Mesut Ozil doesn't need to be cured
It's time for us to accept that Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil is already good enough
Mesut Ozil did not play during Arsenal's 3-1 win over West Ham on Saturday. He wasn't even on the bench. Ozil, Arsenal's most important player and one of the best creators on the planet, wasn't available to play -- not as a starter, not as a substitute, not at all. Ozil wasn't available to play because he was ill. That's what was reported before the match. That's what Arsenal's new coach, Unai Emery, said after the match. Mesut Ozil was ill. So he missed a match against West Ham.
That should be that, but that should be that is almost never the case when it comes to Mesut Ozil.
During the match, ESPN Brazil reported that Ozil actually wasn't included in the Arsenal lineup because he got into a spat with Emery at practice. The report said that Ozil screamed at Emery, and that's why Emery didn't feature him in the starting XI. It said that when Ozil found out he wasn't starting, he decided to skip the match altogether. The implication and consequence of the report is clear and present danger: Emery -- the coach taking over for Arsene Wenger, who not only built Arsenal into the club it is today, but also brought Ozil to Arsenal in 2013 and gave him a new mega contract this past winter -- is already feuding with his highest-paid player. Chaos at Arsenal in the post-Wenger era! The best player and the new coach can't coexist two weeks into the new season! A once-great club in utter disarray!
Which version you believe depends a lot on how you feel about Mesut Ozil.
If you believe club and coach, you might also believe Ozil is one of the best attacking midfielders in the world and Arsenal's best creative playmaker, that he's been let down repeatedly by his teammates around him over the years who've often squandered the scoring chances he creates, that he's flawed as a player because he's limited as a defender and depends on others around him to finish the chances he creates, that he's overpaid relative to how much other superstars are paid, but that's just the cost of keeping a player of his caliber in today's market and it was really Arsenal's only option given the alternative was to sell him for way less than he was worth or to let him walk for free at the end of last season, and that Arsenal are at their best when Ozil is in possession, eyes forward scanning the field, left foot waiting to deliver a perfectly weighted downfield dart to a teammate on the run.
If you believe the report, you might also believe that Ozil is lazy, that he refuses to try on defense, that a new coach was finally willing to challenge him after Wenger babied him for far too long, and Ozil threw a hissy fit at practice after two underwhelming performances to begin the season. Typical Ozil, you might think. Can't succeed in an environment that demands hard work. Overpaid.
If you believe that Ozil was sick, but also that the report might hold some measure of truth to it in the sense that Emery and Ozil might have gotten off to a patchy start as they adjust to each other, you might also believe that Ozil is one of the best playmakers in the world, but he's struggling to transition to Emery's system, which requires attacking midfielders to contribute defensively, after being allowed to function solely as an attacker in Wenger's system for so many years.
Which version you believe depends a lot on how you feel about Mesut Ozil. Which version you believe is also revealing.
Before moving on, let me be clear. This isn't a story about a reporter who I believe misreported a story. I don't know the reporter. I don't know about his access or connections with the club. I don't know anything about him. I don't know if his report is accurate or not. It's impossible for me to know, but I will say this: In my experience, the idea that reporters make up stories for retweets or clicks is utter crap. Most reporters care far more about their integrity than their page views or retweets. It's far more likely the club and coach would lie about something to protect their image. The last thing Arsenal would want is for the world to know that their coach and high-profile player are feuding. That doesn't mean reporters don't ever get stuff wrong. But they don't often get it wrong for reasons as dumb as followers and retweets.
The point of this isn't the accuracy of the report. The point of this is the flawed way we look at, talk about, and criticize Mesut Ozil.
So, about Mesut Ozil. This is him.
Below, you'll find some basic, but fundamental facts about him. These are things, as all facts are, that neither his detractors nor his supporters can disagree with.
- He's the second-highest paid player in the Premier League.
- He's the fastest player to reach 50 career assists in the Premier League.
- He's won three FA Cups with Arsenal, one La Liga with Real Madrid, a World Cup with Germany, and has been named Germany's Player of the Year five times.
- Before the 2018 World Cup, he took a photo with Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
- During the 2018 World Cup, he created more chances per 90 minutes (5.5) than any other player to play at least 90 minutes at the tournament, per Squawka.
