At Arsenal, Mesut Özil Is a Man Out of Place

His legion of fanboys might argue otherwise, but the squad's one-time star is now a phantom of a footballer.
22 October 2019, 10:22am
mesut ozil illustration
Illustration: Dan Evans

These are interesting times over at Arsenal. Not on the pitch, where Unai Emery's team usually look either incapacitated by their coach's instructions or totally confused as to what those instructions might be, but certainly off it, where a coming crop of young prospects appear to be entering bloom all at once.

From the club's own Hale End academy have sprung Joe Willock and Bukayo Saka – both of whom started and performed creditably in last night's dismal defeat to Sheffield United – as well as Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah and Emile Smith-Rowe, a raft of coltish attackers who seem primed, if not for the very top, then somewhere close by. Allied to these are Matteo Guendouzi, who's been establishing himself as the pulse of the side since last summer, and perhaps most tantalisingly of all the teenage Brazilian Gabriel Martinelli, a roving forward who plays like a shark with blood in his nostrils, and whose two senior starts have yielded four goals.

All of these players – along with the precocious 18-year-old centre-half William Saliba, signed in July but parked at St Etienne for another year to learn his trade in Ligue 1 – will over the coming three or four years surf the tides of hype, form and fortune, and find themselves the focus of concerted outside attempts at star-building, the process by which raw prospects are moulded by the game into bona fide heavyweights, the kind of ace faces you sell TV subscriptions, fashion lines and computer games with.

The dream for Arsenal’'s hierarchy and fans is that they all make it to the very top at the club, together. The reality is likely to look considerably different, but it will be intriguing to see how the fates of these young men diverge and intertwine, how their reputations wax and wane, and if and when arrive the moments when they are able – by dint of will, talent, luck or timing – to punch their way into the public consciousness. And then stay there, or not.

For an idea of the trials that lie ahead, these youngsters are lucky enough to have in their midst a ghost produced by elite football's merciless modern machinery, an orphan of an era of the sport that now seems to have decisively slipped away. There was a time when Mesut Özil was one of the best men on Earth at playing football. Those days are, for various reasons, long gone now. But as Arsenal probed and panicked forlornly at the distant outskirts of the opposition box last night, it was difficult not to pine for the lithe little boffin who used to glue this anxious mess together, turning up occasionally to win the day with a wiggle of the hips and an impossible pass shrugged across the floodlit baize like some kind of small-town pool hall Elvis.

Unai Emery's awful Arsenal have huffed and puffed their way through every league fixture so far this season. With over a quarter of the campaign gone, they're yet to produce a solitary convincing performance in the one competition that really matters most to their future and their fans – and yet still Özil watches from a position of spectral impotence, either from the bench or more regularly from his sofa at home in north London.

It's not hard to find a cause for his current and apparently terminal malaise. Everyone has their favourite, whether it's the sedative effect of his World Cup winners' medal and £350,000 per week wage packet, the contempt in which he so transparently regards Emery, his self-ostracising friendship with Recip Tayyip Erdogan, the attack he was subjected to by a duo of knife-wielding carjackers in July or the doubts around his mental and physical health that have persisted throughout his time at the club.

The most likely factor is the less salacious and sensational impression that the game has simply passed him by, that he is a sad-eyed casualty of time and systems, his brand of weightless, in-the-hole playmaking obsolete in a period in which that hole no longer seems to exist.

Özil's fanboys – of which there are tens, possibly hundreds of thousands, possibly millions online – were out in force again in the immediate aftermath of last night's loss, many pointing as ever to the title-winning season he enjoyed with Real Madrid and Jose Mourinho in 2011/12 to support their argument that he is able to play in a defensively minded team under a conservative coach. But that was eight years ago, in a slower league. Since then, Özil has gotten (yes) eight years older, and now finds himself in the world’s fastest and most intense and physically demanding division.

There are obvious conclusions to draw here, even before you realise that Premier League supporters are still getting their heads around the new reality that teams are so often at their most dangerous without the ball and tend to do their defending with it. So ill-suited is Özil to pressing from the front that picking him is essentially committing to defending with ten men, which – according to the logic of this topsy-turvy new era – essentially means you're weakening your attack.

And yet… there is still something there, humming away in the recesses of the memory like a feeder pillar in the middle of nowhere, that makes you wonder if he might still be the skeleton key that unlocks this Arsenal team after all, the talisman who balances everything out, soothing it into shape with a series of mesmerising shoulder drops and passes that just weren't there until the ball suddenly just is, a player as soft and as silent as a barn owl, and sometimes just as fatal.

And then you snap out of it and remember that Özil only has four league assists to his name since signing that mega-contract in January of 2018, or that you aren't a bored, angry 15-year-old Turkish kid on Twitter with the handle @OzilIsKing or @Ozility, or that Liverpool are top of the league these days, and you realise that the idea of any miraculous Mesut resurgence – especially under Emery – is a silly one.

Who knows what the years ahead hold for Arsenal's kids. The club's future may still be some way off. But their past feels somehow even more distant, epitomised by a remnant from the Arsène Wenger age who we should probably commit with fondness to the list of things that our gruelling modern world no longer allows to exist, like successful indie rock bands, polar bears, humility, pubs that aren't for children, nuance and calm.

There was a time when Mesut Özil was one of the best men on Earth at playing football. Now, the ex-German international resembles a phantom of a footballer whose soul has been stretched out of shape and jerked in one direction too many by the roaring, number-crushing modern game and a series of unfortunate events that have left him stranded on an island of his own prodigious, but fatally mercurial, auteur talents.

@hydallcodeen / @Dan_Draws