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Ken Early: Mesut Özil a symptom of Arsenal’s stagnation not a cause

Arsenal gave him a huge contract because they were scared how it would look if he walked away

Not every footballer dazzles on the first impression, but Mesut Özil is one whom I vividly remember seeing play for the first time. It was on October 10th, 2009, in a World Cup qualifier between Russia and Germany at the Luzhniki in Moscow. I hadn't tuned in specifically to see Özil – strange as it now seems, the box-office player in that game was Andrei Arshavin, whose career at Arsenal was already beginning to derail.

Instead it was Özil who caught the eye. On 35 minutes he created the game’s only goal – drifting in off the left, he played a one-two with Lukas Podolski, accelerated to the corner of the six-yard box, sat the ’keeper down with a calm feint and chopped the ball back to Miroslav Klose for the tap-in. It wasn’t really the match-winning moment itself that left such an imprint on the memory so much as a hard-to-define quality – a kind of uncanny smoothness – that suffused his movement, his control and his passing.

He seemed somehow to hover and to glide while the others clattered and thundered around him.

The first time I saw him play live was the following summer at the World Cup in South Africa, when he was part of the Germany team that destroyed England 4-1 at Bloemfontein. My seat at the front of the second tier was almost overhanging the half-way line, the best place in the stadium from which to watch Özil apply the coup de grâce.

He lured Gareth Barry into a challenge out wide, then glided away from him down the left, gaining speed as he controlled an awkwardly bouncing ball with a series of perfect touches, leaving Barry floundering hopelessly behind. Özil cruised into the box and coolly nutmegged Ashley Cole with a pass to Thomas Müller, who smashed in Germany's fourth.

I remember thinking: this is what the future looks like – and also that Barry had just been made to look distinctly barnyard and was possibly finished at the top level. In fact Barry won the league with Man City two years later, and would ultimately play another 253 Premier League matches. In seven seasons at Arsenal, Özil managed 184.

Legacy

Given the ease with which the young Özil created memorable images, he would have hoped to have left a more substantial legacy at Arsenal. What, in the end, did he leave to remember him by? There were three FA Cups, trophies so precious that he refers to them with the generic term “silverware” in his goodbye statement to the Arsenal fans. There was an inspirational captain’s performance against Leicester in 2018 – Arsenal finished fifth that year, Leicester were ninth. There was that brilliant goal against Ludogorets. We all know it’s a kind of tragedy to score your greatest goal against Ludogorets.

His finest achievement at Arsenal was to popularise a technical curio, his chop-chip technique for lifting the ball over a sprawling goalkeeper.

We know now that the biggest day of Özil’s Arsenal career was day one. The spontaneous carnival that erupted at the Emirates to urge on and finally celebrate his 2013 signing proved more memorable than anything he produced on the pitch. It was one joyful late summer night when anything seemed possible, followed by seven slowly deflating years of anticlimax.

Why was that deadline day crowd so ecstatic? Partly it was because they were enjoying being part of what then felt like quite a new kind of mass participation event – a self-aware crowd, watching themselves create the spectacle on TV and social media. But it was also because they believed that Özil’s arrival marked a turning point in the fortunes of the club.

Over the previous few years Arsenal had sold their best players – Emmanuel Adebayor, Samir Nasri and Kolo Toure to Man City, Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona, and most painfully Robin van Persie to Manchester United. Here at last was a big player, approaching his prime years, joining Arsenal rather than leaving them. It didn’t matter nobody really knew yet what Özil was meant to do out on the pitch.

The important thing was that signing him made Arsenal feel big again. In reality they were paying a premium price for a top team's cast-off. You can gauge how central Özil had been to the team at Real Madrid from the fact that they promptly won four of the next five Champions Leagues.

Of course Özil didn’t live up to the hype – given the insane level of that hype, only a Ronaldo or a Suárez or a Lewandowski could ever have lived up to it. Özil was never like these, a player to build a team around. He was a support player, a character actor who had the talent to be part of something great if he was surrounded by the right people. Instead he found himself hailed as the best player in a mediocre Arsenal squad.

Arsene Wenger was still using more or less the same methods that had wowed the world in 1998. While José Mourinho had goaded Özil to perform with ferocious "confrontational leadership", Wenger fawned over his artistry. The conditions were ideal for years of comfortable stagnation. Özil's relationship with Arsenal moved into a darker phase after January 2018, when he signed his famous contract renewal and the gap between his pay and his performance widened to farcical levels.

It should be remembered that the ensuing fiasco is all Arsenal’s fault. After working with him for years, they knew what Özil was like. Whenever he was criticised for appearing lazy or diffident, his admirers would reply with arguments along the lines that the only problem with making everything look effortless is that it never looks like you’re making any effort.

Still, even Özil’s biggest fans must have understood that super-talented players who also work very hard seldom get called lazy however languid their on-field style.

But the relationship between Özil and Arsenal did not collapse because of Özil’s work ethic or lack thereof. The problems came from the silly status-worship of a club that forgot how to objectively evaluate the contributions of their players. Arsenal gave a 29-year-old a contract worth about £60 million because they were scared of how it would look if he walked away. They soon regretted it, but they didn’t learn because last September they repeated the mistake with the 31-year old Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

Looking at the photos Özil posted of himself en route to Turkey, you realised: so this is what the future ended up looking like – a centimillionaire who hasn’t played in 10 months, sitting in a private jet wearing own-brand merch. Richer and less relatable than his younger self, the path his career has travelled is a symptom of Arsenal’s stagnation rather than a cause.

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