- He retired from international play after the 2018 World Cup,
- He was born in Germany, has Turkish ancestry, and is a practicing Muslim.
- He is 29 years old.
- He — along with the rest of his teammate — is adapting to a new system at Arsenal under Emery.
- Arsenal says he didn't play Saturday — their third match of the season — because of an illness, which marks the sixth Arsenal match he's missed due to illness since January 2017.
- A report says he didn't play because he's feuding with his new coach.
It shouldn't surprise anyone which version the soccer corner of the internet believed. The soccer subreddit, to which more than a million subscribers belong, picked up the report and ran with it like a torch on a pitch black night. Twelve hours after the report surfaced, the reddit post that linked to the report dwarfed the post that linked to Emery's denial of the report in terms of both points and comments.
This shouldn't be a surprise. It's not notable in and of itself. This is the internet. Of course, it's not always reflective of what the vast majority of people think. Of course, the internet would be less interested in the boring version of the story. Of course, insults and jokes at Ozil's expense would be made on an online message board. Isn't that the very point of an online message board?
In real life, everyone doesn't hate Ozil. A lot of people actually like him. According to ESPN's 2018 version of their annual list, Ozil's the 22nd most famous athlete on the planet, one spot behind Maria Sharapova, two spots ahead of James Harden. He's got more than 23 million Twitter followers and nearly 18 million Instagram followers. He's sponsored by Adidas. Wenger, one of the greatest managers in Premier League history, once called Ozil "one of the best players in the world." Jose Mourinho, who, by the way, , once called him "the best No. 10 in the world."
The affection is deserved.
But a lot of people do hate him. And a lot of those people are prominent people who get to shape the nature of the discourse about him. Consider the dialogue in recent years. It says he's not "fit to wear the shirt." It says Arsenal can't afford to "carry" him anymore. It says his attitude is a serious problem. It says he "doesn't work hard enough for the team." It says he needs to be "toughened up." It says, he'll have an "emotional breakdown." It says he got into a spat with his new coach and then refused to show up to a match.
Which version you believe depends a lot on how you feel about Mesut Ozil. Which version you believe is also revealing. It's a litmus test of sorts.
There is more than one theory to explain why Ozil is hated. Some theories deal with complex issues like racism and politics.
In his statement explaining his decision to retire from international football, Ozil wrote, "I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose." He's not the first to make a statement like that.
Before the World Cup, he took a photo with Erdogan. The president of the German Football Association called it a "mistake." Germany chancellor Angela Merkel said that Ozil "did not consider the impact the photo with Erdogan would have." To call it a controversy would be an understatement.
Neither his statement nor the photo should be ignored. They matter. It's just that, there aren't many things I feel more unqualified to write about than racism and politics when it comes to Mesut Ozil. So I'm not going to.
Other theories are more simplistic. They deal with the way in which we watch and talk about sports.
Do people hate Ozil because he makes so much money? Only one Premier League player makes more than him, but Ozil's not the second-best player in the Premier League. Maybe you think Arsenal is overpaying for what they're getting. But that's not Ozil's fault. Was he supposed to take less money than what he was offered? When Arsenal offered him his new contract, they knew exactly what they'd be getting -- and what they wouldn't be getting. They didn't offer him his new contract thinking he'd show up the next day as a completely different player. They signed Mesut Ozil knowing full well who Mesut Ozil is.
Is it because he doesn't score often? Fans, naturally, love the scorer, not the assister, in the same way they love the quarterback, not the offensive lineman. Ozil doesn't score much. He sets up goals. In 144 Premier League appearances, he's scored 27 goals and assisted on 50 goals. When he does decide to score, it makes you wonder why he doesn't shoot more often.
Is it because he's no longer good enough? Last season, he registered only eight assists, tied for the 11th most in the Premier League. But he also finished fifth in expected goals assisted per 90 minutes, according to The Ringer. To steal a line from Gisele Bundchen, Ozil cannot (expletive) pass the ball and shoot the ball at the same time.
