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Mesut Özil divided opinion, but his timing was impeccable
Upon his retirement, we can really see how quickly football, and society, can change.
They say every World Cup is supposed to have a breakout player, a new star emerging. Mesut Özil had that type of World Cup in 2010.
Almost out of nowhere, Germany suddenly had a young and vibrant attacking side that felt, more than anything else, fresh. When they demolished England in the Round of 16, it was a stark contrast between the new and different Germany team sending an old and stale English team home. Özil drifted past Gareth Barry in that game as though he wasn’t there. This was something completely new and different, so much so that Real Madrid immediately made him a key signing for José Mourinho. The future was here, and it looked like Özil.
13 years later, I don’t know if either Germany or Real Madrid would know what to do with a player like him today.
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The son of Turkish immigrants, Özil was born in West Germany on 15th October 1988. Barely a year after his birth, the Berlin Wall came down, and German reunification happened before his second birthday. He was growing up in a country where things were happening, where the people didn’t fear change, and where the opportunities for people from different backgrounds had never been greater.
That forward-thinking mentality in German culture is what allowed their football to change so much. Özil would have been eleven years old during Euro 2000, a disastrous tournament for Germany in which they crashed out at the group stage. After that came the tactical revolution. German ideas about football evolved almost overnight, and a technical number ten like Özil became celebrated as a star of a country’s football culture transformed. After impressing for Werder Bremen, he made his Germany debut in 2009, with an evident eye on building a side for next year’s World Cup and beyond.
He was the talk of the nation. Raphael Honigstein called him “the best player in the [Bundesliga] at the moment, a one-man source of creativity and surprise. Operating behind the strikers, he's both a playmaker and an auxiliary winger; his intelligent runs provide the width that should be missing in [Werder manager] Thomas Schaaf's diamond formation. And his passing couldn't be finer if he was folding kings against aces, every single time.” Jogi Löw agreed, not just putting him in the World Cup starting lineup but building the side around his qualities as a number ten. While Thomas Müller (himself only 20), Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose offered goals, dangerous runs and aggression, Özil was the brain of the attack, linking it all together with his flawless technique and vision.
That was exactly what José Mourinho wanted for his rebuild at Real Madrid. Cristiano Ronaldo was obviously the key man in that team, an individual who stood out so much that everything had to be built around him ad his goalscoring. Özil and Ronaldo fit together like a glove as the German provided the Portuguese with eleven goals, the most productive assister-scorer combination in La Liga that season. They were really made for each other. Ronaldo, the most brilliantly selfish attacker in the world, craved a provider who could pick him out every time. And Özil, the selfless number ten in elite football, had an attacker who could capitalise on every good pass he made, making the perfect runs to find space and turning anything into a goal.
This suited Mourinho’s style perfectly. While he’s always been very disciplined in how he organises a defence, he traditionally prefers to let attackers make decisions for themselves in a fast-paced countering style. This reportedly infuriated some Madrid players who wanted more emphasis on having a clear plan in possession, as their great rivals Barcelona did with Pep Guardiola. But a counter-attacking style suited Özil perfectly, letting him concentrate on finding Ronaldo running into space.
Being selfless might be perfect for Real Madrid the team, but it’s not a great strategy to thrive at Real Madrid the institution. Florentino Pérez was always going to set his sights on bigger names and shinier toys, so no one was surprised at all when he sold Özil to Arsenal to fund the purchase of Gareth Bale. Arsène Wenger, a long-term admirer, didn’t waste the chance to replenish a team that had lost some of its biggest names in recent seasons.
Around this time, the narrative started to shift. Özil went from a supporting role at Madrid to a £42.5m marquee signing expected to turn Arsenal into title challengers. For that price, English fans expect a “Roy of the Rovers”1 style player who can dominate a game and drive forward with winning goals. Özil continued doing what he does, finding space and picking out others for assists, but that's not what the English public wanted from him. Part of the problem was with Arsenal. He was generally playing as a number ten behind Olivier Giroud, with Santi Cazorla and Podolski the most common wide players. Özil craved pace around him, and Arsenal just didn't have that with Theo Walcott's injury problems. Arsenal's results certainly didn't help him. Top of the league until late January, Arsenal tumbled in the second half of the season and limped to fourth place. Many traditionalists put that down to a lack of character and leadership from key players. Özil, the club's record signing who looked disinterested and could drift in and out of games, took a lot of the blame.
