Image by Ronnie Macdonald, via Wikimedia Commons
Introduction: The man who fell victim to the glamour of the Bernabeu
You would be hard-pressed to find more glitz and glamour in football than in the Santiago Bernabeu on transfer deadline day. It had become a staple of the summer transfer window to see Real Madrid President Fiorentino Perez beaming with an arm around his latest high-profile addition.
The player next to him would proudly hold the famous all-white shirt to the photographer’s delight before entering the pitch to do a few mandatory “keepie-uppies” as legions of adoring fans chanted his name.
September 2, 2013 was no different.
After months of speculation, Real Madrid had finally signed Gareth Bale from Tottenham Hotspur for a fee of £85.1 million, a world record at the time. Live footage of Bale standing in the presidential box of the Bernabeu was broadcast around the world. Fans, who had most likely never seen him play live, screamed in unison, “Bale, Bale, Bale.” After exchanging a hug with Perez he took to the podium and stammered in broken Spanish, “Hola, es un sueño para mi jugar para Real Madrid.” Or in English, “Hello, it is my dream to play for Real Madrid.”
It was enough to send the fans into rapturous applause. Yet, leading up to that moment, Real Madrid fans had not been talking about Bale himself, but who would have to leave to accommodate him.
Madrid’s transfer policy has always been simple; if one star arrives, another must go. Would it be Karim Benzema? His departure would allow Cristiano Ronaldo to switch to the striker’s role that appeared to be his destiny in the twilight of his career. Or Angel Di Maria? His departure would be of a more like-for-like switch, with Bale taking over Di Maria’s wide position.
As the day progressed, whispers of the unthinkable began to spread around Madrid. The man to be forced out could be Mesut Ozil. Most passed it off as simply a rumour. Ozil had been Ronaldo’s chief supplier during their three years together. Earlier that year, he had finished top of a poll that posed the question to Barcelona fans, “Which Real Madrid player would you most want on your team other than Ronaldo?”
In the Bernabeu, as chants of Bale’s name subsided, the fans started to address Perez directly. “No vendan a Ozil,” or, “Do not sell Ozil,” a handful of supporters sang. The chant grew until the entire stadium was singing it. It could be distinctly heard on the hundreds of television broadcasts around the world of Bale’s unveiling. A day that was supposed to be about Bale had quickly become about Ozil.
It was a PR disaster for Real Madrid. Little did fans know that Ozil had been told two days earlier that there was no longer a place for him at the club. Discussions with other teams had already began. No player, no matter how talented, can ever feel comfortable at the world’s most glamorous and successful club.
Arsenal – a symbolic signing and an unlikely landing spot
It was announced that Mesut Ozil had signed for Arsenal at around 11:45 pm that evening, 15 minutes before the transfer window slammed shut. The news that the deal was done was revealed by an unlucky Sky Sports reporter, forced to work late as confirmations of the final deals of the summer trickled in. As he broke the news on-air, he was surrounded by a handful of Arsenal supporters, who jumped around him, singing and dancing — a sudden flurry of noise on what was a quiet night in North London. Hardly the spectacle the world had witnessed in Madrid that afternoon.
Arsenal had waited a long time to sign a player like Ozil. What is rarely reported is that it was they who kickstarted a bizarre transfer merry-go-round that resulted in Ozil’s arrival. Earlier that summer they had sold back-up winger Gervinho to Roma — once Roma had Gervinho, they allowed Erik Lamela to join Spurs — when Spurs had signed Lamela, they agreed to let Bale go to Real Madrid, whose arrival forced Ozil to Arsenal.
Despite the lack of Madrid-style grand unveiling, news of Ozil’s arrival caused widespread jubilation amongst Arsenal fans. For the first time in years, they had signed a truly world-class player. But it was not who they had signed, but rather how they had signed him that enthralled the Arsenal fans.
