It’s no great news to say that Mesut Ozil divides opinion.
As has been ably covered on this very website, many ex-players in the press view him rather less charitably than those who have worked with him. The division is equally pronounced within football fans in general, and among the Arsenal fanbase specifically.
While his relative merits have been discussed at length, I thought it would be interesting to look at the different perceptions of the player and reasons behind them, particularly in the light of more negative press for having the temerity to socialise with friends whilst back home having been rested from the side.
Pundits & Journalists
It says a lot about this profession how hard it is to find praise of Ozil, particularly in the UK and German media, since his move to Arsenal.
In addition to the usual lazy punditry of the BBC squad of Danny Murphy (who seems at least to want him to do well), Alan Shearer and Danny Mills (currently chummying up to Greg Dyke to kick foreigners out of the English game and set us back three decades), we have had Gary Neville on Sky questioning his work rate, and the widely reported corkers from Paul Scholes in his newspaper column.
“I think Mesut Özil took the easy option joining Arsenal. Since he has been there you cannot doubt his quality but at times he looks like he is going through the motions, however much ground he covers.”
Of course it isn’t just English ex-players, as this doozie from Neil Ashton in the Daily Mail reminded us.
“Lost and lazy …Özil, the highest-paid player in the history of Arsenal, is nicking a living.”
And Even Michael Ballack stuck the boot in:
“What’s happened with him? I don’t know. There must be something behind [the scenes] because his head is mostly down, the body language is not improving even with the world champion [medal] in the pocket. I don’t really know what’s happened over the last year since he moved from Madrid to Arsenal.”
The view of colleagues
As you’d expect, those who have worked closely with our number 11 are rather more positive.
“He works much harder than his style shows. You can be cheated a little bit by his style of play because he is fluent, easy, supple, and he doesn’t look like he puts the effort in, but he does.
“I knew he had good physical potential but I didn’t know how good he was physically. He has huge physical potential.”
“Mesut is a phenomenal player, one of these players that you buy to complete the puzzle of your team. You don’t need time with him, you need nothing. The player just arrives. His quality and his maturity and his leadership … you put him in and you know automatically your team becomes better.”
“Ozil, he is a calm force. He is very calm, perhaps even introverted, but very much much technically at ease. And when he is playing at a level of high confidence, he makes the difference.”
“Mesut is an important player for us. He’s proved that he’s a key player in the last few seasons. I love playing with him because he’s a really talented player and we understand each other well. That’s why I’m really comfortable with him”
“Anybody who has played with Mesut will tell you how intelligent he is as a player. His vision is probably the best I have ever seen and that is why it is so important to have the right striker ahead of him.He is a dream for strikers and you saw that with Ronaldo and Benzema when he was at Madrid. If Arsenal can find the right striker who is fast and makes intelligent runs – then Mesut will be devastating next season.”
The view from the opposition
As you’d expect, the appreciation is echoed by those who have had to play against him.
Wayne Rooney – who once fell out with Alex Ferguson for trying to suggest the manager bought Ozil:
“He’s a clever player. He doesn’t stick to one position, he moves along the line. He moves in behind positions in midfield, he can score and assist goals. He’s a fantastic player.”
“The team misses a player and maybe it was Mesut Ozil. Technique is perfect, and he quickly progressed to score goals,”
“He is smart, can play in any team. Everything he had, natural, and it works really good. That is why it is a good idea from Arsenal.”
The view from other fans
For interest’s sake, I took the opportunity to ask the most reasonable and honest Manchester Unietd supporter I know (few and far between, but they do exist), what he felt about Ozil.
“His acquisition was a define coup. It shook things up at Arsenal and changed the way the manager and club were viewed as players in the transfer market, and definitely galvanised the team for a while, both of which made other teams sit up and take notice. A player that had shone at the 2010 World Cup and whom Man Utd had been interested in for a while.”
