At the age of 29, a World Cup-winning playmaker should be celebrating the final years of his footballing peak, when the perfect equilibrium between natural athleticism and gained experience begins to slowly slant in favour of the latter. But ahead of his birthday on Sunday, Germany’s 2014 lynchpin Mesut Ozil finds himself uncertain of where he’ll be plying his trade next season – and whether he even makes Arsenal’s strongest starting XI at this moment in time.
As one of the most divisive figures in the Premier League, we all know Ozil’s trade-off by now; exceptional creative and technical qualities juxtaposed by modest energy and conviction when out of possession. Ozil certainly isn’t the only attacking midfielder in the Premier League that description can be attributed to – we rarely judge Eden Hazard on how many tackles and interceptions he makes – but his strengths and flaws have become synonymous with Arsene Wenger’s side as a collective. Thus, the analysis of every disappointing Gunners performance eventually stems back to him.
But could there be greater forces at work than simply a lazy player who attracts even lazier punditry as the injured midfielder faces a fight to reclaim his place in Arsenal’s first-team? Over the last few seasons, we’ve seen drastic tactical shifts in the Premier League as Leicester’s direct 4-4-2 and Chelsea’s 3-4-3 corroded the almost unwavering faith managers once placed in 4-2-3-1. Along the way, old-fashioned central No.10s like Ozil, deployed at the epicentre of the team with pacey and powerful runners revolving around them, have either been transformed into something else or left behind.
No.10s are by nature largely versatile players. Throughout different eras, they’ve found themselves fielded as support strikers, wingers and even forward-thinking central midfielders depending on the tactical flavour of the day. But Ozil’s rarely shown that level of versatility throughout his career; according to Transfermarkt, 110 of Ozil’s 121 Premier League appearances to date have been as a central attacking midfielder, compared to just 10 on either wing and one in the engine room.
Even if that data isn’t wholly accurate, it paints a clear enough picture of how specialised Ozil has become. Especially now he’s approaching his 29th birthday, the 86-cap international lacks the youthful pace, power or stamina to be an effective option out wide, while placing him deeper in central midfield – in the same way David Silva has steadily moved backwards at Manchester City – has never been deemed a truly viable option. That’s as much a consequence of Arsenal’s soft underbelly in midfield as Ozil’s defensive shortcomings.
And the simple fact of the matter is that few of the Premier League’s top clubs utilise central No.10s in the conventional sense these days. Chelsea and Tottenham operate with 3-4-3, Liverpool use an anchorman rather than a playmaker ahead of the midfield, Manchester City deploy two roaming No.8s above Fernandinho and even Wenger bucked his tactical traditions to select his first three-man defence since 1997 last season. He’s stuck with the formation ever since.
At the same time and likely interlinked, the Premier League now demands greater industry from its attacking players than ever before. Shinji Okazaki and Jamie Vardy at Leicester City provided an obvious example during the miraculous 2015/16 season, but it also applies City, Liverpool and Tottenham’s current front threes as they look to press the opposition high up the pitch. Ozil just doesn’t fit into that template – throughout his illustrious careers with Real Madrid and Germany, Ozil’s always had the rest of the team doing the hard work for him.
In many ways, that epitomises the problem with Ozil; he has to be the star of the team, the one the rest of the players make allowances for. But amid the era of super-managers with entrenched beliefs in their own systems and principles, the elevated importance of specific individuals is beginning to fall by the wayside. In any case, those rare few individuals allowed to rest off the ball have produced with greater potency and consistency than Ozil in recent years. All in all, a few days before his 29th birthday, the type of player Ozil is has started to become largely irrelevant.
But there could well be a saviour on the horizon from a surprising source – Jose Mourinho. On paper, Ozil is the antithesis of a Mourinho player, but the two worked well together at Real Madrid, winning the La Liga title in 2011/12, and Mirror Football reported earlier this month that he wants to move to Manchester United when his Arsenal contract expires in the summer.
Although it’s unclear whether that keenness is reciprocated at Old Trafford, United are the last remaining major Premier League club regularly using 4-2-3-1, the formation that surely gets the best out of Ozil. Juan Mata has occupied the No.10 role on the most-part this season and his performances are difficult to discredit. But with so many fast, strong and powerful players around him, not least including Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku, Ozil would be the pinnacle supplier. Having Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic supporting behind would ease the concerns over the defensive side to his game as well.
Should that move fail to materialise, it seems inevitable Ozil will have to move abroad, to a league where No.10s are still readily utilised and where Ozil would be seen as one of the shining stars on the division. Rightly or wrongly, in spite of his immense ability, the Premier League just doesn’t hold Ozil in that esteem anymore.