Is it because of Arsenal's relative lack of success? Arsenal hasn't won the Premier League since 2004 and they've finished outside the top-four in each of the past two seasons, which means they've twice now failed to qualify for the all-important Champions League, something that hadn't happened to Arsenal in 20-year span. They couldn't even win the Europa League last year. But what they have done with Ozil is win three FA Cups since 2013-14. Ozil helped Arsenal break their nine-year trophy drought. That should matter. Winning trophies is difficult. Just ask a superior Tottenham side that's still yet to win a trophy.
But the truth is, Ozil has a much bigger problem than his wages, statistics, and relegation to the Europa League. All of those things matter, but they're amplified because of another problem.
Ozil has a perception problem.
Ozil is a star, but he doesn't walk and smile and look the way the world expects its stars to walk and smile and look. He rarely shows emotion after good and bad moments. When he does score, his celebrations are subdued. He'll stick his thumb in his mouth and make an "M" with his other hand while he waits for his teammates to arrive. That's it. He rarely yells. He wears the same apathetic expression on his face through still and storm. He doesn't show emotion.
It makes him an easy target.
"He is a guy who works much harder than people think, but his body language goes against him sometimes," Wenger once said.
It makes it seem like he doesn't care. It makes his actual faults -- like his inability to play defense -- seem more pronounced. It makes him seem like he's not trying. When Arsenal is winning, nobody gives a crap about Ozil's body language. But when they're losing, Ozil becomes the scapegoat for fans who are likely showing far more emotion on their couches than Ozil is on the field, which likely makes them even more frustrated.
"Some people like me, some people don't. Some people look at my body language and think I don't care," Ozil has said. "But that's me. I won't change my body language or my style of play drastically anymore."
And why should he? In the middle of a soccer match, Ozil probably has far bigger things to worry about than his body language. At this point, he's not going to change the way he looks and critics aren't going to change the way they look at him.
I look at Ozil and I see flaws, but I also see precision, creativity, and elegance when the ball is at his feet. I see what the beautiful game aspires to be. With him, Arsenal is majestic in attack. Without him, Arsenal often looks like an NFL team missing its starting quarterback. An Ozil-less win over a bottom-of-the-table team like West Ham doesn't change that.
Others look at his body language and see laziness and apathy, and that image overrides the moments of pure brilliance he creates. Mix in Arsenal's relative lack of team success since Ozil arrived and the money he makes, and they see Jay Cutler. The Jay Cutler who wore the same arrogant smirk on his face in good times and bad. The Jay Cutler who could never beat the Packers. The Jay Cutler . The Jay Cutler we spent a decade wishing would change when the cruel truth was, he didn't need to change. He was good enough as is, but the way we looked at him and talked about him wasn't.
In truth, this story was, in part, inspired by a column about Cutler written by Bill Barnwell at the now defunct Grantland. In that story, Barnwell wrote:
We lash out at Jay Cutler after his bad games like we're fighting with our significant others. If Jay Cutler would just put the dishes in the dishwasher instead of leaving them in the sink, we'd all have gone to the Super Bowl a long time ago.
Let's turn this question on ourselves, though, because it's going to tell us a lot about how we judge football players irrationally. Why does Jay Cutler have to get fixed? Why can't he just be a pretty good quarterback who delivers one or two terrible games a year? Isn't that good enough?
Let's turn this question on ourselves, though, because it's going to tell us a lot about how we judge football players irrationally. Why does Mesut Ozil have to get fixed? Why can't he just be a very good player who is flawed? Mesut Ozil has been good enough for three FA Cups, one La Liga championship, a first-place finish at the World Cup, and a Premier League assist record. Isn't that good enough?
If it's not good enough now, it might not ever be. Ozil is 29 years old. At this point, unless he undergoes some sort of late-career transformation, he is what he is: A flawed, but very good soccer player.
Let's say the report is true. Let's say he doesn't fit Emery's system. Ozil's certainly not perfect. If Emery wants an attacking midfielder who can defend as well as he attack, he won't find that in Ozil. But Ozil's upside -- what he offers a team -- is undeniable.
If Emery can't fit a player like Ozil into his system, that might be more of an indictment of Emery than Ozil. It might be more of an indictment of Arsenal than Ozil. Shouldn't Arsenal have hired a coach who knows how to use Ozil considering they had already given Ozil his mega contract? Shouldn't Emery mold his system around the players he has, only implementing the aspects of his system that his players can handle? If a coach can't find a way to fit Ozil into his system and to use his undeniable talent, maybe there isn't just a problem with Ozil. Maybe there's also a problem with the coach.
