Goodbye Yellow Brick Röad

Maybe we’ll have a good surprise for you,” smirked Arsène Wenger, the twinkle in his eye betraying a man who knew something we didn’t. Debriefing after a 1-0 victory in the North London Derby, Le Professeur was reduced to a naughty schoolboy caught passing a note around the classroom, pre-empting the feelings of Arsenal fans everywhere once its message was revealed.

Twenty-four hours later, Mesut Özil was an Arsenal player.

***

The summer of 2013 promised many things for Arsenal. This was the first transfer window since the move to Emirates Stadium in which fiscal shackles were to be loosened. Debts paid and lucrative sponsorship deals on the horizon, Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis was bold in June.

We’re very confident with the new deals we’ve got coming through, although we can’t talk about that in any detail. That’s showing really positive progression. We should be able to compete at a level like a club such as Bayern Munich.

It soon became clear that Gazidis’ idea of a club such as Bayern Munich was very different to that of the supporters. With the transfer deadline looming, only two first team additions had been made, both of them free transfers. An injury-prone, young French striker by the name of Yaya Sanogo arrived, as did Mathieu Flamini, returning from a five-year sabbatical at AC Milan. Arsenal had courted Gonzalo Higuaín of Real Madrid before a mythical release clause in the contract of Liverpool’s Luis Suárez diverted their gaze. Pursuit of the former ended in the Argentine joining S.S.C. Napoli; the latter, in public humiliation.

A 3-1 home defeat to Aston Villa on the season’s opening weekend had stretched the patience of many to breaking point. It did not help that Tottenham Hotspur, anticipating a windfall of cash from the sale of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid, had spent over £100 million on seven players to bolster their squad. Peering enviously up Seven Sisters Road strains the neck, but it sincerely seemed a defining moment: one North London club comfortable with their new financial muscle and intent on progress, while the other was busy scouring the attic for piggybanks.

The clock was ticking. Arsenal were under pressure to show even a flicker of ambition. Madrid, meanwhile, had to make room for their newest Galáctico. The question was: which apple would fall from the tree, and where would it land?

***

“I chose Arsenal because they are one of the top clubs in England. The coach is a world-class manager – he’s demonstrated that for years. A lot of players have developed under his guidance in the past and that’s why I decided to join Arsenal. I want to improve myself further and I’m looking forward to the style of play. Arsenal are well known for the strength of their technical game and their desire to play attacking football. I think I will fit perfectly into that. That’s why I chose to sign for the Club.”

Mesut Özil, September 5 2013

I don’t think a signing will ever make me feel they way I felt the day Mesut Özil signed for Arsenal. It went beyond relief in the context of a frustrating summer, beyond the gratification of leveraging the sale of a rival’s best player to get an otherwise unattainable player, and beyond the excitement of attracting a world-class talent for their prime years. It felt like a treat after years of austerity. Following a prolonged diet of Sainsbury’s Basics – a comment on value if not necessarily quality – Arsenal were finally reaching for the ‘Taste the Difference’ shelf.

An act of self-indulgence, when self-indulgence is a rarity, arouses conflicting sensations. There is the exhilaration of novelty, the thrill of doing something out of character. There is also, if not quite guilt, then an uneasiness associated with the betrayal of self.

The connection between fan and club is such that both unconsciously impose value systems onto the other. As fans, we want and need to believe that our club is the most worthy of our support, and so we must justify our emotional investment by convincing ourselves that certain positive aspects of our club – and our experience of supporting it – are the unique preserve of our chosen institution. We therefore absorb certain values from the club we support and, if and when things are going badly on the pitch, project those values back onto the club, both as a reminder of expected standards and a roadmap to recovery. These values are important if somewhat mythical, but can slip into vague, meaningless and delusional assertions of entitlement. This is why, for instance, you will hear supporters and pundits refer to The West Ham Way™, but not one of them will be able to explain what it is or where it is going.