In the summer of 2013, Arsene Wenger was entering his 18th season as manager and fans were more divided about him than ever. It had been eight years since they last won a trophy, a barren run for which they were universally mocked. A group of Tottenham fans had even started a website, titled “www.sincearsenallastwonatrophy.com,” that consisted of a ticking stopwatch recording the length of the winless run.
The drought had been characterised by Wenger’s reluctance to spend a significant amount of money in the transfer market. As their rivals, the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City, were spending big money on world-class talent, Wenger insisted that Arsenal could compete without spending on well-established players. Arsenal’s trophy cabinet told a different story.
Ozil’s signing was symbolic because it proved both that Wenger was finally ready to spend money and that he could still attract reputable players to the club. What Ozil would bring to the team on the pitch was an added bonus.
“It felt like a turning point,” said Dan Critchlow, lead reporter at The Daily Cannon. “Arsenal could start bringing in household names rather than letting them go.”
Before Arsenal spent £42.4 million on Ozil, their record purchase was under £20 million. Simply put, they smashed their transfer policy to pieces. The graphic below shows Arsenal’s biggest fees spent before and after Ozil’s signing:
*all figures taken from transfermarkt.com
Mesut Ozil: Luxurious, leisurely, lazy
The announcement of Ozil’s signing came, rather cruelly, immediately before an international break, meaning that fans had to wait for almost two weeks before getting to see their new star in action. As fans counted down the days until his first appearance, the excitement intensified – the media was flooded with statistics about the “assist king,” the nickname given to Ozil after registering more assists than any other player in the top five leagues over the previous five years.
He wowed the Arsenal fans before he had even kicked a ball. As he warmed up for his debut at Sunderland on September 11, unknowing that the camera was zoomed in on him, he let his chewing gum drop from his mouth, then flicked the gum up with his boot, directly back into his mouth.
Nor did it take him long to make an impression in a match. 11 minutes into the Sunderland game, he registered his first assist – he only needed two touches, the first to pluck a lofted pass out of the air on the left wing and the second to square to Olivier Giroud for an easy finish. His first goal came soon after, in a Champions League game against Napoli on October 1, a half-volley caressed into the top-hand corner.
His performances were beginning to justify the hype. But more significant than his actual performances was the effect that he seemed to have on the players around him. His presence encouraged a previously struggling squad to raise their game two or three gears. Arsenal, who hadn’t been expected to challenge for the Premier League title, were runaway leaders for the majority of the season. Aaron Ramsey was in scintillating form, taking the role of star player that many had expected Ozil to occupy. But as long as Ozil was facilitating the players around him to raise their standards, he was living up to expectations.
In February 2014, the wheels began to fall off both Arsenal and Ozil’s seasons. Arsenal were humiliated in a 5-1 defeat to Liverpool before failing to beat a floundering Manchester United at home and losing to Stoke. Their lead of the Premier League table quickly evaporated — elation about a season that was supposed to finally break Arsenal’s title drought instantaneously turned to angst. Their capitulation culminated in a 2-0 loss to Bayern Munich at the Emirates, in which Ozil missed a penalty.
A season where Arsenal had led the table from September to February was remembered for a gripping title race between Manchester City and Liverpool. It was as if Arsenal’s hot streak never happened. The media bemoaned the “same old Arsenal,” who supposedly lacked the composure and mental strength to ever be genuine title contenders.
So too did they turn on Ozil. After the loss to Bayern Munich, he was first given the label that would haunt his Arsenal career.
According to critics, Ozil would go missing in big games. His languid running style became a point of contention; some argued that it indicated his lack of effort and interest in the game around him, others made the case that it was simply the way he moved and he was helpless to change it.
“I think it’s just an assumption made on the basis of his playing style and demeanour that he’s struggled to shake off,” said Critchlow. “The reality is he runs as much as anyone else and he’s clearly driven to win.”