“Although his stats suggest otherwise, watching highlights makes him seem lazy and not hardworking enough, and de-motivated. Like a Galactico left behind after a holiday and having a lengthy tantrum. It seems he has struggled to cope with the step down in quality in his teammates, and lacks the energy to work around that, despite a decent assists rate, in a similar way to Di Maria this season. It takes a certain type of player to relish being a club’s record transfer, and Ozil appears to have baulked at it, and has not justified his fee.
“As an opposition fan, I’m not scared by his name on the team-sheet, and have the expectation that he will need to be substituted before the game is over. He seems to lack the strength of character to lead a team, and lets things get to him, not reacting positively to disappointment, as particularly evident in last year’s Bayern game. Ramsey seems a player to influence things more than him.”
So why is opinion so divided?
“People wrote so negatively about me but generally the people who are familiar with football know my strengths and abilities”
“I’m so proud to play for a club with so many fans but my goal is firstly to help the team on the pitch and I do that.”
“What’s most important for me is what the boss thinks of me. He gives me his trust and he knows the potential I have. I’m just thankful that he’s given me his faith and I think that if he says I play intelligently, then he’s probably right!”
Three quotes, regarding his national side and his club side, that say a lot about Ozil.
He’s fully aware of the criticism. He believes in himself. And he is more interested in what those who he works with think of him than any outsider. This singular approach hints at both his approach to the game and, accordingly, the way people see him. When asked to respond to criticism following his half-time shirt swap against Monaco (again leapt on by his public bete noire Paul Scholes, despite not being instigated by him), Ozil couldn’t understand the fuss, and responded accordingly to Sky Sports Germany.
‘Geoffrey Kondogbia asked me for my shirt and I wanted to do him a favour. Maybe I should have given him the shirt in the tunnel. But seriously guys, is there nothing more important to discuss for a knockout game than a shirt swap?’
These few quotes actually give us a few insights into Ozil’s mental approach and exactly why he is comparatively unloved amongst supporters, pundits and press in England, despite being revered by players and managers.
Contrary to the blood and thunder approach associated with English football, he doesn’t see opposition players as enemies to be vanquished, but rather more as obstacles to be negotiated.
For a £42m signing with ‘World Class’ status, most of us football fans (particularly in the UK) want whizz-bangs, we want guts-busted, we want spectacular strikes and feats of skill and derring-do that seem beyond the scope of mere mortals. That is what a top-draw number 10 is in our eyes.
But Ozil, apart from occasionally, doesn’t do these things, although he sometimes reminds us that he is capable. And it is this knowledge that he can, but often doesn’t, that is a large part of the problem.
His style is so difficult to pigeon hole. He’s just not a ‘normal‘ number 10. He doesn’t habitually dribble past multiple opponents. He doesn’t frequently rain shots in from 20 yards. He’s not constantly looking for the defence splitting through-ball.
He primarily just keeps the ball, changes the angle of possession, and gently massages his team into good positions, or the opposition defence out of balance, before occasionally taking the opportunity to accelerate the game unexpectedly. Part of the reason Arsene Wenger loves him so much is that he is primarily a continuity footballer, whose focus is always on the collective.
In this sense, he is a little reminiscent of a deeper lying, more mobile, latter day Dennis Bergkamp, without quite the relentless drive or love of spectacular moments. Both, unless playing particularly poorly, share the quality of being the oil in the machine; the straw that stirs the drink. The team just functions better with them in it. This was evident at Newcastle on Saturday, where without his ability to find space and find others in space, we collectively expended much more energy than was necessary, accentuating the tiredness after the midweek near miss.
But much of the time, particularly with Ozil’s often slower tempo, it’s not that exciting or satisfying for us brought up on a diet of boom and bust football.
As fans, and let us not forget, a paying audience to what is now an entertainment product, we want to see thrills and spills, particularly in England, where our footballing traditions are more about the pursuit of glory than the pursuit of success. The idea of a ‘captain fantastic’ like Stephen Gerrard, Brian Robson or Wayne Rooney (as confirmed by Google!) is deeply ingrained in our psyche and as such is what we both expect and desire. There is little more gratifying to those in the stands than individual expressions of desire or skill, and again from a spectators perspective this is perhaps justified.