All of which is to say that, as well as the ecstasy of seeing my club smash its transfer record to sign a prodigious playmaker, I felt a tinge of sadness: it was the first clear sign that part of the Arsenal I had grown up with had died. I suppose I quite enjoyed supporting the big team that had built its recent success on frugal spending and brilliant scouting. Arsenal had been “outsmarting the market” for well over a decade, to borrow a voguish phrase. We didn’t buy stars; we made them. It felt somehow noble, and so against the grain of elite football. Arsenal’s purchase of Mesut Özil from Real Madrid for £42.3 million was the antithesis of the Arsenal I knew and loved. When the object of love changes, so does the love itself.

Clearly, though, this writer was still giddy enough to be writing puns on social media that your dad would be ashamed of.

Arsenal had made a statement of intent.

***

For about four years, Mesut Özil delivered much of what his ability promised. A team accustomed to sneaking into Champions League positions could now set its sights higher. In his debut season, Arsenal won their first silverware in nine years. Özil’s mere presence changed things even more than his performances, his superstar aura elevating those around him.

This is not an opinion universally shared. From the outset, criticisms were levelled at the German midfielder whose body language was seen as an affront. He was lambasted for disappearing in the big games away from home, for not working hard enough, for being allergic to Newcastle (his first appearance at St James’ Park came in September 2018). A consensus emerged in some corners that Özil was a skilled but lazy drifter who lacked the character to hit the ceiling of his potential.

While some of these arguments were not without merit, I cannot help but think that Özil’s personal brand of play and languid demeanour drew such intense scrutiny because it offended the traditional – and very British – expectations of masculinity in (but by no means exclusive to) a sporting context. From amateur to elite football in the United Kingdom, vocal confidence and demonstrations of physical prowess, almost regardless of their material benefit, have typically been interpreted and valued as leadership qualities. Introverted personalities, players who do less to attract attention to themselves on the pitch, who do not conform to these preconceived notions, not only have to regularly produce spectacular moments to garner equal appreciation: they are often maligned for what they are not.

The Özil I saw was an extraordinarily gifted footballer who assumed technical leadership of his team. I feel very fortunate to have watched him in person at the peak of his powers. It was educational. He saw things, and had the virtuosity to execute them, that frequently drew gasps from a crowd that thought they could see everything. In my years going to Arsenal, only Shkodran Mustafi rivals him in this endeavour, and for entirely different reasons. It is genuinely difficult to compare him to anyone else because, simply, I have never seen anyone else play in the way he did. Even in the era of the number 10, Özil was somehow unique. Graceful, ethereal, uncomplicated, outrageous. He was Arsenal’s muse; hell, he was my muse.

Mesut’s Bewilderment“, 2014
Finger on iPad, 15×30

Alexis Sánchez joined in the summer of 2014. Just as with Gareth Bale’s transfer the previous year, Arsenal took advantage of a superclub’s spending. In this case, Luis Suárez’s move to Barcelona left little room for the Chilean in Catalonia. With the acquisitions of Özil and Sánchez, the club flaunted their ability to attract elite players and, in doing so, their intent to compete for big prizes. Something intoxicating was brewing and it felt only right that Arsène Wenger, having navigated the post-Highbury years with such adroitness and loyalty, was being handed the tools and the opportunity to build, perhaps, one final great Arsenal side.

Narrator: he did not.

Having finished the 2014/15 season strongly, consecutive FA Cups in the bag and the likes of Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey supplementing their shining lights, Arsenal were tipped for a title challenge. By general consensus, a reliable goalscorer was the sole missing ingredient. The summer came and went, veteran goalkeeper Petr Čech the lone investment. Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema was perennially linked in media and death throes alike, but the Frenchman remained in the Spanish capital.

It would be fair to say that Arsenal let Özil down here. Their inaction in the 2015 transfer window, neglecting to complete the jigsaw and construct a seriously competitive squad, had short- and long-term ramifications. Leicester City won the Premier League in 2015/16. It was a miraculous achievement, but their points total of 81 would not have made them champions in the four previous or subsequent seasons. Arsenal, in second place with 71 points, had failed to take advantage of every other traditional contender suffering a below-par year. Özil, of course, was a part of this failure, but enjoyed his best season as an Arsenal player in both performance and statistical contribution. Had he and the other high-calibre players been given slightly stronger boards to tread, Arsenal stood an excellent chance of winning their first league title in 12 years. Instead, their negligence would adversely impact the panicked, ill-considered recruitment of transfer windows to come. The imbalance of the current Arsenal squad, languishing in mid-table, can trace its roots to the complacency of 2015. In the club’s recent history, that summer remains something of a sliding doors moment.

