Mesut Ozil needs to quickly find form if Arsenal's season is to be rescued
Mesut Ozil was supposed to be the cornerstone of manager Arsene Wenger's last great Arsenal side. Four years into the German's time at the Emirates, he could become the symbol of his manager's final failure.
There's more than just this season on the line when the north London club face Liverpool on Saturday. It is highly likely that Arsenal will be outside the top four by the time they kick off at Anfield. If they cannot claw their way back into the Champions League qualifying slots by the end of the campaign, Wenger's 21-year tenure in charge at Arsenal could fizzle out in the most unseemly manner.
Ozil is one of the most talented players in the Premier League. The 28-year-old World Cup winner has everything a superstar needs: a sublime touch, remarkable vision, pace, strength and power. Yet his impact on matches can be slight, and Wenger is frustrated by Ozil's lack of consistency.
The Frenchman paid £42.5 million to Real Madrid for the attacking midfielder four years ago, a record Arsenal fee. It was a statement of intent -- more than double Wenger's previous most expensive buy. The Gunners had bought a player capable of winning Premier Leagues and earning success in Europe, but it hasn't turned out that way. Ozil has not had the impact Wenger expected.
Arsenal have finished fourth, third and second in the Premier League in Ozil's three full seasons, but there has been little sense of progression or improvement in the team. The addition of Alexis Sanchez to the squad after Ozil's first campaign brought another superstar to north London, but at home and abroad, Arsenal's challenge for the trophies Wenger craves -- the Premier League and Champions League -- have been ineffectual. The Gunners' departure from Europe at the first knockout round phase has become a predictable annual event.
Some fans and pundits have questioned Ozil's competitive instincts. His languid appearance certainly contrasts with Sanchez's all-action style, though there is no doubting Ozil's will to win. After Arsenal's 2-1 defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad in December, the midfielder took out his frustration on a locker, kicking out in anger. Wenger struggles to understand why this aggressive attitude does not manifest itself on the pitch and why it cannot be channeled into the sort of leadership Arsenal need during games.
Sometimes it looks as if Ozil is in thrall to his own ability.
Last April, in a meaningless match against West Bromwich Albion (Arsenal were out of the title race but almost certain of a top-four spot), the German had a fine game in the 2-0 victory. At one point he knocked a 50-yard cross-field pass to Nacho Monreal. It was pinpoint accuracy, and after the ball left Ozil's foot, he held the pose just long enough for it to be perceptible, like a golfer holding his swing waiting for applause. It was a player luxuriating in his talent and enjoying the acclaim. A different type of character might have rushed to join the attack instead of milking the moment; Ozil displays this lack of a killer instinct all too often.
There is also a suspicion that he's reluctant to do some of the defensive work necessary for a team such as Arsenal to succeed against the best sides. Earlier this month, when Arjen Robben opened the scoring for Bayern Munich in their 5-1 victory over Arsenal in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16, Arsenal's Francis Coquelin and Kieran Gibbs were criticized for allowing the Dutchman to cut inside from the wing and shoot. They weren't the only ones too slow to close Robben down. As the Bayern winger moved infield, Ozil was 2 yards away and could have squeezed the space Robben ran into, making a shot much more difficult to pull off. Instead, Ozil stood and watched while his team went a goal down.
Wenger seemed to have solved the problem of the German's defensive role early in the season by pushing Sanchez into the centre-forward position and playing Ozil in the hole behind the Chilean. With Granit Xhaka and Santi Cazorla in the middle of the park and Alex Iwobi and Theo Walcott working up and down the pitch out wide, it meant the German could think largely about attacking and Arsenal were not overmatched in midfield. Yet Cazorla's injury disrupted the plan.
Defeat at Liverpool is unthinkable for Wenger. It would damage Arsenal's top-four hopes and give Tottenham Hotspur the chance to open up a six-point gap between the derby rivals. The season would become an uphill struggle, and Wenger's dream of creating one more great team would be in tatters.
Ozil has the ability to change things. Liverpool will press him hard at Anfield, denying him time on the ball, but the Arsenal man has the knack of being able to find space in the most congested areas. If Ozil imposes himself on the game, manager Jurgen Klopp's Reds side will have a battle on their hands. If Ozil can put together a run of form, he can transform Arsenal's season. The FA Cup is the only trophy available to Wenger's team, but securing a top-four place would make it much more likely that Ozil, Sanchez and Wenger will be at the Emirates next season.
As Ozil goes, so go the Gunners. If his season fades out in disappointment, so will the team. Arsenal and Wenger need their most expensive player to step up in the next three months, starting at Anfield on Saturday.
Are things getting better for Allardyce?
Sam Allardyce's first month at Crystal Palace was grim. He struggled to get the team organized and appeared to be broken by his experience of losing the job of England national team manager. In January he was not the rumbustious, optimistic, big-talking manager we had come to know.
He was more like his old self after the 1-0 win over Middlesbrough. Palace looked more solid than they have been in 14 months, and Luka Milivojevic seems to be the anchor in midfield around which Allardyce can build a side. But the most telling moment? After the press conference, the Palace manager spotted a plate of pies. It was too big a temptation. He grabbed one and chomped away.
It was a symbolic act: Big Sam is hungry again. The other teams in the relegation fight should beware.
Man United shouldn't always wait for Zlatan to shine
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a force of nature. If the Manchester United striker hadn't been on the Wembley pitch, Southampton would probably be parading the EFL trophy on an open-top bus this week.
But United's 3-2 victory in the final showed why manager Jose Mourinho is facing a battle to reach the top four. For long spells, the Saints outplayed their opponents. United needed a little luck, and a genius, to win the trophy. But at 35 years old, surely Ibrahimovic can't bail the side out every week, can he?
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.