When asked whether he had a deadline day trick up his sleeve, Arsene Wenger could barely keep the smirk from spreading across his face. “Maybe we’ll have a good surprise for you,” he said, knowingly. What he was that Arsenal had signed Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid, breaking Arsenal’s transfer record for a player considered at that time to be among the very best in the sport.
Indeed, Ozil was announced as an Arsenal player the following day and thousands of fans gathered outside the Emirates Stadium to greet the news. This was seen as the start of a new era for the North London club. This was a sign that after years of scrimping in the transfer market, of relying on Wenger to keep them competitive, Arsenal could still attract players of Ozil’s calibre.
Ozil was the quintessential Wenger player. The German is effortless in his manipulation of the ball and crystal clear in his vision. For a period, he was the best playmaker in Europe, flourishing for a Real Madrid side that pipped Pep Guardiola’s great Barcelona team to the Spanish title in 2012 and winning the World Cup with his country in 2014.
As a creator, there was nobody better at the time and Ozil should have been an icon for Wenger to build his next great Arsenal team around. This was, after all, a player who wouldn’t have looked out of place supplying passes for many of the club’s ‘Invincibles.’ Thierry Henry surely would love to have played alongside Ozil.
Over time, though, Ozil became the embodiment of Arsenal’s lack of identity. He was a victim of the transition that happened after the departure of Wenger in 2018, stuck between what the Frenchman wanted the Gunners to become again and the ideological vacuum that came with Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta.
Arsenal have shown signs of a recovery recently, with Arteta no longer under the intense pressure that followed seven straight league games without a win over November and December, but this is not to say all is well at the Emirates Stadium. Far from it. The Gunners still have a lot of work to do to figure out what sort of team and organisation they want to be.
The exit of Ozil is needed, with the 32-year-old now such a lightning rod of opinion it serves nobody to keep him around. The German playmaker still has time left to enjoy a successful final phase of his career and Arsenal could use the £350,000-a-week they currently pay Ozil to strengthen their squad elsewhere.
Arteta is entitled to see the flaws in Ozil’s game, of which there are many. Natural talent isn’t always enough and the Spaniard’s concerns over Ozil’s commitment to performing his defensive duties are legitimate. Arteta must be afforded the freedom to build his own Arsenal team and if Ozil is not a part of that the club must do all they can to facilitate the desires of their manager.
But Ozil’s departure to Fenerbahce, expected to be confirmed in the coming days, also conjures wistful recollections of the player he once was and should have been for the Gunners. He should have been one of the biggest signings in the club’s history, and not just in a financial sense. His arrival should have sparked a renaissance for Wenger.
Arsenal have moved on without Ozil, but the North London club never made the most of one of the finest playmakers the game has seen in the modern age. They expected too much of the German, but never provided him with the support system required to truly thrive. Ozil arrived at the Emirates Stadium as the icon of a new era. He leaves as an emblem of how fruitless that era was and the mistakes made during it.