In many ways, that first season was emblematic of the tumultuous relationship with the media that has persisted throughout Ozil’s Arsenal career. Flashes of praise within an overarching negative narrative. The following summer, a year after Ozil had signed, Arsenal added another star to their ranks; Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez. Sanchez’s arrival would help Ozil’s standing within the team but further provoke the media to vilify him.
A new star at the Emirates
Sanchez was the bona fide star that the media had expected Ozil to be. The two players could hardly have been more different. Ozil tends to slow the game down, control the tempo and patiently wait for an opening to pass into, whereas Sanchez is direct, always looking to beat a man and most importantly, scores plenty of spectacular goals. When Ozil celebrates a goal, he tends to flash a quick smile and make the sign of an “M” with his fingers, a tribute to his niece. Sanchez, on the other hand, rockets towards the corner flag and slides to his knees with both fists pumping.
Sanchez became the media’s darling and Arsenal’s star player, his goals bailing them out time and time again. Critics claimed that he exposed Ozil for failing to live up to expectations. The relentless force of energy that was Alexis Sanchez foiled Ozil’s style of play, languid to his fans, lacklustre to his critics.
Yet, away from the media, Sanchez’s stardom suited Ozil. Ozil had never wanted to be the star, no player that specialises in setting other players up to score truly does. If he had wanted the spotlight, he would be more interested in scoring himself. Over time, they developed a partnership, much like the one he had with Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid, where Sanchez would finish the moves that Ozil had started.
According to Critchlow, “Ozil is a player that relies on others to finish his chances.” In Sanchez, he found someone he could rely on.
The years at Arsenal between Sanchez’s arrival in July 2014 and his departure in January 2018 are defined as the “Ozil and Sanchez era.” The team was totally reliant on the two performing. When Arsenal won, it was thanks to Ozil or Sanchez, when they lost, it was because they hadn’t performed.
In the 2015/2016 season, for the first time in his Arsenal career, Ozil started to play his best football. He recorded 19 assists in the league, one shy of the Premier League record held by Arsenal legend Thierry Henry. He also recorded assists in seven consecutive games, the longest streak in Premier League history.
That season was perhaps Arsenal’s best chance of winning the title since 2004. Yet, just as in 2014, they capitulated within the final months of the campaign. Leicester City famously ended on top of the table. It felt like a golden chance wasted, each of their usual rivals suffered from a weak season. If Ozil and Sanchez’s Arsenal were to ever win a title, that was the year it would have happened.
The blame was mostly directed towards manager Arsene Wenger. Instead of building a team around Sanchez and Ozil, he was reluctant to add any renowned talent to the two stars he already had. That year he was the only manager in the top 5 leagues not to sign an outfield player.
The following year, Arsenal failed to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in Wenger’s 21-year reign. Rumours began to swirl that neither Ozil or Sanchez would sign a new contract, forcing the club to either cash in on them or let them go for free in the summer of 2018.
The “Ozil and Sanchez era” appeared to be coming to an abrupt end, leaving Arsenal rudderless, without the stars that had saved them so frequently over the past four years.
2018 – A Year of Drastic Change
On January 22, 2018, when Manchester United announced that they had signed Alexis Sanchez, it was widely expected that Mesut Ozil would follow him out the door. Days later, Ozil made a surprise U-turn and signed a new three-and-a-half year contract at Arsenal, which the media broke on the same day as Arsenal signed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund, another big name.
It had been a stop-start season for Ozil. His partner in crime, Alexis Sanchez, before leaving halfway through the season, had failed to perform, his heart clearly set on a move away from Arsenal. Ozil was a frequent exclusion from match day squads — illness was usually cited as the reason for his absence. His interest in Arsenal appeared to have also waned, so the news of his contract extension was a great surprise.
In April, with Arsenal languishing well outside of the Champions League positions, it was announced that Wenger would be leaving his job as Arsenal manager after 22 years. Ozil had been Wenger’s golden boy. “If you love football, you love Mesut Ozil,” Wenger once quipped. Less than four months after securing his future, he was plunged back into uncertainty.
