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Moments of magic, a divided dressing room and burnt bridges: How Mesut Ozil left Arsenal wanting more

If there’s one thing Mesut Ozil still adores about football, it’s expressing himself, but there were times when colleagues found even that excessive. A frequent complaint was when the German would have an easy pass on, either in training or in games. Rather than just play it, Ozil would unnecessarily screw the ball so as to put a bit of spin on it, for no reason other than that he enjoyed it.

Many of his younger teammates greatly enjoyed it, too, and were always left marvelling at such exhibitionism. Some senior players gradually grew irritated.

It was one of many differences regarding Ozil that came to define his latter years at the club, and the anecdote almost sums up his Arsenal career: always dazzling and successful in its own way, but sometimes too decorative, with not enough purpose.

Ozil won’t, after so much debate, go down as a figure anywhere close to Dennis Bergkamp. The German instead came to symbolise the third stage of the Arsene Wenger era, an apparent expansion after the post-stadium austerity, but one that only left a lingering sense of wasteful drift. That feeling most of all applies to the sad fact a player with so much talent spent so much time not even playing.

This wasn’t what they spent so much money on, especially with that notorious last contract.

That last day in the 2013 summer window was supposed to be the start of something. It fired the imagination, that naturally involved images of Arsenal competing for the greatest trophies, while playing the greatest football.

It was certainly supposed to be about much more than three FA Cups and many moments of impossible skill. It is telling, and someway fitting, that one of Ozil’s primary legacies is a culture war among the fan base. The reality never quite lived up to the discussion, or the idea.

The actual reality of why it went so wrong remains a subject of significant debate. The road to this departure does still reflect the path Arsenal have been on, and why Arteta is still enduring so many problems to fix.

Some in Ozil’s camp would still put it all down to the initial tweet denouncing China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims on 13 December 2019. A series of sources at Arsenal insist that is not the case, even though it did cause tensions, and the club did consider fining him. They instead distanced themselves from the remarks, a reaction that Ozil said was “disappointing”.

It still wasn’t the cause of this disappointing end.

The truth is that Ozil played a lot of games after that, and that his problems long preceded it. Exactly a year beforehand, Unai Emery was questioned about again dropping Ozil, using evasive language about tactics that became all too familiar. Even before that, Arsene Wenger was said to “immediately regret” the huge contract afforded the German in January 2018. It went against his instincts, and his inclinations.

There’s an even more relevant truth right now. If Arteta wanted Ozil in the team, he would be. He doesn’t, and that is the manager’s decision alone. The final call stemmed from lockdown, and how the coaching staff perceived Ozil’s conduct.

They just didn’t feel he was buying in. Arteta would later refer to only wanting players who were “on the boat” – and prepared to constantly display a set of values he saw as crucial to the team and the club. The manager’s rationale is to develop a complete cohesion, and the argument is that any gaps in that commitment would undermine the approach.

That’s also why he refused to use Ozil at all. That may feel ill-judged and needlessly hardline, but Arteta believes commitment is one thing that can’t be compromised on. It has led to maybe more flat games than has been warranted.

Ozil later refused to take a 12.5 per cent pay cut when Arteta made a personal plea to the players, but it should be noted that he wasn’t the only one, and others backed him. The German has probably been vindicated on that decision, given that the club went and made 55 redundancies anyway.

Arteta still considered bringing Ozil back into the fold in autumn, only to ultimately decide against it. The Independent has been told that one factor was Ozil taking an attitude of “I told you so” to other players regarding the pay cuts.

The player’s general attitude has long confounded those around him. His greatest admirer, Wenger, would lament how Ozil “doesn’t dominate games given his talent” and wonder about the playmaker’s desire. On the other side, such as after the 2-1 defeat to Manchester City in 2016-17, Wenger would see Ozil kick the dressing room wall in anger. So much for not caring.

This similarly split teammates. It is true that more senior players gradually became aggravated by Ozil’s approach, particularly in training. They didn’t think he had much aptitude for hard work, or defensive work.

On the other hand, the younger players have always seen him as a “hero” and were often in awe of what he could do with a ball. Ozil was in turn very good with them, and always had time and advice. They greatly praise him as being hugely helpful, and going out of his way to help them.

