As a visibly frustrated Stamford Bridge witnessed the Gunners hold the home side to a goalless draw on a sunny London afternoon, there was a feeling among many Arsenal fans that this was a rather rare sighting. It wasn’t the most attackingly exuberant display by a side that takes pride in playing attractive football, but it was a one that Arsenal fans aren’t used to seeing. And it came after many had expected Arsenal to take a beating at the hands of a fellow top six side, but what happened was eerily surprising to some.
The men from the Emirates looked compact in the midfield, with the wide players in Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck tracking back consistently to deny the Blues any space in the heart of the park. And there seemed to be a defensive assurance about the side, which is a wee surprising for them when playing against a big club. Since quite some time now, we’ve become accustomed to seeing Arsenal’s soft underbelly get exposed against fellow top six sides. And there was a lingering feeling among many that the absence of one man had made the performance look as good as it did. That was Mesut Ozil himself.
If not for the presence of Danny Welbeck on the left-flank, Arsenal may not have possibly drawn the outing. His ability to drop into defensive areas, do the dirty work and put in shifts regularly in there made sure that 3-4-3 looked more like a 3-6-1, with Iwobi doing the same on the other wing. And it is hard to imagine the man who would’ve played otherwise; Ozil, to put in a similar shift as the former Manchester United man.
That shouldn’t be an excuse or a mere reason to criticise one of the best playmakers in the Premier League largely because you can’t expect a mason to do the job of an carpenter when the need arises. Even if the mason does do the job, the efficacy will be considerably less. As a result, the structure will be vulnerable to not being good enough to sustain itself. And the mason will be left to rue the very decision of joining the bunch because he isn’t being made to do the job that he is made to do. In other words, his talents will go waste.
Quite the same is happening with Ozil at Arsenal. This doesn’t tend to demean Arsenal as a club or Ozil as a wonderful player, but the system that the side has takes the shine off Ozil and what he can be at a club where the system suits him. And everytime the former Real Madrid man gets criticised for bad performances or for going ‘invisible’ in big games, it is painful to take. It isn’t his fault, after all.
It would be fair to say that Arsene Wenger has never succeeded in getting the best out of Ozil so far. And due to that, Ozil has never really enjoyed a period of 10 or 15 games on a consistent basis. Games seem to pass by him more often than not and he is seen to be a lackadaisical figure in the middle of park, chasing shadows. Wenger has struggled to find the right system to make him work and even if it’s happened, circumstances have forced him into changing things. Be it when the fresh arrival was played on the right of a 4-2-3-1 or in recent times in the midst of the 3-4-3.
The 28-year-old German may be a creative outlet behind the striker, but he has never been played in a role that allows him the freedom to do so. The need to drop in and often do the dirty work makes him a liability for a side that did better in the presence of the likes of Iwobi and Welbeck out wide. One can’t condemn Ozil for not being what he isn’t and after all, being that way has made him the Mesut Ozil he is today. And there is no point in forcing him to do the dirty work when he has never done it. Doing so will never leave him to be the Ozil he is.
The fast-paced nature of the Premier League also, often makes him look slower and a passenger when the franticness of the play kicks in. His own nature and approach to the game makes him a very easy target for the critics and that again, is painful to see. He is not the most physically imposing player or the quickest in the Arsenal side, but the grace and creativity that he possesses is at par with the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Christian Eriksen and Phil Coutinho, if not more than them. And the aforementioned trio are quite the same- not physically adept or the quickest (bar Coutinho), but the systems they ply their trade in makes them near world-class performers, who are already one of the best in the league.
And what Ozil needs is not a system that stifles him off the grace he has, but brings the best out of him. The one under Wenger has done only bits and pieces, in that aspect. And it isn’t always his fault that people criticise him for not being what he has never been.
He is now 28, nearing the end of the prime years of his career. He hasn’t won the Premier League even once during his four-year stay at Arsenal and a player like him deserves to win trophies, especially during his prime years. He has won two FA Cups but that isn’t enough for a player like him. Above all, the criticism that he has racked up in England only makes it feel that he is the only culprit in the side.
Ten years on from now, when the man from Gelsenkirchen hangs up his boots, the time he spent at the Emirates will not be seen as the best of his career. It will be seen as a one that exposed him and contaminated the reputation that he had for being a world class player. And as he enters the last year of his contract, he needs to go as soon as possible and be loved and appreciated more.