Ozil may well have thought that the 2018 World Cup would offer some respite from the drama at Arsenal. He had been a key figure in Germany’s 2014 triumph, and his team was heavily tipped to succeed again. Like Wenger, Germany manager Joachim Low considered Ozil one of his most loyal servants. He was one of four or five 2014 World Cup heroes that kept their place in the side at the expense of an exciting crop of German youth.
When Germany sensationally crashed out of the competition in the group stages, the German media gave Ozil an even more intense battering than the ones he had been receiving from the English press for years. ‘Disinterested,’ ‘lazy’ and ‘past his best’ were among the most commonly used phrases.
When a team doesn’t look like they want to play, people blame the man with the worst body language. Once again, Ozil was the scapegoat, a victim of his languid playing style.
Like almost every German player, Ozil had not been at his best during the World Cup, but their collective failure was hardly his fault. In fact, Germany’s undoing was their vulnerability on the counter-attack. They allowed their defenders to push forward then blamed an attacking midfielder when they were caught out.
It hardly helped that when Hirving Lozano scored the decisive goal in Mexico’s 1-0 victory over Germany, Ozil had to sprint back to cover for the right-back Joshua Kimmich, who had been marauding forward all afternoon. When Lozano scored, it was Ozil who was nearest to Lozano, as he tried to cover for his teammate. Ozil was blamed when he should never have had to run back to that position in the first place.
“In the third game (against South Korea), I think he performed very well, and his teammates were terrible. Somehow he got the blame anyway, despite the likes of (Mats) Hummels and (Timo) Werner missing sitters,” said Critchlow.
“The criticism was already overblown before that, but it reached ridiculous levels after that game, considering he didn’t even play badly. At that point he was certainly a scapegoat.”
This time, the publicity-shy and mild-mannered Ozil didn’t stand for the media criticism directed towards him. He released a statement that shook the football world, announcing his immediate retirement from the national team, accusing members of both the German FA and media victimising him on account of his Turkish ancestry.
“I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” the statement read. “This is despite paying taxes in Germany, donating facilities to German schools and winning the World Cup with Germany in 2014. I am still not accepted into society. I am treated as being different.”
It was perhaps the most significant moment of Ozil’s career. He was no longer willing to accept the way he was talked about in the press. For years he had been a world-class player, with assist numbers only bettered by Messi and Ronaldo, who had, somehow, become the media’s whipping boy.
His time would now be spent solely focusing on Arsenal. Arsenal had appointed Unai Emery as Wenger’s replacement. Known for a ruthlessly meticulous approach to the game, Emery was sure to let Ozil know if he felt he wasn’t putting the effort in.
It’s difficult to judge Ozil’s season under Emery so far. His highlight was being was given the captain’s armband in a home game against Leicester then delivering arguably his best performance in an Arsenal shirt so far, assisting Aubameyang for what will be a goal of the season contender. Yet, a month later, he was left out of the side for an away trip to Bournemouth that Emery described as “too physically demanding” for Ozil.
After his explosive retirement and Arsenal’s resurgence under Emery, the media appear to have relaxed their approach towards him. His current contract, which will expire in when Ozil is 32, is likely to be last with the club. Despite some great performances over the years, his most significant contribution is still the magnitude of his transfer from Real Madrid. By merely agreeing to join Arsenal, he saved them from irrelevance.
Under Emery, the team is no longer as reliant on him. Long gone are the days when Arsenal appeared lucky just to have a player of his reputation on the team, or the days when he was one of Arsenal only two hopes. In Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Lucas Torreira, Arsenal now have other players that can win them games. According to Critchlow, “there’s not as much pressure on Ozil to be the only person to make things happen.”
Now, as Arsenal rebuild, the “assist king” has a great chance to cement his legacy as an Arsenal icon under the conditions that suit him best, with the spotlight faded on him and shining on those goal-getters he so relishes setting up.