Has the Wizard of Ozil lost his magic? As usual, the criticism is overblown
In a football culture that fetishizes the image of Terry Butcher's head swathed in a blood-soaked bandage, Mesut Ozil will always be an easy target. The German World Cup winner hardly radiates the kind of gritty fighting spirit the English hold so dear, and that lack of derring-do has increasingly become the lightning rod for the midfielder's critics -- many of whom, oddly and ironically, support the team he plays for.
The speed with which Ozil has gone from Arsenal God to Arsenal's goat this season is breathtaking, especially given he has played his entire career at such a languid pace. Lest we forget, it was barely two weeks ago that Ozil was being hailed for his Dennis Bergkamp-esque genius as the creative linchpin of Arsenal's scintillating attack, a dizzying assault that had catapulted the Gunners to the top of both their Champions League group and the Premier League (albeit, for about three hours).
People couldn't stop praising the Wizard of Oz, who was not content to be one of the world's great pass masters but had added a lethal goal-scoring component to his glittering repertoire. Who among us will ever forget what bar stool we were on when he scored with a brilliant looping header against Stoke as if he was an elfin version of Cristiano Ronaldo? All hail, Air Ozil! Well, for a fortnight anyway.
As with all things Arsenal, it was too good to last. In rapid succession came the start of the tedious contract standoff -- in which he (and Alexis Sanchez) demanded "Messi Money" to remain in North London beyond next season -- followed by spectacular vanishing acts in consecutive defeats to Everton and Man City.
Suddenly, the Gunners' title challenge went criminally wrong and Ozil was being perp-walked into the Court of Irrational Fandom with his jersey pulled up to obscure his face. This was a rush to judgment akin to assuming that Wayne Rooney's hair would never grow back.
If you listened to the hysterical blather in the media this week, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the only reason Arsene Wenger didn't substitute Ozil in defeats against Everton and Man City is because he couldn't find Arsenal's record signing on the pitch. But the question begs: Can you name any Arsenal player, other than the human whirlwind that is Sanchez, who was worth the red-and-white shirt he was wearing in those limp capitulations?
The twin collapses weren't the result of a single individual taking the night off, nor were they, as Arsene Belichick would like us to believe, the result of a nefarious refereeing conspiracy to deny Arsenal its divine right to a first title since 2004.
No, it was more depressingly predictable than either of those sore loser excuses. It was yet another example of Arsenal's consistent failure to maintain urgency and intensity in games against elite teams away from home. Over the years, it's been a bloodbath for the road-phobic Gunners at Chelsea (last win in 2011, but what a 5-3 joyful occasion it was!), Manchester United (2006), Manchester City (2015), Liverpool (2012) or Tottenham (2014). But this season was supposed to be different. Wenger had his deepest, most experienced team in a decade and confidently proclaimed that this newfound "maturity" would see them through the frenzied atmosphere of the big games. Some of us were loony enough to believe him.
Certainly, Wenger had Ozil in mind when he made that optimistic pronouncement.
At 28, three years removed from Real Madrid and with a La Liga title and a World Cup medal, Ozil is one of Arsenal's most battle-hardened performers. Indeed, he had toughened himself up over the summer for just these testing occasions by adding muscle to his wiry frame. Which is why the image of Ozil strolling around midfield, like a man in a flower shop pausing to sniff every bouquet, only reinforces the impression that he is some sort of feckless aesthete who can't be bothered with the physical and combative side of the game. But that knee-jerk perception fails to take into account several mitigating factors, not least the quality (or lack thereof) of those around him.
Let's be honest: Arsenal only has two world-class players: Ozil and Sanchez. This is not to suggest that the supporting cast is a bunch of cloggers; just that they are not on the same footballing bandwidth as either of the pony-up-or-we-are-out-of-here dynamic duo. Of the Gunners' midfielders, only Santi Cazorla, with his quicksilver ability to find the German in space and instantly turn defense into attack, has the craft to bring out the best in Ozil; and the diminutive Spaniard has been out injured since, roughly, when General Franco ran the country.
As a result, Ozil has increasingly found himself crowded out in the center of the park, often doubled up on by opponents willing to take their chances with the rest of Arsenal's midfielders. The frustration that stems from being starved of the ball has caused him to drift in and out of games, leading to the criticism that he's a "luxury player," someone who floats above the fray and descends every so often to make a killer pass or score a sumptuous goal.
This is true only in the sense that unlike, say, Sanchez, he doesn't have the drive and ability to put a team on his slender shoulders and carry it forward. Ozil is more a connoisseur of angles and space, a player who with a flick of his right ankle can contribute that decisive moment of brilliance in matches at the highest level, much like Andrea Pirlo did for all those years at Juventus. Hands up if you can remember the Italian maestro making a juddering tackle in midfield that disrupted the opposition's attack?
Juve made it easy for Pirlo, assigning others to do the dirty work so the team could take maximum advantage of his creative skills. Why, for the sake of escargot soaked in garlic butter, doesn't Wenger simply afford Ozil similar protection? Let the other nine outfield players run around and chase down their opponents, while allowing Ozil's artistry to flourish. If you want to get a glimpse as to how well it would work, cue up Eden Hazard's performances for Chelsea this season.
It's fair to say that Ozil's body language betrays him; he moves like a person who is reclining in a hammock, but his odometer is deceptively high. My favorite German runs his hintern off (he leads the team in distance covered in the Champions League this season, with 59,820m run) whether or not he's huffing and puffing as theatrically as some Gooners or pundits might like. He has played the most minutes this season of any Arsenal player, other than their captain Laurent Koscielny, who runs a lot less than Ozil does, and the Gunners are still viable in three competitions.
You can't even blame Wenger for overplaying him. Who would you trust, right now, in this Arsenal side to unlock a defense and weigh a pass perfectly to the feet of an attacker? The only two players you could conceivably imagine in that central creative role, Cazorla and to a lesser extent Aaron Ramsey, are crocked. Seriously, there is no one else. Hence, Ozil plays 90 minutes once or twice a week and as a result, occasionally the fatigue takes its toll, as it did emphatically at Goodison Park and the Etihad.
But it's so much easier to lay the blame at his cultured feet, because otherwise Arsenal fans would have to look elsewhere, and you know how much we all love and respect Monsieur Wenger.
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.