It felt like Arsenal fans spent much of the 2010s gnashing their teeth over the performances of Mesut Ozil. Three games into Mikel Arteta’s reign as manager, there are already signs such collective angst may be a thing of the past.
Ozil has largely been cast throughout his time in England as one of football’s great enigmas. A player who you could be forgiven in thinking is literally made of velvet, Ozil’s ethereal class has often been lauded, but his languid approach – not to mention his prohibitively expensive salary – have made him a one-man personification of Arsenal’s failure to challenge for the biggest honours.
Indeed, under Unai Emery, it only seemed a matter of time before Ozil was shown the door at the Emirates. One of Emery’s biggest mistakes was failing to get the best out of the playmaker, and so he paid the price.
With Arteta now in the dugout, Ozil may now have the ideal manager to revitalise his career in north London.
It shouldn’t come entirely as a surprise. Arteta was a team-mate of Ozil’s as he ended his playing career with the Gunners and often spoke not just his admiration for the German’s ability but also of sympathy for the scrutiny his displays were put under.
“When you have players like Ozil, with everything he involves — his price, his personality — people will either love him or not like him at all,” Arteta told the Daily Mail in September 2014.
“When you’re an artist, you’re never going to perform nine out of 10 every week. It’s much more difficult for a creative player to perform at that level.
“The opposition always try and stop you, so sometimes you don’t shine. And then people ask, ‘Why don’t you shine? You didn’t do anything in the game.’
“When that happens you get criticised, especially when it happens in big games. But you cannot deny Ozil is a special player: his movement, his calmness, his final ball is superb.”
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For the opening 45 minutes of Arteta’s first home games in charge of Arsenal, against Chelsea, there were obvious signs that Ozil was finally playing under a manager who had confidence in him. His swagger was back, dictating the tempo of the game with Arsenal 1-0 up and impressing against the Blues.
But then Arsenal wilted, Ozil was replaced by youngster Joe Willock, and three points were thrown by conceding twice in the final seven minutes. A new era, but the same result.
Herein lies the trade-off for Ozil under Arteta. He now has a manager willing to indulge his unique qualities on the ball, but he also now has a manager schooled for the last three and a half years by Pep Guardiola, a man for whom intensity has no alternative.
“I put him in the team if I see every day that his attitude, his desire, his understanding of what we’re trying to do is there and he has the will,” Arteta said ahead of the clash with Manchester United on New Year’s Day. “If he’s in a better moment than somebody else I will pick him. The moment that changes then he won’t play.”
There is a balance to be struck for Ozil. Judging by the subsequent 2-0 victory over United, he’s risen to the challenge.
As a unit, the Gunners were much more aggressive in and out of possession, with Ozil leading the way. He not only covered more ground than any other Arsenal player, but the 11.53km was the most he has run in a single game in two years. He also won possession back 10 times, again more than any other team-mate.
In the first half, Ozil recorded the highest average speed of any player, yet that only allowed him to run the game at his own pace whenever he collected the ball, sauntering into his own half to pull the strings and pick out Ainsley Maitland-Niles with one particularly delightful pass.
la magnifique passe lobé d ozil*** pic.twitter.com/7HeRlgJiIj
— zlatan ibrahimovitch (@ZIbrahimovitch) January 1, 2020
Upon the final whistle, Arteta went straight to Ozil to congratulate him on his performance. And the new boss has already shown an awareness that has perhaps been missing at the Emirates for a long time now: for all Ozil is such a singular talent, he can only perform at his best as part of a fully-functioning collective.
“On his own, he can’t do it. That’s what I was saying. He needs the collective structure and organisation and his team-mates. Nowadays, there are only one or two players in the world who can do something on their own.
“He needs help and he needs the team to play in a certain way to facilitate his strengths more and more in the game. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
The early signs at Arsenal suggest Arteta is holding up his side of the bargain, and if the win over Manchester United is anything to go by, Ozil is happy to hold up his.