There comes a time in an unfulfilled footballer’s career when he realises the futility of his ways. It suddenly dawns on him that a talent bestowed upon a select few has been squandered for years. The truth hits him like a ton of bricks and he resolves to focus his energies on fulfilling his destiny. He may not have a lot of time left in the game but by God, people would remember him for the pleasure he offered in those final years.
Such a player, Mesut Özil is not.
The appearances for Arsenal may have dwindled over the past few years, but the German has never come across as someone who believes he has not given it his all. It does not matter that his coaches have thought otherwise. For all his exploits under Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid, the Portuguese still had a go at him regularly for possessing a soft underbelly. It is also no secret that Carlo Ancelotti wasn’t devastated when Florentino Pérez sold the player to the Gunners. At the Emirates stadium, he found a manager who indulged him to everyone’s detriment and the wait for the World Cup winner to awaken from a deep slumber continues to this day.
There is perhaps no other player in the world today who has convinced so many of his value without the end product to show for it. How he managed to win himself a new contract worth £350,000 a week in 2018, making him the club’s highest earner in history, is beyond many neutral observers. The incredible aspect about the entire exercise was the way in which the player and his advisors managed to leverage the panic around Alexis Sanchez’s exit to his advantage. Since he signed new terms in January 2018, the player has mostly been in the news for non-footballing reasons.
The more his performances have dipped, the more he has taken to carefully curated messaging on social media and displays of anger at opportune moments to convey the image of a man who cares. Whether it is booting a locker in front of Arsene Wenger after a loss or throwing his gloves onto the turf, he conveys the frustration of a player who believes that Arsenal’s woes lie everywhere but on his shoulders.
To be fair to Özil, the club is entrenched in deep-rooted issues and he is only a part of the problem. As a player, he has produced at times in his career, especially when he had great players alongside him. He hit the twenty-plus goal involvement mark every year he was at Real Madrid. He also had six goals and nineteen assists in the Premier League the season Leicester stunned all comers to win the title. Arsenal came in second that year and it had been their highest placing in the league in eleven years. He needed to kick on from that season, but that did not materialise and his output since has not been commensurate with his talent and standing in the team.
The game has changed in the last few years and even Özil must have realised by now that luxury players like himself can rarely be carried anymore. The flicks and feints may provoke gasps of wonder but do not amount to much outside the 18-yard box. Nor does coming in second on the Opta list for most chances created this decade in the top five leagues. The fact that two Everton players are in the top ten on that parameter in a Premier League season where the Toffees have hardly looked like scoring tells you all you need to know about that statistic.
Since he took over, Mikel Arteta has managed to coax solid displays from the player until he tired, but it is extremely unlikely that this will continue beyond the new manager bounce that Arsenal will experience in the short term. Not since Mourinho all those years ago will the player have come across a manager who will assertively confront him in public and private. At some point, there will be a strain in that relationship and Arteta will be forced to look at other options.
The startling aspect about Özil’s performance against Manchester United was not the 11.53 kilometres he ran that wowed observers. It is the fact that it was the most he had run in more than two years. There are players who average more than that number over the course of a season. A leopard cannot change its spots and the German will revert to type soon enough. Arsenal will do well to get what they can out of an extraordinarily gifted but flawed player in the short term and move on.