But Ozil’s quiet confidence is not interested in seeking approval, demonstratively connecting with the fans passion, or showing off his ability. He chases the pursuit of effectiveness as part of a team, and seemingly nothing else. Unlike most players lauded around the globe, he desires far more to be crucial cog in a successful team as opposed to its shining light. If anything, it is the absence of ego in his play that is to his detriment as far as his play goes. Despite the defeat to Monaco, he was voted into the team of the round, putting the lie a little to the opinions of Salford’s own Ginger Ninja.
Of course this is not to paint the player as some kind misunderstood footballing Messiah, unfairly cursed by the those lacking in understanding. He has noticeable flaws in his game that limit his impact, as well as sometimes being infuriating from a spectator perspective.
There is the poor quality of much of his crossing; the airily flighted set-piece delivery; an almost Hleb like aversion to shooting at times; a commitment to tackling and tracking back that is variable at best; a weakness in the air and a reluctance to use his right foot even when his left is restricted. He certainly doesn’t get enough goals, and spent much of 2014 getting shrugged off the ball with relative ease.
The future’s bright?
Crucially though (and heartening for Gooners everywhere), he appears to have recognised some of these weaknesses and wants to address them. He is getting into the box more of late (as evidenced when he was blatantly yanked down 2 yards out and about to score versus QPR). He is definitely chasing back and winning the ball back a lot more, slowly rendering Bobby Pires levels of shock at regaining possession less frequent. Crucially though, he has visibly bulked up and improved his fitness during his last injury spell, and is starting to explore the possibilities of that ‘huge physical potential’ outlined by the manager.
“I worked on my upper body as well as paying attention to my nutrition. I underwent treatment to get myself fit as soon as possible and to prevent the injury from returning. I’m on a good path now. I worked really hard and I think it shows in training and in matches that I’m fresher.”
Being ‘fresh‘ is crucial to Ozil’s success.
Despite his effete exterior, the data shows that this year he has covered more yards on the pitch than almost all his contemporaries, and thus needs to be fully fit to play to his potential. The trend of being substituted in almost every fixture in Spain was forcibly bucked under Wenger last year which contributed so much to his poor end to last season, particularly compared to this, where he has created almost double the number of chances of his nearest team-mate.
On top of his assists, it’s amazing how many vital ‘pre-assists‘ he’s been racking up. He is a genius at changing the focal point in a way that unsettles the opposition defence. That’s his calling card, along with his ability to create space and beat players just through subtle body movements, as described expertly by Phillipe Auclair recently. To be really effective of course, this means he needs to be surrounded by good pace, movement and an expert dribbler or two to really make the most of the geometric ‘curve-balls’ he throws. Thankfully, the club’s signings this year have addressed part of that deficiency, and the likes of Gnabry, Akpom and even Dan Crowley coming through the ranks show promise in this area in the future.
With a more balanced squad, and improved strength and fitness, we have of late started to see the Ozil we were so excited by when he signed on the dotted line. So apart from the ex-Man Utd contingent in the punditry business and hacks like Adrian Durham and Neil Ashton, the new negative stories have tried to suggest a departure to his homeland. Thankfully the player himself has put that one to bed.
“A return to Germany is not an option for me right now. I am really happy at Arsenal and I want this to continue. “I played in the Bundesliga and at Real Madrid. But the English Premier League is the strongest league in the world..”
So, divisive as he may be, and underwhelming at times in his lack of ‘wow’ factor for a player of his technical ability, it seems he is here to stay, and I don’t think I’m alone in being very happy about that. But he will remain an acquired taste, his impact largely unseen by the casual observer. Pundits, journalists and fans will continue to question his value, and always in the context of his price tag. Let them.