Arsenal’s performance away at Stamford Bridge was deeply unsettling. I, like, many others, was thoroughly chuffed with the result. It was a good result, and a good performance. BUT, it wasn’t a vintage Arsenal performance by any measure. Arsene Wenger was trying to give Chelsea a taste of their own medicine, and it worked.
However, I, for one, don’t like the taste of Chelsea’s medicine. It was negative, it was boring (only interesting because it was a novelty for Arsenal), and it was ugly football. And yes, I get that sometimes it’s necessary, but it shouldn’t become a norm. During that barren spell where Arsenal never won trophies, Arsenal’s redeeming characteristic was that we always played beautiful football, second only perhaps to Barcelona. I could always tell myself, “We didn’t win, but at least it was nice to watch.” At least, if the results don’t go our way, this is something we can fall back on and take pride in.
Which brings me to my main point. Many critics were quick to point out that the performance against Chelsea was only made possible with the absence of Mesut Özil. In the German’s prolonged absence, the choruses of detractors have only gotten louder.
My personal belief is that Arsene Wenger should try to sign Özil to a new contract, and not just because he is a fantastic player.
Özil is very much a Wenger-type player. Ever since Wenger became manager of the club, we’ve always needed our maestros, players who sometimes chose style over substance, sometimes favouring form over function. They weren’t the strongest or tallest or fastest, but they were far and away the most beautiful to watch. I’m talking about the likes of Bergkamp, the likes of Fabregas, midfield conductors who didn’t relish defending too much, pulled out of tackles too often, but never failed to wow us with a defense-splitting pass.
MesutÖzil falls squarely in that category. Mesut Özil is a footballing genius. That is something which is hard to deny. The things he does with the ball never fail to amaze. Furthermore, he is Arsenal’s primary creative force. In his absence, the number of chances created falls dramatically. In fact, when people cite increased attention to solid defense as a strength when Özil does not play, one has to wonder whether this a chicken-and-egg situation. Are we better defensively because Özil does not play? Or are we forced to defend more, and better, because Özil does not play and we cannot control the game? Whatever the case may be, we are certainly better going forward when Mesut Özil plays.
I have to add, Özil is not lazy. I really do not believe he is the prima donna that all the naysayers make him out to be. The statistics speak for themselves. According to whoscored.com, for the 2016/2017 season, Özil made 0.8 tackles per game, placing him higher than players like Alex Iwobi and Bellerin. More importantly, and interestingly, according to The Express, Özil covered more than 10km in 14 out of 16 games played, while his ostensibly more “hardworking” counterpart Alexis Sanchez surpassed that mark in none of the 20 games he played in the same period.
Words like “luxury we cannot afford” and “burden” to describe the German have been thrown around. To me, such criticisms are harsh. Yes, admittedly, Özil has a languid, almost slothful style. And yes, he could afford to perform his defensive duties better. Perhaps it is these 2 characteristics that unjustly make him the scapegoat for many frustrated Arsenal fans. But this is a player who, just 2 seasons ago, had 19 assists in the Premier League, directly creating nearly 30% of Arsenal’s goals on the way to a 2nd place finish. He was hailed as the lynchpin of any future title-winning squad.
So what has changed? I think it’s safe to say Özil hasn’t gotten any lazier since then. Rather, I would say what we are seeing is just a slight dip of form for the player, coinciding with a dip in form for the club (coincidence? I think not). Critics who lay the blame squarely at his feet are wrong. I am defensive of the German. He is criticised disproportionately more than any other player. This failure to win games is not Mesut Özil’s fault, per se. It’s not his fault more than anyone else’s. All the players, and the manager, have to share the blame.
As an Arsenal fan who celebrated his arrival in 2013, and felt vindicated at his performances in the seasons following, I am confident Mesut Özil has the resilience to rebound and perform in the weeks to follow if given the opportunity. The big-eyed German isn’t a luxury, he is an integral part of the team. Arsene Wenger should not let Mesut Özil go.