Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal have had a mediocre start to the 20/21 Premier League season, despite picking up impressive wins against Chelsea and Manchester Utd, putting Liverpool out from the Carabao Cup and qualifying from their Europa League group with six wins from six, the Gunners have been seriously struggling in front of goal. Scoring only 16 times after 16 games — their fifth lowest in the league. Fans are getting frustrated as Arsenal are renowned for their free flowing, high scoring, beautiful football. This has lead to fans and pundits alike crying out for a player in their squad who is notorious around the globe for his creative impact: Mesut Ozil.
However, the German World Cup winner has been frozen out of the squad for months, ever since the Premier League had to be paused due to Coronavirus. Ozil has not played a single minute for Arteta’s team in the 20/21 season and it doesn’t look like he is about to any time soon. Resultantly, Mesut has grown ever vocal on Twitter, constantly voicing support for his beloved Arsenal. This had lead to fans questioning his absence from the squad, sparking debate across social media and dividing fans. There’s even been conspiracy theories developed blaming Ozil’s comments on Muslim concentration camps in China for his banishment.
Reflecting on Mesut Özil’s most recent performances in an Arsenal shirt before he was dropped from the team sparks a number of questions. What were Mikel Arteta’s reasons behind his decision? Are fans right to question their manager… or is nostalgia fogging their memory?
Why are fans desperate for Mesut?
Let’s start off by highlighting just why fans are crying out for Ozil to be re-introduced into the starting eleven. In his prime, Mesut Özil was one of the best playmakers in the world. When he played for Real Madrid he had a telepathic relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo and set him up for 27 goals. Ronaldo stated when he left “The sale of Özil is very bad news for me. He was the player who best knew my moves in front of goal. I’m angry about Özil leaving.” When Ozil first came to England in 2013 for £42.5m, he took the league by storm. From the 13/14 season to the 17/18 season Mesut accumulated 27 goals and 54 assists in 142 appearances.
He was the heartbeat of Arsene Wenger’s free flowing expressive footballing team and was praised widely across the media for his intelligence and breathtaking vision. He played in the number 10 position, dictated play with short and long passes, brought his team mates into the game, and had unparalleled ball retention. Ozil helped the Gunners win 3x FA Cups during this period and won Arsenal’s Player of the Year Award in 2015/2016. He also boasts a number of individual records: Most consecutive Premier League games with an assist (7), Most career assist hat-tricks since records began (8) and all time Premier League record holder for most assists in a calendar year (20 in 2015).
Mesut Ozil’s Drop in form?
However, Mesut Ozil’s performances in recent years have declined massively, especially regarding his creative output (goals and assists). In the 2018/2019 season Mesut only managed to muster up 5 goals and 2 assists in 24 Arsenal fixtures under new manager Unai Emery. Emery and Ozil had a frosty relationship as the German struggled to find his place in Emery’s defensive system. It didn’t get better for the German as in the following 19/20 season, Mesut only scored 1 goal and registered 2 assists in 18 appearances under Emery and Mikel Arteta. This dramatic fall in form is bizarre from such a world class player, but many an Arsenal fan would argue that Ozil was not being deployed in his most effective position as an attacking central midfielder.
Below is a graphic showcasing Mesut Ozil’s attacking output season by season since his arrival in the Premier League. As you can see, in his first 5 seasons his numbers were fantastic, producing a goal or an assist on average every 155 minutes of game time. Compare this to his last two seasons where he was creating or scoring a goal once every 249 minutes in the 18/19 season and once every 483 minutes in the 19/20 season. Ozil’s output has declined dramatically, and in the next section I will discuss what I think has caused this.
Goals + Assists per Minutes played in English Premier League for Arsenal. All stats gathered from TransferMarkt.com
What has caused Ozil’s poor performances?
You could micro-analyse every single detail as to what might’ve caused the drop-off in Mesut Ozil’s performances over the last two years, but for me there are three simple stand-out explanations.
- Change of managers
- More defensive-minded systems
- He is simply past his prime
When Unai Emery took over at the Emirates from Arsene Wenger, the new man failed to address any of the club’s core issues that lingered from Wenger’s latter years of service. Arsenal were still pushovers; seriously soft and toothless away from home. Emery showed glimpses of progression, and even guided Arsenal to a Europa Cup Final, only to get battered 4-1 by Chelsea in Baku. After Emery was sacked he made a series of comments regarding Ozil, suggesting that Mesut relied heavily on the players around him to pick up the slack for his defensive laziness. He did not deny Mesut’s quality and praised the way in which he can bring other players into the game and make them better players, but when Arsenal needed to be aggressive; Mesut was not the man.
Then came along Mikel Arteta. Emery was shown the back door after failing to pick up a victory in seven matches on the bounce. Pep Guardiola’s apprentice had finally earned himself a first team job, and unlike Emery, immediately set to work on addressing those key core issues that were plaguing Arsenal’s success. To shut up shop at the back and make Arsenal a difficult team to break down, Arteta adopted a 3-4-3 formation. This system does not operate with a natural number 10, and Mesut Ozil was forced to play either as a 8 or on the wing, in which neither he truly excelled. As COVID emerged, so did Arteta’s plans to leave Ozil on the bench. This was the beginning of the end for him.
Mesut Ozil is 31 years old now, and the Premier League is the most physically challenging league in the world. He is at a club where he does not fit the system and is not getting any minutes. It is fair to say that he’s past his best, and there is no shame in that. He clearly isn’t up to the demands of the Premier League anymore and Mikel Arteta doesn’t trust him to fulfil his defensive duties. As Unai Emery said, Mesut makes all the players around him better, but in return they have to work twice as hard to cover for Ozil’s lack of defensive endeavour.
So, is Ozil the answer to Arsenal’s creative woes?
It very easy as a pundit or a fan to get carried away when your team is not performing, and to make claims in desperation that sound like good ideas. Putting Mesut Ozil into this Arsenal team is not going to sort their problems, and in my opinion will only make things worse. Although he would bring that creative spark to Arsenal’s attack and potentially unleash the potential of the players around him, such as Aubameyang, Saka and Pepe, he does not offer enough defensive solidarity in return.
If Arteta was to reintroduce Ozil to the squad, then he would be reverting back to the Arsenal of the old: soft, gutless and vulnerable. If Arteta was to truly utilise Ozil’s strengths he would need to change his system back from 3-4-3 and start playing 4-2-3-1 again. This would ultimately reverse all of the hard work that Arteta has put in getting the team familiar and comfortable with the system.
Although this is a difficult time for Gunners fans, they must remain patient and allow Arteta time to get the right personnel in. He has already started to get the best out of players like Kieran Tierney and Bukayo Saka, and he’s made a marquee signing in Thomas Partey. There are players out there that will offer what Ozil can going forward, but who are equally willing to defend and press with aggression (Jack Grealish is a perfect example). Mesut Ozil was a servant for Arsenal and proved himself as one of the best playmakers the Premier League has ever seen. Nonetheless, it’s time for Arsenal fans and pundits to stop getting into bed with nostalgia, and accept that Mesut Ozil’s Arsenal career is over.