Addressing the question of whether Arsenal are better off without Mesut Ozil can be a dangerous business.
Criticism of the playmaker can bring howls of dissent on social media from a strident section of Arsenal supporters. Querying his contribution will generate accusations of not understanding the game. Never mind his unassuming body language: feel the quality and quantity of his assists and chance creation. Chasing back, pressing opponents? That would be a waste of his genius. Such arguments have their merits and Ozil’s stats suggest that he is a player of supreme effectiveness.
Since arriving from Real Madrid for £42.4 million in the summer of 2013, he has ranked top in the Premier League’s categories of chances created, big chances created and assists. -But reports that Jose Mourinho is keen to make opportunistic move to take Ozil to Manchester United in January, with Inter Milan also circling, make this an opportune time to ask once more whether Arsenal actually need their German genius.
Recent weeks have suggested he is no longer indispensable to his club.
As Ozil’s contract ticks down towards free agency in June, with little sign of a new deal being either offered or signed, it would be difficult to argue that the midfielder’s exit would be as cataclysmic for Arsenal as losses like Robin van Persie to Manchester United in 2012, Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona the year before that, or indeed as difficult if Alexis Sanchez had joined Manchester City at the closure of the last transfer window.
Ozil was bought by Arsene Wenger to take Arsenal to the next level and he arrived at a club that had finished fourth the previous season. They would finish fourth in his first season, third in the next and runners-up the season after — though never getting close enough to stop Leicester winning the 2015-16 title — before last year’s slump to fifth, which removed Arsenal from a Champions League status quo that had endured since 1998.
If the next level was challenging for the title, Ozil has failed to lift Arsenal there. His impressive individual statistics tell only one side of the story; Arsenal have only won 16 percent of matches against their top six rivals with Ozil in the team. He is not Arsenal’s only problem, but he remains part of their failings.
Last season saw Ozil back in sixth in the assists table, his total of nine half that of Kevin De Bruyne’s 18, while admittedly having played four fewer games than the leader’s 36.
In August, as heavy media criticism came down on him after a lethargic display during Arsenal’s 4-0 loss at Liverpool on Sept. 27, following similar in a 1-0 loss at Stoke the previous week, Ozil snapped, using Facebook to say: “‘Too expensive, too greedy, bad body language, and lacking fight.’ This is what people have said about me.”
Since then, he has been unable to throw much back in the face of those ex-players he asked to “behave like legends,” as an inflamed knee has restricted him to just two matches since Anfield and just seven minutes against West Brom since Arsenal’s 3-0 defeat of Bournemouth on Sept. 9. As his teammates have lifted Arsenal to fifth in the table, level on points with Chelsea, he is yet to supply a single Premier League assist this season.
The recent run of six wins from seven games suggests Wenger might already have found a way without Ozil. Alex Iwobi, a goal scorer in Sunday’s 2-0 defeat of Brighton, gave a disciplined display of pressing in Sept. 17’s 0-0 draw at Chelsea. Even Ozil’s most forthright defenders might admit that Iwobi’s dedication to that job would have been beyond their hero. Iwobi possesses nothing like the natural gifts or ingenuity of Ozil, and Wenger has asked for far greater productivity from the 21-year-old, but his athleticism and work ethic are qualities highly desirable in a club fighting to reclaim credibility.
Iwobi, and promising youngsters like Reiss Nelson (still just 17), are players that Wenger can leave as a legacy for the club he is only signed up to manage until the summer of 2019. Ozil will surely not be around when that time comes and currently there may only be room for one contract rebel in the team. Against Brighton, it was Sanchez, also counting down until June, who provided the improvisation, with his visionary backheel assist seting up Iwobi’s goal.
In that moment, Sanchez made the kind of key contribution that Ozil has yet to produce for Arsenal this season. A time when Wenger could afford to indulge his indolent artist may already have passed.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.