Mesut Ozil is not a modern day footballer.
He’s not the star that the footballing world idolises, the superstar his pricetag suggests he is, the audacious, spectacular wonderboy that the keyboard warrior can wax lyrical about.
Ozil is something different. A different entity, a different breed, a different package. His game is based purely around selflessness. He isn’t spell-bindingly quick like Gareth Bale, nor technically astute like David Silva, or an outright match winner like Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. He plays to serve those around him, and that is something that is seldom celebrated in modern football.
In his very own unique way, he prefers to slink off in the sub-conscious, pulling the strings in ways that you’ll never even notice. He’s not one for the blind, that’s for sure. And that, unfortunately, makes him a complex player to comprehend signing for £42.5 million in an age where your average footballing fan demands that rabona, or an overhead kick from outside the box.
Ozil is a genius. You’ll struggle to find a player who can appreciate and manipulate space better than he can. He unlocks and dismantles defences with a nous that’s unrivalled. He doesn’t blow them apart with a splitting wonder-pass or a silky run. It can be a subtle step in one direction that pulls a defender an inch away from where they need to be. The TV cameras nor the pundits will pick up on it, but his team-mates will.
The ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ was the incredibly apt label that Cristiano Ronaldo placed on him during his Madrid days. A sorcerer – or a magician, if you will – because he produces moments of magic that are unseen to the eye and impossible to rationalise, and an apprentice because he ultimately serves those around him.
His return to Arsenal’s team now is important, because despite that glowing reference, his genius has certainly waned since he moved to England. Injuries and a world cup hangover have not aided that process by any means, but compare him to his high point at Madrid where Kaka was ousted from the team with no-one batting an eyelid, or the crucifixion of Gareth Barry in Bloemfontein five years ago, and there’s been some regression.
You might account that slight downturn to a number of factors. The first is his reliance on playing with pace in front of him. Like all playmakers looking to cause problems, they’ll find better options with runs from deep, and Theo Walcott’s over-long absence may have prevented him from utilising his abilities to the maximum. It borders on the paradoxical, but just as a striker needs creative service to score, a playmaker needs a range of attacking outlets to produce.
Moreover, you may point to how he started exceptionally well at Arsenal and faded after Christmas, which is identical to what both David Silva and Juan Mata did (two other no.10s imported from La Liga) in their debut seasons, as well as Michu and Rafael Van der Vaart. Physical conditioning is often a big factor for foreign imports in the second half of a Premier League season.
It actually became a joke at Madrid how frequently Jose Mourinho would sub Ozil because the German fatigued at the demands of exploiting space so often. The demands of English football are a level above that, and his downturn in the second half of his debut season reflects the ending of that auspicious honeymoon period and a taste of reality to the harsher sides of the English game.
Even still, Arsenal’s outstanding performance at Manchester City last month also adds traction that Ozil is not a necessity for the big matches. While being an outstanding asset on the break providing he doesn’t come up against a man-marker who is directly quicker than he is, his eye for defending and tracking is comfortably the weakest part of his game. And that adds to the complex – big players signed for big fees should be big-game personalities. Ozil isn’t.
For now, the next chapter in this miss-interpreted superstar’s Premier League adventure begins. With Walcott back and starting, a new lease of physical life and a more ingrained period of adaptation felt, England may start warming to the man it doesn’t seem to quite understand yet.
We’re currently witnessing the undercover assassin operating in the age of the juggernaut. Have some patience, and watch the Sorcerer’s Apprentice conjure his magic.