relentless, high-energy football that Emery has favoured in some matches. He’s shown that he can work hard for the team and put in a defensive shift, but it’s hard to imagine the 30-year-old being full-blooded and really going after the opposition.
Arsenal did exactly that in both of their Premier League meetings with rivals Tottenham earlier this season. Ozil only appeared for a total of 18 minutes across the two games, while his teammates took a powerful approach, brimming with intensity. They showed a high tempo going forward, and a collective desire to win the physical battle. It’s debatable that with less creative freedom, Ozil would’ve made such a tireless contribution, and Emery clearly felt the same way.
The former Germany international is no stranger to scrutiny, having often divided opinion among supporters and pundits ever since he made the move to North London from Real Madrid in a dramatic club record deadline day deal in the summer of 2013.
His quality has never been disputed and he’s provided numerous standout moments, yet criticism has frequently been levelled at him over a casual demeanour, an inability to perform consistently in the big games, and most significantly a perceived lack of work rate, something that Emery demands in spades against the strongest and most dangerous opponents.
In contrast, his place in the side was rarely threatened under Wenger, whose style focused first and foremost on the team’s sharp and often irresistible attacking play, rather than matching the strengths of the opposition. However, even before this season there has become a growing sense that Ozil isn’t quite as central to Arsenal’s hopes as he used to be.
He struggled for form and consistency throughout a turbulent 2017-18, which culminated in a stormy end to his international career amid claims he was unfairly singled out for criticism by German media and received little support from the DFB in the wake of his side’s disastrous 2018 World Cup. Despite that, Arsenal still pulled out all the stops to keep him.
With his existing contract fast coming to an end and the risk of losing him on a free transfer increasing each day, the Gunners agreed terms with Ozil on a £350,000 per week deal, committing him to the club until 2021. Perhaps it was cutting off the nose to spite their face, but more than a year on, the lucrative salary has given Emery and the new sporting director a major stumbling block if they do indeed decide to try and cut their losses.
Any potential suitor would be unlikely and very possibly unwilling to match Ozil’s current terms, taking into account his relative lack of game time, and the fact the best years of his career are now probably behind him. A loan deal seems much more likely, with talk of interest from Paris Saint-Germain and Inter, but even then it relies on him being keen on the move.
His intelligence and creativity would surely fit in well at PSG, where the football is incisive and attack-minded, utilising the pace of Kylian Mbappe and the trickery of Neymar. The question is whether he would be a better option than what the French champions already have, and if he’s even willing to leave North London, where he feels very much at home.
Emery has so far given little away on Ozil’s future, though the player’s agent did come out in January to state his client was ‘100 per cent committed to Arsenal’, adding that he wanted to stay for at least the whole of the remaining two years of his contract.
Should he not leave in the summer, he’ll still be a very useful option and will make more starring contributions here and there, but not as an essential part of Emery’s plans. It’s likely that as the Spaniard continues to shape his squad and bolster his attacking midfield options over the coming transfer windows, Ozil will have fewer opportunities to show his class.
For that to happen would be a shame for such a gifted player, as well as costly for the football club as his contract runs down. But if anything, it would be an emphatic statement from Emery that it’s his Arsenal team, one built firmly around his own ideas and philosophy that he hopes will eventually be a lot better equipped to challenge for the Premier League title than the side he inherited.
Either way, this season has felt like the beginning of the end for Ozil at Arsenal. His playing time has been reduced and will only become more limited, so he appears to have a choice ahead between simply taking the money or rising to a new challenge.