If you’re an Arsenal fan looking for a scapegoat after a traumatic season, you probably have just two options left: jump on the #WengerOut bandwagon or blame the players.
And perhaps one player, more than most, has come in for that sort of criticism this season: Mesut Ozil.
The wilderness years for Arsenal – those directly following the move to the Emirates Stadium – were, in hindsight, officially ended by the signing of the German playmaker. Not only did Arsenal splash some serious cash for the first time in years, but they were supposedly given a huge ‘war chest’ every summer to buy those sorts of players. Modern football called for levels of cash beyond what was normal for Arsene Wenger up until now, and perhaps the modern way called for some modern ideas.
The signing of Ozil seemed to play into that idea. He was a top new player to take the club to the next level, and someone who had taken part in the Spanish domination of European football around the same period.
And yet, even if he was supposed to help usher in a new era for the north London club, Arsene Wenger is hardly the man who guarantees innovation these days.
Since his arrival at Highbury in 1996, Wenger has played one formation for the majority of his time in charge. That is, some variation on a 90s classic: 4-4-2. A flat back-four, two central midfielders, two wide, attacking midfielders, a number 10, and a striker. It hasn’t changed too much.
And the reason Ozil was such an exciting signing was because he seemed to promise a return to the days when Arsenal were at the top of the game. When the German arrived, he slotted right into the most important position in Wenger’s team – the role occupied by Dennis Bergkamp. And since the Dutchman’s retirement, Arsenal hadn’t won a trophy.
Bergkamp’s final (competitive) match as an Arsenal player was the 2006 Champions League final. What’s special about that game isn’t just that it was a final of the biggest competition on club football, or that it was the first time Arsenal had reached the final of it. Nor had it anything to do with Bergkamp’s last game, as such. But it was Arsenal’s final match as the team from Highbury. Afterwards, they moved into their new home.
Bergkamp did play the first game at the new ground, though. He scored the very first goal of his own testimonial: the very first goal at the Emirates Stadium.
In hindsight, that’s the moment when the baton was passed, from one era of Arsenal under Wenger to another. Bergkamp left and Arsenal couldn’t replace him, at least not adequately. Possibly due to the financial constraints placed upon them by the shiny new stadium. When Ozil arrived, the mood changed. Here was a long-awaited replacement.
Of sorts, at least. They are far from the same sort of player, and while Bergkamp is seen as a striker dropping deep, Ozil is more of a midfielder pushed forward. Whereas the Dutchman scored on average every 3.6 or so league games, Ozil’s record is more like one in five – this season is the first time the German has managed double figures in all competitions in an Arsenal shirt.
Comparing goals is a little harsh as Ozil is known for assists, though Bergkamp has 94 of those in the Premier League, too. The main reason comparisons fail, though, is because of the players they both have around them.
Bergkamp’s game became moulded by Wenger’s team’s ability to create space for him. Up top, Thierry Henry’s pace worried defences, who would drop deep to nullify a ball in the space behind them. In the midfield, opposition midfielders – hardwired to man-mark their opposite numbers in a solid 4-4-2 – were drawn out into one-on-one battles with Arsenal’s deep midfielders. The result was huge spaces for Bergkamp in the midfield where he could roam.
The arrival of Jose Mourinho saw the arrival of the midfield anchorman to help plug the gaps, eventually morphing into a midfield three instead of a two, but for a few glorious years Bergkamp reigned supreme in his kingdom of manufactured space.
One of Ozil’s problems, playing in a similar role in a modern era, is that most teams are quite adept at plugging those gaps. But more importantly for the German, he – unlike Bergkamp – doesn’t have the right sort of players around him to make that work.
Whereas Arsenal usually had at least three willing runners ahead of Bergkamp to move defenders around and create problems, Ozil doesn’t have that many. Whereas the Dutchman had Thierry Henry, Marc Overmars, Nicolas Anelka or Freddie Ljungberg, the German has Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott. An increasingly disinterested Alexis Sanchez, seemingly the best it gets.
Ozil’s languid style looks lazy when the team doesn’t perform. His largely cushy role in between defence and attack means his defensive duties are limited, as bringing him back would be a waste of his attacking talents, whilst his attacking duties are limited because asking him to make runs would waste his ability to launch attacks and set the team’s rhythm.
The result is predictable: Arsenal underperform, and Ozil is singled out as the most visible example of the lack of fight, emotion and steel. And whilst some of the criticism isn’t always unfair, it’s hard not to think that, he has been let down somewhat. With the right kinds of player around him, and with more progressive and modern ideas from his manager, he might not look so lazy and so ineffective in the games when Arsenal are on the back foot.
The problem with Ozil is that comparisons with Bergkamp will stay in the back of the mind precisely because he’s playing in the same role that his predecessor occupied. And yet the problem with comparing them is that the game has changed partly because teams learned to deal with players like Bergkamp.
And maybe that’s something we should bear in mind this weekend, though, as Arsenal take on Mourinho’s Manchester United. The Portuguese manager is one Wenger has never beaten in a Premier League game. Perhaps his persistence with Ozil in a role that doesn’t seem to have too much of a place in the modern game is one reason to think he never will.