To the outside, it looked like Arsenal fans were losing their minds over a player who isn’t any good and a manager who was winning more than he was losing, but the Unai Emery-Mesut Ozil sideshow was about more than that, including something the German might have muttered in Baku.
I ran a poll last month asking Arsenal fans if they could only keep one, who would it be – Mesut Ozil or Unai Emery? The results weren’t even close.
It was Mesut Ozil, all day long.
That seemed strange given how poorly he played last season and how, if you believe the narrative around him, he’s a lazy player who doesn’t care and often phones in sick when he doesn’t fancy it.
Mesut Ozil, you see, doesn’t get injuries like everybody else.
He doesn’t have a persistent back problem, he phones in sick. Aaron Ramsey had persistent hamstring problems, but he wasn’t accused of bunking off matches because he showed acceptable body language when on the pitch.
Ozil is treated differently than almost every other player in the Premier League, not just at Arsenal.
Mesut Ozil signed for Arsenal in 2013 in a whirlwind of euphoria, just after we’d beaten Spurs. He arrived in London as the third most expensive signing in British football history and was never allowed to forget it, even as prices soared.
No matter what he delivered on the pitch, a media obsessed with handshakes and meaningless formalities couldn’t reconcile a player with body-language like Mesut’s and a player who was giving his all, despite the stats frequently telling them he was covering more ground than just about everybody else on the pitch while also chalking up assists.
The tone was set early on.
Ozil played 24 times in the league last season and 35 times overall. His return was poor. Just six goals and three assists but some leeway could perhaps be given for his mental state given the fact his entire country turned on him and he felt abandoned and isolated as he watched national teammate after teammate deny the racism he suffered.
Regardless of his form, he still played. Unai Emery continued to pick him.
In pre-season before this campaign, he looked sprightly.
He had the air of man with something to prove. Freshly married, he gave the impression that this year, he would prove his doubters wrong.
But Emery didn’t pick him when the proper football started.
Fans wondered why.
Even if we accept that Ozil is difficult behind the scenes as suggested (there is no evidence of that) it was Unai Emery’s job to manage that. We all know some players need a soft shoulder while others respond better to a bollocking. That Emery couldn’t unlock Ozil’s talent, or find a way to fit one of the most gifted players at the club into his side, speaks more to his shortcomings than the German’s. Ozil is an asset to Arsenal and Emery had no clue what to do with him.
Emery arrived at Arsenal determined not to allow a player to dictate anything ever again after playing second-fiddle to Neymar at PSG. There is no indication that Ozil was even trying to do that, but it seems very much on the surface that Ozil paid, at least in part, for Emery’s Paris frustrations.
Back in June, reports in Turkey claimed that Ozil had insulted Emery when he hauled him off during the Europa League debacle against Chelsea.
According to Turkish outlets Hurriyet and Fanatik, lip readers stated that Özil said “Wallahi (I swear), you are not a coach” to Emery after he was taken off for Joe Willock with Arsenal losing 4-1 at the time.
One of the publications also claimed this was the ‘last straw’ in his relationship with the coach and it’s hard not to wonder if there is more truth to this than we realise given the ridiculous way he was treated for most of this season.
And another thing…
Emery’s treatment of Ozil was just one big crappy cherry on top of a list of reasons that left many Arsenal fans unimpressed with the Spaniard.
It’s wasn’t just me.
I was a late arrival aboard the Wenger-Out train and generally value patience over knee-jerk reactions but it was hard to deny what our own eyes are telling us for so long. In the league, Unai Emery was a coward.
I don’t hate him.
As far as I know he has visited no slight on my name that I need to avenge, Game of Thrones style. He seems pretty inoffensive, if rather dull. So what is it I don’t like about him that I was prepared to see a glass half-empty rather than the half-fullers who, somehow, saw progress?
It wasn’t that he couldn’t express himself very well in English. I’ve been speaking English all my life and couldn’t compose myself as well in front of the world’s media every week, even less so if I had to do it in Spanish after only a year or so of lessons.
It couldn’t be that he’s not as interesting to listen to as Arsene Wenger because, let’s face it, who is? Even the world’s best managers at present, your Peps and Jurgens, cannot intrigue and educate the way the great Frenchman could. When Arsene spoke, you listened because you knew you would learn something.
When Emery first arrived I was really excited.
I thought it was a decent appointment because he said all the things I wanted to hear. He talked of passion and pressing and pride and the connection with the fans. He sounded just like a fan would if they were describing how they wanted Arsenal to play.
But he soon abandoned that, offering us gung-ho glimpses in the cups of what could be in the competition we all knew meant the most.
When we wanted him to twist, he stuck, setting us up like a bottom-of-the-table team when away, scraping draws against Watford, struggling against Villa, scoring fewer, conceding more and playing worse football than the dark final days of Wenger.
I look at the squad we have and I can’t help but wonder why we play the way we do. Why, when given the chance between a more defensive minded player and one that will light up the pitch, did Emeryall-too-often reach for the safe option in a way that belied the stature of the club he was in charge of?
I’d tried to look at his managerial track record to find a glimmer of hope, but all I saw there was a man that struggles when the pressure is on, one who would prefer not to lose rather than to reach for a win.
I want more than that at Arsenal.
Thankfully, so do the board.