***

Alexis Sánchez departed the club in January 2018 for Manchester United in a universally disastrous swap deal that saw Henrikh Mkhitaryan move the other way. With six months remaining on his contract, Mesut Özil committed to a three-year extension with his salary rising to a reported £350,000 per week, making him the highest-paid employee in the history of the football club. Not many people were complaining. The 29-year-old was still integral to the team, but there was a more pressing issue at hand: Arsenal simply could not afford to lose the two poster boys of their faux renaissance within months of each other. As the kids say these days, the optics would have been bad.

Even if there were those who had legitimate concerns over the cost and length of the contract, few could have predicted the immediacy or scale of his decline. Seemingly overnight, the end product, the decisiveness in the final third, the speed with which his ingenuity moved from head to feet, had dwindled. Özil had not become a bad player; just a very good player losing his edge.

Clearly, though, there are reasons beyond his slump in form for the hollow, matchless end to his time in North London. The German was still able to offer something of technical and structural value as recently as March 2020 to a team lacking in technique and structure. Before the pandemic brought a halt to elite football, Mikel Arteta started Özil in each of his first ten league games in charge of the club. He did not reappear when football returned, and was excluded from Arsenal’s Premier League and Europa League squads at the outset of this season. His time was up. Something had happened.

The truth is, only those inside the club know what. Nobody from the outside looking in can say with any certainty what Özil did – or did not do – to be frozen out. A few baseless theories circulated (they will not be indulged here) but *some* transparency from the Arsenal hierarchy would have done a world of good. Had the club issued a bit of clarity over why their marquee asset was being kept from doing the thing he was so handsomely remunerated to do, fans could either agree or disagree with a concrete morsel of information. Silence is conspiracy’s best friend and, as is the norm with contemporary discourse, polarised the fanbase in rage. There were those who defended their idol Mesut, the poor victim of internal politics and would-be saviour of a struggling team; and those who attacked Özil, the work-shy has-been content to sit on his £350,000 per week playing Fortnite who was never really that good anyway.

What we do know is that three separate, different coaches of varying experience, temperament and personality, all had a problem with Mesut Özil at one point or another. It does not strike me as coincidence that Unai Emery, Freddie Ljungberg and Mikel Arteta all dropped him from their selections and publicly queried his application. Arteta was the only one who fully committed to whatever principles led him to that decision. There are various well-sourced stories of how Arsène Wenger indulged his star man, as was his right, in a way that his successors did not, as was theirs. It is fair to open a dialogue about man-management and catering to the need of the individual, but certain privileges are earned through performance, not status. Sadly, Özil’s performance over the course of his final three years with the club did not warrant special treatment.

It is a great shame that it ended like this, even if the end was probably overdue. The circumstances of his exit leave a bitter taste when his time at Arsenal deserved a sweeter send-off. In some ways, Özil was the last remaining relic of the Wenger era and his departure brings it to a close. He truly was Arsène Wenger’s man: his style, fragility, artistry, physical vulnerability, uncompromising pursuit of the aesthetic mirroring the virtues and flaws of the Frenchman’s latter sides. He gave to the club and the club gave back to him, good and bad. For better or worse, Arsenal are trying to be something different, simultaneously paying for their missteps during Özil’s spell while scrambling to recover the standing that convinced him to join in the first place. Change does not happen without loss.

Throughout his time at Arsenal, Mesut Özil divided opinion. The hysteria that his transfer induced did not quite tally with the subtlety of his brilliance, now inviting questions about his legacy. Was he worth it? Did he fulfil his promise? In truth, it does not matter. What his signing represented would always be more significant than what he achieved. It not only shifted how others perceived the club, but how the club perceived itself. However wonderful the footballer, the idea of Özil was more substantial than the reality. It had to be.

His name inspires a lot of devotion and a lot of anger and I don’t think a sportsperson does this if they are not a bit special. I hope that, with time and dust settled, people will remember the hope that his arrival ushered, and the joy that the delicate genius of Mesut Özil brought.

Yoni Gordon-Teller
@YoniGordonTelle

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