The majesty of Mesut Özil & the tragedy of taking talent for granted

In Depth

Less than 20 minutes into Arsenal’s North London Derby victory, Aaron Ramsey played one of those passes that reminds you how far 99% of other players are from possessing Premier League quality.

Had Alexandre Lacazette managed to find the net from the resulting Hector Bellerín cutback, we might have found ourselves talking about it all week.

Even with the Frenchman’s failure to do so, Ramsey’s performance would normally be one to which plenty of column inches are devoted.

However, he had the misfortune of putting in an 8/10 display in a game where Mesut Özil was in 10/10 form.

Whether it’s due to the £52million arrival of Lacazette ensuring he no longer has that record signing pressure in the biggest games, or whether his soon-to-expire contract has provided greater freedom, the German has shown again this season that he is capable of running the show like few of his peers.

Sure, Tottenham may have erred by leaving Harry Winks out of their starting line-up and trading intense pressure without the ball for intense pressure on it, but that should not take away from Özil’s input.

On plenty of occasions since his big-money arrival from Real Madrid, observers have seen opposition players put in a virtuoso performance and wondered aloud why the Arsenal man wasn’t doing the same.

What can be more frustrating, however, is the occasional decision to respond to better performances with complaints that he isn’t producing the goods more regularly.

For Özil, it’s almost never ‘that’s what he’s capable of.’ Rather than ‘that’s what he’s capable of, but…’.

Part of that can be put down to the price tag, and it can be hard for fans to shake the concept that £42million is a lot of money, even when inflated fees have seen the club throw almost as much at Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka in the last 18 months.

There’s a reason why Arsène Wenger was happy to sanction a move that more than doubled the club’s record fee and ushered in an era of higher spending: having lost occasional game-changers in Andrey Arshavin and Gervinho that same summer, Wenger was getting someone who could, at least in theory, perform the task more consistently.

Perhaps the main issue for Özil was that he started too quickly, setting up all three goals in a win over Stoke in September 2013. Often the worst thing a player can do is raise expectations with stats as well as performances, because that will make it easier to downplay the latter when the former doesn’t match up.

However, one thing which often isn’t raised quite as much is the ability to conjure a breakthrough which would not be forthcoming without Özil’s input, as was the case against Spurs.

This, in its own way, only serves to highlight the more disappointing displays – often, when Özil is off his game, it can filter through to the rest of the team as they attempt unsuccessfully to stretch play and attempt low-margin passes and shots out of frustration – but it’s rarely balanced out with praise for match-winning performances which others would not have been capable of.

On most afternoons, we’d have been talking about Davinson Sánchez’s performance at Emirates Stadium.

The Colombian was giving Lacazette next to no change from start to finish, looking assured on the ball and rarely appearing under any pressure.

On another day, we might have had the media telling us that’s what a £42million signing should be doing, unable to resist the lure of two numbers being the same and, therefore, ripe for comparison.

That we’re not, however, is almost entirely down to Arsenal’s £42million man (see, I’m doing it too!).

There’s no denying the free-kick for the hosts opener was soft, with Sánchez arguably winning the ball cleanly from his namesake Alexis, but Özil’s ball to the Chilean had set up that situation, and it was his delivery to the (admittedly offside) Shkodran Mustafi that brought the goal.

It was also Özil who had got in behind earlier on one of those rare occasions Sánchez was powerless to stop an attack, only to be pulled back for an equally soft foul on Jan Vertonghen.

But, hey, we’re falling into that same trap again, judging Özil only on the big-ticket moments when that was far from his only input.

When he’s on his game, Özil is one of those players who always seems to have an extra second on the ball.

He’s That Jack Wilshere Performance Against Barcelona made flesh, at a time when Wilshere’s own physical existence is a matter of debate in and of itself.

Recently, journalists and fans have revisited the German’s performances under José Mourinho at Real Madrid amid suggestions the pair could be reunited at Old Trafford, suggesting less overt freedom could actually bring out the best of his creative talents.

While that hasn’t quite happened at Arsenal, the performance against Spurs shows he doesn’t always need the do-what-you-want coddling normally associated with managers’ sons at under-13 level.

A reliance on big performances at the point a player has been all but written off is hardly the most sustainable approach, but a refusal to acknowledge Özil as more special than his peers could yet be enough for him to remind us he’s still alive and kicking.

During his title-winning season in Madrid, he shone in a squad which also boasted Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Gonzalo Higuaín and Ángel Di Maria, a scenario which forced him to muck in and to make his opportunities to showcase his attacking instincts really count.

While many can point to assist stats, or lack thereof, that campaign demonstrated there is more than one way of setting up your teammates for greatness, even if it requires input from both sides: Özil’s perceived struggles could be compared to those facing Paul Pogba at Manchester United last season, with underwhelming team-mates or a lack of cohesion resulting in the rare moments of magic producing no tangible reward.

When a player is capable of making the game look so easy, fans will undoubtedly be frustrated on the occasions he seems to find the going that bit tougher, but this would be less of an issue were he not the only one at the club capable of some of the things he does.

While we’ve been in this situation before, with a big performance followed by two underwhelming ones, it is normally the latter rather than the former which arrives against elite opposition.

Arsenal fans will now be conflicted: they’ll hope on one hand that a corner has been turned, but on the other they’ll be acutely aware that his contract situation may grant a rival a reinvigorated player for nothing next summer.

Still, more performances like this can help ensure Arsenal return to being a club which a player like Özil will want to play for, especially when they’re now in a position where others are very capable of sharing the load.

We’ll have a better idea of where we stand in January, but until then, we can enjoy the fact that the old Özil can still come to the phone, and – as he showed this weekend – he might even pick up even when you’ve dialled the wrong number.

By Tom Victor


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