The story was the same in Germany. For all that German tactics had evolved, the traditional view among fans and ex-players remained strong. English and German football cultures are similar in that they don’t really “feel” technicians like Özil, and prefer more aggressive players like Steven Gerrard or Michael Ballack (both excellent midfielders, mind). His manager Löw was a strong supporter of Özil, but even he couldn’t ignore that the national team was evolving. Toni Kroos, another wonderful technician, had become undroppable. Löw decided to play Kroos in a central role, giving the team more control in midfield, and forcing Özil to play out wide. From being the heartbeat of the team in 2010, it now felt like Özil didn’t really have a role in this side. He had some moments, but ended up one of the few German players who didn’t see a rise in reputation after winning the World Cup.
Again, the story was similar at Arsenal. Alexis Sánchez was the perfect signing from a tactical perspective, giving the team pace and energy in the final third and offering an option to run into space for Özil to pick out. He was also, in the crudest terms, really good at football. But Sánchez was easier for English fans to like. He chased after every lost cause, dribbled past players, and scored goals. He was much more obviously brilliant than Özil. As Mike Goodman (fellow member of our Discord, come and say hi if you’re a subscriber) wrote at the time,
“Watch any Arsenal game, and you’ll very quickly notice something: Alexis Sánchez is really good at soccer. The lovable Chilean buzzes around the field from start to finish, and it’s clear what he brings to the side. He shoots a lot, he runs with the ball at his feet, he shoots some more, he gets fouled, he puts crosses into the box, and he presses defenders who have the ball. In other words, Sánchez is always, visibly, doing stuff.
Two Septembers ago, German international Mesut Özil arrived in North London from Real Madrid for a club-record fee of £42.4 million. Despite the pedigree and obvious talent, you can probably count the number of Arsenal fans who love Özil today on one hand. He’s a languid, upright attacker who never seems to be running particularly hard or making a constant effort to affect the game. In other words, he’s no Alexis Sánchez.
When Arsenal lose, it’s obvious that they lose despite what Sánchez did. With Özil, it’s easy to wonder if Arsenal could’ve won had their most expensive signing done a little bit more.
“Özil or Sánchez” became a litmus test for how one views football. If you liked busy players always doing something, you preferred Sánchez. If cute movements and subtle passes were more your speed, you probably liked Özil (I think they were of similar quality, for what it’s worth). The general public certainly favoured Sánchez. It was just so much easier to see what he was contributing.
The narrative changed off the pitch. In 2018, Özil was seen photographed with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. To be clear, Erdoğan is a tyrant who should be met with nothing but disdain by reasonable individuals. Özil’s claim that the meeting “wasn’t about politics or elections, it was about me respecting the highest office of my family’s country” doesn’t wash for me when Erdoğan has defaced that office and the very notion that Turkey is a democracy. I don’t think it was wrong for sections of German society to criticise Özil over this. But the response quickly descended from liberal rejections of Erdoğan to outright anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim racism towards Özil. Romelu Lukaku said that he’s called “the Belgian striker” when he’s doing well and “the Belgian striker of Congolese descent” when he’s struggling. I’m sure Özil could relate. In the eyes of the public, he was no longer the face of a new Germany but a Turkish immigrant wearing German colours. The liberal dream of Özil’s childhood, of a tolerant “post-history” society, had died across the world. You could see it both in Erdoğan’s authoritarian grip over Turkey and Germany’s refusal to accept Özil for where his parents came from.
Özil retired from international football in 2018, citing that racism, and Wenger left Arsenal the same year. His subsequent managers at the Emirates, Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta, both had much stricter tactical ideas. Emery seemed to feel the need to include Özil in the team without quite knowing what to do with him. Arteta, on the other hand, excluded the player entirely. A lot of this was about dressing room issues we may never get to the bottom of. But by the end of the 2010s, modern football tactics were outgrowing Özil.
Özil was not, as his detractors called him, a “lazy” player. There were plenty of stats out there showing he was impressive in terms of distance covered. He played his best football for Mourinho, a manager who demands that everyone contribute defensively. But he never did any of this in a coordinated pressing system. He was never the player who could trigger a press, leading a side to defend from the front and close down opponents. As his career went on, that quality became not a bonus but a prerequisite for a number ten. With the ball, the idea of a player making decisions for himself disappeared. Wenger and Mourinho wanted Özil to use his imagination and conjure up solutions. Arteta wanted someone in his role who could conform to strict passing patterns. I’m not saying Özil could never have done this, but we didn’t see him asked to do it in his career.
Mesut Özil was many things. He was a true number ten, a creative hub on the counter, an immigrant success story in a more tolerant world. All of those things were less welcomed by the time he retired than they were when he made his debut. To observe Özil in 2010 was to witness the future. To observe him in 2023 is to look at a past that feels more distant than ever.
For those unfamiliar, which I’m guessing is everyone not from the UK, Roy of the Rovers is a long-running British comic strip. It’s come to evoke English football’s desire for old fashioned heroes, people who can single-handedly win games by covering “every blade of grass” and getting “stuck in”, winning all the plaudits.