Has there ever been a Premier League star who splits opinion more than Mesut Ozil? Ozil is a traditional ‘number 10’ in an era where elite clubs want multi-functional strikers and midfielders.
Look around Europe and the regular title contenders favour 4-3-3: Manchester City, Barcelona, Real Madrid. So do the re-emerging forces of Liverpool and Chelsea. Managers who do have a ’10’ like Spurs have players who redefine the role. The top coaches want wide strikers who cut inside. They want playmaking midfielders who can play between the lines as well as perform their defensive duties.
Those who would once have occupied the position of an Eric Cantona or Dennis Bergkamp – players such as David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne – have evolved into more rounded midfielders whose starting position is deeper. They don’t occupy a small space behind the front man, linking midfield and attack, but have a heat map taking them all over the pitch. They press high and they track back.
We still have our old-fashioned front men – the ‘number nine’ – like Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero and Romelu Lukaku, but managers want more than one dimension in their attackers. The reason Ozil has as many detractors as supporters is he is a bit of an anomaly – an elegant, skilful footballer who at his best evokes memories of the great number 10s from the past, but sometimes looks unsuited to the extra demands of a changing game at the very top.
Against Leicester two weeks ago he delivered arguably the finest Premier League performance by any player this season. When it works and he is feeding the strikers with those perfectly weighted passes, his army of admirers have ammunition.
A week later he was subbed after a fairly anonymous afternoon against Crystal Palace. When it fails, the doubters retaliate. This has been Ozil’s life in England. In the space of six days his performances provoked extreme views.
Partly, this is because our broader perception of what is expected from attacking players has moved with the managers. We have all come to agree the modern players cannot be one-trick ponies, and we are especially critical of those who do not consistently produce in the biggest games.
I remember a quote from Jurgen Klopp, who Ozil faces for Arsenal today.
“We don’t have these defined positions in football any more,” he said. “They’re not actually there. Ask all my offensive midfielders what’s your favourite position and they’d say ‘No 10’ but no-one knows what a 10 is. It’s the most intensive defending position in football because you are involved in ****ing everything.”
Ozil’s problem is he is easily defined. He is a number 10 as we used to know it, not as Klopp is describing. He has not changed and I am not sure he wants to.
Against many teams this does not matter. We have all taken delight in Ozil’s best performances. He is a World Cup winner so his style has served his career well. For those with an appreciation for such an artistic, graceful footballer, it is easier to forgive the flaws when he is creating so many memories with his assists.
He is not to all tastes because – when compared to his attacking peers – there is a lingering perception he does not do enough. We see the application of other star players around the world and the contrast is not flattering. Ozil can appear lethargic or even disinterested when the game does not go Arsenal’s way.
Although it is not his fault, Ozil’s transfer fee and wages also come into the equation when making a judgement. When he signed from Real Madrid there was anticipation he was a game-changer for Arsenal in the same way as Bergkamp following his signing in 1995 – ‘The Double’ and era of success following three years later.
Ozil was the recruit to add similar star quality to ensure a club that had not won enough would end its drought. Given the FA Cup wins that followed, you could say he achieved that, even if Arsenal fans’ were dreaming more of the Premier League and Champions League when they lured Ozil from Real Madrid for £42.5m. Off the pitch, Ozil’s signing was supposed to signal a shift, too. For years Arsene Wenger was accused of being too prudent. Here they were bringing in one of those it seemed every top club in Europe wanted to sign.
His importance to Arsenal was reaffirmed last year when he was given a £300k-a-week contract, shortly before Wenger announced his imminent departure. What compromises are Arsenal’s new footballing hierarchy now making to pay for this deal?
It was fascinating to read the comments of Arsenal’s new director of football, Raul Sanllehi, when interviewed last week. It is clear the wage bill at The Emirates is too high – contributing to Aaron Ramsey being allowed to leave – and it feels like Unai Emery will be sweeping through the club over the next few years.
Where will Ozil fit into that longer-term? Given the length and size of his deal, Emery will try to make it work. Surely it will now be a case of Ozil changing to fit the demands of the manager, rather than Emery changing his ideas or the structure of his side to fit in Ozil? Emery has already shown he is not afraid to substitute or even leave him out.
When you look over Ozil’s career over five years, it has been symptomatic of Arsenal as a whole. Good some days, okay occasionally, hugely disappointing in others. Generally underwhelming when compared to the title winners that came before.
You will hear it said ‘on his day’ Ozil is as talented as anyone in the league. It is true, although such a compliment always sounds like damning with faint praise. We do not talk about the greatest players having ‘great days’. We talk about them having great seasons – season after season.
Ozil’s best for Arsenal was in 2015-’16. In that campaign his numbers were up there with the most creative players in Premier League history, with 19 assists. He has not reached anywhere near that in every other campaign at the club. Ozil has 30 goals Premier League in five years. He has just six goals and nine assists in 40 games against the rest of the ‘big six’.
It is a myth to suggest Ozil has not produced in England. It is equally true he has not produced what was expected. Unless Emery can unlock what Wenger could not, Ozil will be remembered as one of the best Arsenal players of this era, but not one of the best Premier League players of this era. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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