That undercuts certain perceptions.

As tends to be the way with many cases like this, some point to the influence of the player’s entourage. Such complaints go beyond Arsenal to the German national team, where political factors also led to a premature departure.

Ozil argued that he faced unfair discrimination after the first-round 2018 World Cup exit, and his much-criticised meeting with Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Their relationship, given Erdogan’s own reputation as an authoritarian, undermines some of Ozil’s  political sentiments.

German sources say that there had been attempts to solve the issues – especially since Ozil previously had a strong relationship with Jogi Low – but that the player’s camp completely shut them down. One figure who has worked with the playmaker complained “so many bridges burned, just to make a point!”

Ozil’s entourage has in the past broadly consisted of his agent Erkut Sogut, who is seen as especially influential and regularly sets a “super aggressive” tone in business, as well as being the protege of Loew’s agent Harun Aslan; Ozil’s brother Mutlu; Ilkay Gundogan’s brother Ilhan and Shkodran Mustafi’s father Kujtim. Some of those have moved on, and the circle around the 32-year-old now only consists of Sogut, Mutlu and his cousin Serdar. Ozil is said to become quite different when Sogut comes into a room, more reserved. The agent certainly prizes the player as his “baby”, especially after having seen Mustafi, Gundogan and Lucas Perez move on in the last few years.

“His camp are always trying to make a stand,” the source adds. “Especially Erkut. At the same time, there aren’t too many major clubs who could mess up the situation so long like Arsenal did. Dysfunctional – and too proud to not come up with a solution that could have ended Ozil’s time at the club earlier.”

Arsenal were said to be furious when Ozil publicly volunteered to pay the salary of Jerry Quy, the employee made redundant who had for so many years worn the Gunnersaurus costume. That followed a heightening level of farce to the fall-out, as Ozil began to basically live-blog games he should have been playing in.

“It’s incredible a club of Arsenal’s pedigree didn’t shut that down,” one source said. “That kind of stuff shouldn’t have been on Arteta’s agenda. That should have been on an executive to be brave enough. A manager shouldn’t have to be dealing with that.”

Others see it as an inevitable consequence of how indulged Ozil had been. The whole situation, in terms of the contractual constraints, says a lot about both the club and the player.

Arsenal committed to that contract in January 2018 partly because of the way so many senior players had left them right up to Robin van Persie’s departure in 2012, and because Alexis Sanchez was about to leave. They made an emotional decision connected to their perceived status, when the intelligent call would have been to call Ozil’s bluff and let him go unless he accepted lesser terms. It was a classic pyrrhic victory.

The greater curiosity is that there had been murmurings about Ozil’s performance level even then. Some felt that leaving Real Madrid – where Jose Mourinho had regularly tasked him with defensive discipline, at the cost of his self-expression – and winning the World Cup with Germany in the same year had sapped some of his hunger. It was as if “a valve had been released”. This is what he’d worked so hard for, especially under Mourinho. Wenger afforded him more freedom, and he was being feted as a genius, the star.

For Ozil’s part, he responded with what might have been a career-best campaign, breaking the single-season record for assists in 2015-16. This was when the debate about Bergkamp really arose. This was the period when he produced some of his finest moments, like that luscious goal against Ludogorets.

It’s just that Ozil was signed for more than moments, and certainly for more than goals against Ludogorets. He doesn’t really have the defining career contributions that many of the other Wenger greats – such as Bergkamp – have.

Trademark tricks like that bounced shot off the ground stand out more than great moments of character.

That is as much down to what Arsenal were as a team as what he was as a player, but the two are interlinked. It shouldn’t be forgotten, either, that not one other top club was willing to take a punt on one of the world’s great stars at a huge discount over the past two years.

That was admittedly because of what Ozil was the last two years, rather than what he had been for most of his time at Arsenal. He was one of the Premier League’s great entertainers, up there with Gianfranco Zola and David Silva. Ozil was a joy to watch.

That is a fine legacy all of its own, and Arsenal supporters will have so many glorious memories.

It’s just that, as with the last year, there could have been so much more.

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