There's an argument to be made that by asking Ozil to suddenly work harder on defense, that Arsenal might be taking away from Ozil's greatness. In a way -- to switch to the other kind of football for a moment -- it's like asking an elite pass-rushing linebacker to drop back in coverage instead of just letting him get after the quarterback. Ozil is probably never going to become an elite defender. But when he's able to roam freely, he's one of the best distributors in the world. Maybe Arsenal should just let him do that. Maybe by not letting him do that, they're worse off.
A player isn't bigger than a team. A player isn't more important than a system. But Emery has to make his system work with the players he has right now. It's his only option. Forcing something upon Ozil that makes Ozil worse -- and thus, Arsenal worse -- shouldn't be an option. Maybe one day, Arsenal can move on from Ozil and implement Emery's vision to its fullest extent. Until that day comes, Arsenal should try to play in a manner that maximizes Ozil's skillset, because his skillset at its peak can help Arsenal win.
Back over at Grantland (RIP), Barnwell concluded his story by asking what it would take for Cutler to finally satisfy us.
There is not going to be a game or a season that satisfies any of us that Jay Cutler is fixed until he finishes that event by hoisting the Lombardi Trophy over his head. And if he does that, he's still going to be the same erratic, aggressive Jay Cutler that he is today. Favre was Favre. Brady is Brady. Let's accept that Cutler is going to be Cutler.
I suppose the equivalent is Arsenal winning either the Premier League or Champions League with Ozil on the field. Only then will we accept what Ozil is.
Except, that's not exactly fair to Ozil, who, like most other players, needs good players around him to succeed. Put it this way, if Arsenal were to win the Premier League this year, they probably wouldn't win because Ozil suddenly transformed into a new player. They'd probably win because Ozil was playing like Ozil and the players and system around him finally fell into place. The problem is, Arsenal is lacking enough good players right now.
Given the current state of Arsenal, winning one of those two trophies seems unlikely. But it's impossible to know how this all ends. Arsenal is three matches into their first season with a new coach. Two months from now, Ozil might be leading the league in assists and Arsenal might be in the top-four picture. Four months from now, Arsenal might be trying to sell Ozil as they look to provide Emery with the players he wants. A year from now, we might be talking about the same damn thing as Emery's second season kicks off with Ozil still around. Who the hell knows?
Here's what we do know.
We know that Ozil returned to practice Wednesday. We know that Arsenal is playing Cardiff City on Sunday. We know that if he's healthy, he should be in the starting lineup, because he's one of Arsenal's best 11 players and because Arsenal is a substantially better team with Ozil on the field. We know that Arsenal has bigger problems than Ozil -- like their entire backline and ownership situation.
We know that if Ozil doesn't get included in the starting XI, the rumblings will only increase. We know that if he plays but doesn't play well, the scrutiny will only increase. We know that if he does play and plays well, it won't matter much to those who've already decided he isn't good enough, because at this point, barring a massive transformation of his playing style and demeanor, Ozil's never going to be good enough for his critics. They'll say that Ozil playing well against a side like Cardiff City is irrelevant and they'll wait for his next poor showing, which will come at some point because Ozil is both a human being and a flawed soccer player.
Above anything and everything else, we know who Ozil is. We just need to accept him already.
"Ozil is Ozil. If you were expecting Ozil to be super aggressive and to be running miles and miles from side to side and to show great enthusiasm and aggressiveness, this is not Mesut," Mourinho said once. "If you are waiting for somebody where every time he touches the ball, the ball smiles. Every time he makes a pass, the ball goes with the right direction, the right speed, the right intensity, this is Ozil."
Indeed, that is Ozil.
His posture, facial expressions, and body language scream "don't care." He gets ill a lot. He can't defend. But he more than makes up for those flaws with his strengths. He's won a World Cup, three FA Cups, a La Liga title, been called one of the best players in the world by coaches like Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho, set a Premier League assist record, captured five German Football Player of the Year awards, and so on. He makes the ball smile.
Ozil is Ozil. And what Mesut Ozil is, is good enough. Maybe we're just not.
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