With his distinctive Marty Feldman-looks, it is fair to say Mesut Özil’s arrival in England was as surprising as it was exciting. The first shock was that Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger was spending a large chunk of money, £42.4m, to secure a player who was exemplary for both Real Madrid and Germany.
Wenger is notorious amongst Gunners fans for his seeming reluctance to spend the apparent vast reserves of cash the Arsenal board have made available to him in the past few years. This despite eight years without a major trophy.
So when Özil’s arrival was confirmed, Gunners fans hoped that it was the start of a new and more successful era for the club.
Certainly, the German’s early weeks in the Premier League were filled with promise; several outstanding performances saw him create plenty of goals for his teammates and he netted a fantastic first goal for the club, with a technically perfect strike against Napoli in the Champions League.
He scored his first Premier League goals in a 4-1 win over Norwich in October and all seemed well until in a Champions League game against Marseille, Özil saw his weak penalty saved by Marseille keeper Steve Mandanda.
However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing since, there have been a few moments of inspiration, but there have also been problems. Özil was publicly rebuked by teammate Per Mertesacker for not acknowledging the travelling Arsenal fans following their 6-3 defeat against Manchester City, he missed two games in January with a shoulder injury and then in February despite winning a penalty against Bayern Munich with a fine piece of skill, Özil then contrived to, once again, miss from the spot.
Indeed his performances in February were largely anonymous, especially when Arsenal were mauled 5-1 at Anfield by Liverpool where the German’s lack of defensive nous, also highlighted in Arsenal’s thrashing at Manchester City, was once again clear to see.
Then, just after Özil grabbed a goal in the Gunners 4-1 FA Cup win over Everton, a hamstring injury received in the return leg with Bayern Munich, has ruled him out for the next few weeks. This sees Özil missing crucial matches with Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester City, Everton and he remains doubtful for Arsenal’s FA Cup Semi Final against Wigan Athletic on April 12.
Arsene Wenger has been quick to defend Özil from criticism stating that it takes a while for any player to adapt to the “physical level of the Premier League” and that for Wenger “he is an exceptional player”.
There’s no doubting Özil’s technical ability and creative skills, along with the likes of David Silva, Luis Suarez and Eden Hazard, he is arguably the most creative and skilful player in the Premier League. On his day, like any of the players listed above, he is a match winner. That is what £42.4m worth of talent from Real Madrid gets you in the modern market.
But is he the right type of talent for the Premier League? While no Jan Molby, Ozil certainly doesn’t have the pace of some of the other top stars in the division and his work rate (especially defensively against the better sides) just doesn’t seem enough.
Arsenal fans may argue that Özil wasn’t bought to defend and that is a fair point, but when your team is under the cosh at Anfield or the Emirates, you need to do your best to help your team in any way you can. If that means tracking back and tackling and holding a deeper position, then that is what you must do.
Perhaps most paradoxically, it is these games, the games that Arsene Wenger hoped Özil would win for his team, where his presence has, at times, been a defensive liability.
Part of the problem may well be how Arsenal are set up. The Gunners have sorely missed the defensive nous, not to mention the attacking threat of Aaron Ramsey in midfield.
Arsene Wenger’s seeming never-ending proclivity to sign talented, diminutive central midfielders who are great on the ball going forward means that the Gunners are blessed with players who can play the ‘Özil’ role. Rosicky, Arteta, Cazorla, Wilshere, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain, or the emerging youngster Serge Gnabry.
Yet Arsenal seldom play with that ‘holding’ midfielder which has given Özil the creative freedom to play further forward. For Germany he has the likes of Schweinsteiger and Khedira in that role, at Real Madrid it was Xabi Alonso and Khedira. At Bremen, Torsten Frings anchored the midfield with Brazilian Diego.
The plus side of packing a midfield with creativity is of course, some of the beautiful flowing football we have seen the Gunners produce at times this season. It is, when played well, irresistible and very hard to defend against.
However, against the top sides, Arsenal have frequently fallen short. Saturday’s test against Chelsea will take place without Özil, but despite him being the player Arsenal signed to win these games, his absence may actually give the Gunner’s a better chance of success, if Wenger chooses to play a more defensive minded midfield trio to counter Chelsea’s obvious threat.
It will be interesting to see what Arsene Wenger does in the summer. The smart money is on the Frenchman investing in a new striker or two, especially after Nicklas Bendtner announced his intention to leave the club in the summer. This decision rendered most Arsenal fans entirely ambivalent because Bendtner has been wholly ineffectual for several seasons now. They also need a new striker because of the Gunners’ over-reliance on the tall, effective but seldom world-beating Olivier Giroud.
Yet in order to bring the best out of Özil, Arsenal need to go back the future. They need their manager to change the balance of midfield and bring in a player in the Manu Petit or Patrick Vieira mould and the problem is, those players don’t tend to come along too often.
To see the creative genius that is Mesut Özil, the gunners need to build a midfield that allows him to focus on this aspect of his game alone. Asking him to defend simply makes Özil an expensive defensive liability.