Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was that the news did not really come as a surprise. There cannot be many sports teams on the planet who would willingly deny themselves the chance to use their highest-paid player, but that is exactly the path that Arsenal chose last week. When the Gunners submitted their 25-man squad for the Premier League season, Mesut Ozil was not included.
The German was also left out of the Europa League roster, meaning he will not be able to play for the club that pays him £350,000 per week until February at the earliest. Realistically, he will never pull on an Arsenal shirt again. It is an extraordinary situation given Ozil’s unquestionable talent and the substantial salary his employers agreed to pay him as recently as 2018.
Soccer is the biggest loser of all from this scenario. When he is on the song, Ozil is a joy to watch. He possesses the outstanding technical ability and is a creative force when things are going well. At Werder Bremen, Real Madrid, and at Arsenal, he regularly got into double figures for assists in a season. When he moved to north London in 2013, it was for a then club-record fee of £42.5 million. Arsenal fans believed he was the signing to help them get back on top.
Ozil has certainly had his moments since moving to the Premier League. In his debut campaign, he helped Arsenal end their nine-year trophy drought by winning the FA Cup. Ozil got his hands on that trophy a further two times under Arsene Wenger. In 2015/16 he registered 19 assists in the Premier League, a seasonal tally bettered only by Thierry Henry and Kevin De Bruyne in the division’s history.
Yet throughout his time at Arsenal, Ozil has divided opinion. In the view of his supporters, his talent is such that he deserves to be given additional leeway when it comes to defensive duties and pressing from the front. His detractors argue that Arsenal cannot afford to carry a passenger like Ozil, whose work rate has been continually scrutinized since he arrived in English soccer.
To be fair to the German, statistics indicate he runs more than his languid body language might suggest. Yet even Ozil’s most ardent admirers would struggle to argue that he is always ready to put in a shift for his team. Where once there might have been a place for the talented No.10 to drift in and out of matches, fellow playmakers like De Bruyne have shown that technical quality need not be isolated from speed, power, and a willingness to contribute defensively.
Mikel Arteta is yet to celebrate his first anniversary as Arsenal’s boss, but he has already had a number of dramas to contend with. As well as the pandemic and its effects on soccer around the world, Arteta has had to grapple with controversial cost-cutting measures put in place by his bosses at the club, as well as contract sagas involving Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Bukayo Saka.
The Spaniard has done a pretty good job so far, particularly when you consider this is his first job as a manager. He guided Arsenal to FA Cup glory last season and has presided over impressive victories over Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea in various competitions. Arsenal has become harder to beat on his watch, slowly shedding their image as flaky also-rans who wilt when the going gets tough. In the space of 10 months, Arteta has altered, if not yet transformed, the culture at the club.
Two incidents stand out. After a defeat by Brighton and Hove Albion in June, Matteo Guendouzi was involved in an altercation with Neal Maupay. Arteta did not take kindly to this display of ill-discipline, and the midfielder did not make another appearance for the team in the 2019/20 campaign. At the start of October, he was sent to Hertha Berlin on a season-long loan.
Then there is the Ozil situation. Arteta did not immediately ostracise the playmaker upon taking the reins. In fact, Ozil was a regular early on in the Spaniard’s tenure, featuring 12 times between Arteta’s appointment in December and the Premier League’s coronavirus-induced shutdown in the middle of March. Since the division returned, however, Ozil has been out of the picture.
Conspiracy theories have been aired in recent days. Towards the end of last year, Ozil spoke out about China’s treatment of the Uighur population in the country’s northwest, comments which Arsenal quickly distanced themselves from. The player himself has hinted that his exclusion from this season’s Premier League and Europa League squads might have something to do with his criticism of Chinese policy, ending a recent statement with the line: “I will continue to train as best as I can and wherever possible use my voice against inhumanity and for justice.”
Ozil was well within his rights to be upset with his club’s handling of the situation. Their failure to back the player’s right to free expression, if not his specific viewpoint, was a worrying development and led to important questions about sport’s role in world affairs. It is disappointing that Arsenal felt the need to shut Ozil down.
Yet it is hard to buy the view that those comments are the reason Ozil has been left out of Arsenal’s squads, simply for the fact that he was regularly involved in the three months after he made them. It is more likely that Arteta has no room for him in his plans, concluding that Ozil does not fit in with his tactical blueprint as he attempts to secure a top-four finish (Arsenal are outsiders to do so, with BetMGM listing them as joint-sixth favorites to win the title at +3300).
That decision can be debated, but no one knows what Arteta wants from his team more than the man himself. Even so, it is a great shame for soccer lovers everywhere that a fully-fit Ozil looks set to spend an entire season on the sidelines.
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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