Ozil failed at old Trafford, not with a whimper, but several whimpers
Let us for a moment try to imagine some of Arsenal's headline singings of other recent summers - Gervinho, or perhaps Sebastien Squillaci - making a similar statement and still being able to take the short walk from tunnel to touchline without being bowled over by the sheer volume of ambient derision. From Ozil, this kind of talk brought nothing more than a tremor of respectful interest, such is his status in English football, and such has been the occasionally dreamy nature of his influence on Arsenal. Ozil has been rightly lionised for his gifts: speed, lateral movement and perfect balance; all-round peripheral playmaker's vision; plus of course the gossamer touch and feel for the timing and pace of a pass. But there are, as there were at Real Madrid, still some spots of interference in his aura.
For a start, there is the matter of timing. If ever there was a devastatingly inappropriate moment for Ozil to shrivel into the periphery then this was it. Arsenal have a clouded history at Old Trafford, their own personalised temple of doom in recent years, and the one ground where periodic dreams of a trophy-bound renaissance have tended to be dashed. This year, though, they had Ozil, the horizon-shifting addition, emblem of revived economic ambition and of an enduring and unshakeable belief in the principles of ‘Wenger-ball’. Zoom out a little further and the urgency of the moment looks even more stark. Every single Premier League winning club since Arsenal last won the title is currently in flux. By next season, even next calendar year, United, Chelsea and Manchester City will have had enough of crunching in and out of neutral and be ready to open the throttle again. This autumn could be Arsenal's best or even only chance to subvert the prevailing dynamic, to jimmy their fingernails in between the closing doors. And this year of course, they have Ozil.
Or do they? There seemed to be some doubt about this in the first half at Old Trafford as Arsenal's record signing effectively disappeared on the day they lost away from home in the Premier League for the first time since March. There is no disgrace in this: Arsenal played well enough to have earned a draw, and Ozil is allowed an off day. But there should be some concern at the extreme slightness of his presence at old Trafford, following as it did another peripheral performance in the defeat of Liverpool the week before. At the end, Ozil made his most decisive movement of the evening, striding straight off the pitch, the first man down the Old Trafford tunnel. Stories have since appeared in the German press of a bout of flu (Really? Flu?) but whatever its source this was a dip at exactly the wrong moment after some glorious moments of incision and, in the last few weeks, a quiet bit significant congealment. What if anything, does it mean?
Of course, Ozil was hardly helped by the comparison with Wayne Rooney, his direct opposite number on the night in a lurking No. 10 position, and a player in a rare vein of dead-eye form and fitness. Both provide an unorthodox, contrasting take on the role. For Rooney, this involves running perhaps a little too much at times, seeking every possible avenue in the hope that one will open up. For Ozil, there is tendency to spring suddenly into decisive action that can, when he finds himself on the margins, amount to an elegant but peripheral contribution.
There are those who will say that this is simply what you get with Ozil. In Germany, he has yet to totally shed a reputation for failing to stick on the biggest occasions. Bayern Munich's victory in the Champions League final was has been hailed as a moment of coronation, at last, for Germany's gilded generation. Ozil, for his part, was in the Real Madrid team beaten in the semi-final by Borussia Dortmund – although he was Madrid's best player in a second-leg surge that that was always slightly beyond them. Football can be cruel and horribly stark: but the fact remains at the age of 25 Ozil has a league title in Spain and a pair of domestic cups to his name. He remains one of the unfulfilled stellar talents of the current Deutsch Mannschaft, not to mention one of the disappointments of Euro 2012. Lesser players have won far more in the same period, less attractive talents had more sway in finals and semifinals. This is the argument against Ozil's effectiveness, that he remains an almost-but-not-quite superstar, lacking nothing in talent, vision, and pass-assist stats, but just somehow a dip short of the tape. There are various suggestions as to why this might be. After his move from Madrid there was some graceless talk about an alleged lack of conditioning, an inability to maintain his energy levels throughout an entire 90 minutes, even the vaguely hair-raising talk - no doubt wide of the mark and since denied - of a debilitating obsession with a Peruvian supermodel.
Whatever the reason, the suggestion from the anti-Ozil lobby, is that the grander the occasion, the more distant his contribution. Hence, the double-fisted blow of his startlingly meek performance at Old Trafford. Not only did Ozil fail in the wrong way, failed as so many have failed in this fixture before, not with a whimper, but with several whimpers. He failed like Jose Antonio Reyes failed. But he also failed like Ozil. How much better it would have been if he could simply have missed a string of open goals, or had a fight with Shinji Kagawa, or dived for a penalty. Anything but meekness. Or flu. Or lurking on the fringes.
At which point it is necessary to make the case for the defence. Ozil, like any player, is entitled to a dip,. He's not playing right-back out there: he is instead entrusted with the rarified task of providing cutting edge incision against the best teams in the Premier League. It isn't always going to work. Beyond this, Ozil is being forced to adapt to the relentlessness of English football. At the start of his season with Madrid, he played four matches in 26 days. His last four matches have come in the space of 11 days, while the last 26 days have brought eight matches in three different countries. Who knows: it might even be the making of him. Arsene Wenger has a knack of improving the physical condition of his players and Ozil will surely come through all this much stronger.
More simply, Ozil's game may be suffering slightly in Arsenal's current shape. He is, of course, the master of the slide-rule forward pass, the selection of the perfect attacking option. Arsenal, however, have settled into a pattern of play that revolves around Olivier Giroud in the central fulcrum role with midfield runners feeding off his link-up play. The real beneficiary of this has been Aaron Ramsey, who in his current incarnation likes to burst, to bomb on, to swarm around the striker. This is not so much Ozil's game. His ideal forward partner is probably Theo Walcott, who likes above all to run and invite a pass, with perhaps Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the other side offering more angles for the Ozil eye. At times in the current set up he has looked like a man in search of someone to pass too, adjusting to a system that demands more in the way of assertive running. He is too good not to make it work. For both Ozil and Arsenal's sake, the sooner this happens the better.
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