His arrival was supposed to define an era but, instead, his exit did that. Mesut Özil has finally left the Arsenal building, through the back door and with absolutely no consequence for Mikel Arteta, his manager and one-time teammate. The former Germany international will not be missed at the Emirates Stadium, even if the messages of nostalgia and goodwill emerged as he flew to Istanbul to complete a move to Fenerbahce last week. For all the tweets and the mentions of being a “Gunner for life”, the feeling is most likely mutual.
The longest of goodbyes started six months after Özil signed a hotly-anticipated extension to his Arsenal contract in 2018, when Unai Emery replaced Arsene Wenger. It was Wenger who brought Özil to the club from Real Madrid five years earlier, for just shy of £43million, a club record at the time. It could be argued that there were similarities between his exit, after 22 years in the role, and Özil’s; both had outstayed their welcome to a degree, though with very different context.
Wenger had courted Özil’s services for a while before his signing; his philosophy was formed around technique, grace and guile, and he built teams and players in that mould. But there was something particularly significant about the Mesut Özil deal; it wasn’t just the biggest in Arsenal’s history, but it was by a distance the heftiest outlay from a man who preferred to buy cheaper, younger players and hone their skills.
After a successful spell at Real Madrid — where he was rather ironically discarded in order to make room for Gareth Bale, star attraction of Arsenal’s main rivals, Tottenham Hotspur — there was a sense that Özil would be the catalyst for an Arsenal team which never seemed to solve its problems quick enough. They were struggling to close a gap to the top which had developed over a near decade at that point, taking them out of the Premier League title equation. Comparisons were made with Dennis Bergkamp, who started Arsenal’s transition from a conservative and structured outfit to an expansive, entertaining purveyor of art in 1995, a year prior to Wenger’s arrival.
It was always going to be difficult for Özil to emulate such a legendary figure at Arsenal, and not all of that was his fault. The club just wasn’t in as strong a position. Wenger had masterminded early success by marrying his footballing philosophy with the existing strength of character and mentality at the club. After 2005, when Patrick Vieira departed for Juventus, the team’s focus switched more towards the style, some would say at the expense of substance. Arsenal became known as a club who could win and play well if the conditions were right, but struggled under pressure because of a soft underbelly.
While Mesut Özil was a better player than anyone in the team at the time, as he often showed in his performances, creativity wasn’t the problem. Alexis Sanchez arrived a year later, and the pair dovetailed brilliantly until the January window when the Chilean departed for Manchester United and Özil signed that ill-advised contract worth more than £300,000-per-week. At the time, his decision to stay was heralded; Arsenal had managed to keep one of the two linchpins of their team but, in a sense, Özil and Sanchez exacerbated the imbalance within the squad. They were talented, but were unable to level the playing field against the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City, who had a much greater spread of quality throughout their teams.
Perhaps Sanchez’s exit contributed to the issues which soon became apparent, but the big turning point certainly appeared to be Wenger’s exit. Emery was a manager with a less romantic view of football; he was pragmatic, and took that view with Mesut Özil in particular. His style of play — often slow, measured, thoughtful and technical — was often criticised for appearing lazy and therefore a contributing factor to the team’s poor mentality. Where Wenger preferred to allow Özil to play to his strengths, Emery, who wanted to inject a more hard-nosed intensity into the team, called him out and subsequently left him in the cold. The Emery vision didn’t work out, and it was assumed Arteta, who came from a school of thought much closer to Wenger’s, would soon reinstate him. But he didn’t; Özil wasn’t even named in the 25-man Premier League squad for this season.
Intensity, high-energy and pressing are the hallmarks of Arteta’s philosophy, thanks in no small part to Pep Guardiola’s tutelage. In his final public comments on Özil before his departure, Arteta said he “wanted to take the team in a different direction”. During the three years since he opted to stay at the club, when interest in was still fairly high, Özil has drifted into obscurity ever so gradually, with some supporters unforgiving of him because his game was perceived to be passive and not deserving of the wage packet he was picking up.
There is little doubt that Özil’s exit is a blessing for everyone involved. Arsenal can draw a line under a difficult end to a complex relationship, while the now 31-year-old can enjoy his final years at his boyhood club, rebuilding his image. Lessons should be learnt, though. Mesut Özil, or any other player of that ilk, should be treated with care and foresight. His talent should have outweighed the issues surrounding his work-rate but rarely did in the end. He was billed as the man to usher in a new era, but in the end, he simply embodied what has become known as the ‘modern Arsenal’.