The main story at Arsenal this summer surrounds the future of Alexis Sanchez, who has just one year left on his contract and is drawing admiring glances from Europe’s elite. The churning of the rumour mill is reaching a deafening crescendo and Arsenal fans are in for a nerve shredding few weeks. Arsene Wenger has vowed not to sell his star man, but the Arsenal faithful have heard that tune before and it ended with Wenger cashing in on the likes of Robin van Persie and Samir Nasri rather than risk losing them on a free transfer the following summer. Supporters would be devastated as Sanchez has been their best player in recent years and everyone is following the story with bated breath.
Amid this hubbub and consternation it is easy to forget that Mesut Ozil is in the exact same situation. The German playmaker, signed the year before Sanchez and for a larger fee, also has just one year remaining on his contract. If the club cannot tie him down to a new deal, they risk losing him on a free next summer. But fans do not seem particularly bothered about this, nor does the media. Why is that?
For starters, Ozil is not nearly as influential and his absence would appear far less detrimental to the team’s chances of success next season. He was inconsistent during the last campaign, and Europe’s best clubs are certainly not queuing up to sign him. Ozil has vaguely suggested that he would like to extend his stay at The Emirates – while Sanchez has been a lot less forthcoming and has even signalled his desire to play Champions League football next season, something the Gunners cannot offer – but it appears Ozil has little choice in the matter given his lack of suitors.
He arrived at Arsenal four years ago after becoming surplus to requirements at Real Madrid, who had just purchased Gareth Bale in a world record deal and needed to recoup some cash. But the apoplectic reaction of Cristiano Ronaldo told Arsenal fans they had a top player on their hands. Ozil was the assist king of La Liga and Ronaldo would miss him dreadfully. The price was also phenomenal for Arsenal: £45 million, more than doubling their existing transfer record. He was hailed as the greatest number 10 in the world, the heir apparent to Dennis Bergkamp. Has he delivered on that potential?
Not really. Ozil has shown flashes of brilliance, but too frequently he has failed to come up with the goods when his team needed him the most. He got off to a flier in his debut season, dovetailing sublimely with Aaron Ramsey and leading Gooners to dream of that elusive title win. But as Arsenal’s form fell off a cliff in the second half of the season, so too did Ozil’s. That is something you need to be aware of when measuring Ozil’s talent: when the team is on song, Ozil shines. He has proven that time and time again for Germany, and he has been rewarded with a World Cup winners’ medal and a virtual monopoly on the German player of the year gong in recent years. But when the going gets tough, Ozil has a habit of going missing.
He works a lot harder than he is given credit for, but he is not exactly the type of player to grab a game by the scruff of the neck and inspire his teammates to victory. Ozil is a subtle player, all graceful touches, delicate flicks, ethereal movement and purr-inducing passing. He needs sharp, quick and direct players like Ronaldo and Thomas Muller around him if he is to shine. There is no point playing sublime through balls if the likes of Olivier Giroud and Yaya Sanogo lack the pace or the nous to make the runs.
Notably Ozil’s best Arsenal season was 2015/16, when the cumbersome Giroud was not too heavily relied upon and speedsters Theo Walcott and Sanchez enjoyed a long run of games. Ozil earned 19 assists that campaign and looked destined to break the record for the most goals created in a season. But again his form declined and in the second half of the season he teed up far fewer chances as Leicester swept past Arsenal and the record was not his.
Last season was one of real inconsistency for Ozil: he added goals to his game but the assists dried up, and very few Arsenal fans now compare him to Bergkamp. Has he reached his true potential? Hopefully not. There is a distinct chance that he will line up alongside Alexandre Lacazette, Thomas Lemar and Sanchez next season and all three of them are quick, direct and great off the ball. They will flourish if they have an intelligent playmaker acting as creator in chief, and that is a role Ozil was born to fill. If the rest of the team is on song, Ozil could be a world-beater, a Player of the Year contender, and Arsenal could actually challenge for the title. The bare minimum should be the top four next season and if you like to bet on football then the even money you can get on them finishing in the Champions League places once again looks a great option. Arsenal’s attack could become a frightening blend of pace and intelligence next season and we might finally see Ozil reach his true potential.
Martin Green is an experienced sports writer and tipster and has covered the Premiership for many years. He is an Arsenal fan and believes the best is yet to come from Ozil.