Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil: New season, hopefully a new context 1

Amidst all the transfer dealings and contract extensions, one of the most astute moments of this pre-season has been Arsene Wenger’s decision to give Mesut Ozil an extended post-World Cup rest.  Of course, extra leave was also granted to Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski, but given their lesser physical exertion in Brazil that doesn’t feel quite as pertinent.

Ozil suffered enormously last season.  He arrived in England in the final minutes in the transfer-window, subsequently foregoing the obvious benefits of a Premier League-orientated pre-season, and went straight into the Arsenal side.   He initially flourished and his production in those early months was little short of phenomenal, something which seems to have been lost in the narrative which attached itself to the end of his season.

The transition into English football is difficult for every foreign player.  Beyond the actual footballing changes, English culture is very different to anything found on the continent and every new arrival must face that challenge.  From an on-pitch standpoint, however, the move into the Premier League has a different effect depending on the role and the physical profile of the player.

Ozil, of course, famously became another victim of The Mail’s ongoing persecution of everything foreign, and at one point he was rather childishly accused by them of ‘stealing a living’.  Big, bold statements sell papers and provocative headlines prompt clicks, but that actually showed a profound lack of understanding for the situation Ozil was in and, also, for the history of similar-shaped players in this league.

Every footballer is unique, but there are some stylistic and physical parallels to be drawn between the German and both Manchester City’s David Silva and Manchester United’s Juan Mata.  Think back to their debut seasons in England and, specifically, the ebb and flow of their production throughout the period - in both cases it’s remarkably similar: a promising start, a productive purple patch and then, some time in the New Year, an alarming drop-off.  Why?  Because the physical toll on diminutive playmakers fond of carrying the ball is enormous.  The general point is that the speed of English football was far greater than anything they’d experience previously but, by beyond that, the level of contact those players took in their first years would have been in excess of anything they’d endured before.

Why was that so easy to overlook?  The physical differences, the lack of a pre-season, the absence of a Winter break for the first season in his career - had Ozil sustained his form throughout the entire campaign, it would have rightly been considered an anomaly.

He had it tough in another way, too, because players of his ilk are fundamentally unsuited to having big transfer-fees around their necks.  Ozil is a very subtle footballer and a lot of what he does goes unnoticed.  Whilst goals and assists are easy to count, the weight and range of his passing and the reliability of his positioning are easy to overlook. In 2014, the game is digested in bitesize pieces and a lot of opinions are built around highlight packages.  It stands to reason, then, that the average layman fan expects constant, tangible proof that a player is worth £40m.  For that amount of money, a player ‘should’ be continuously thundering shots into the top corner, beating defenders four-at-a-time, and performing a steady stream of circus tricks when on the ball.

Ozil is not that player; he’s capable of producing eye-catching moments, but generally he’s a facilitator and a pure playmaker - i.e. someone who is reliant on those around him to be noticeably influential.

That translates to his personality, too.

While he was very successful at Werder Bremen and he did perform very well at the 2010 World Cup, the period of his career that really elevated him into the elite was his time at Real Madrid.  That was a situation in which he was surrounded by incredible attacking talent and, more importantly, attention-diverting personalities.  Ozil didn’t arrive at the Bernabeu for a club-record fee and he wasn’t the sole focus for either the media or the Spanish football public.  In a team already containing Cristiano Ronaldo, he was never going to be the player upon whose shoulders victory or defeat ultimately lay; he was a spoke on a  Real’s attacking wheel, a stylish, gifted and elegant spoke, but a spoke nonetheless.

It suited him and it he was incredibly productive.  His assist numbers only tell half the story, because his unquantifiable contribution to the overall shape of that side was extremely impressive.

Compare that situation to the one he arrived into at Arsenal last season.  He was the anointed one, the saviour, the emblem of a new, more ambitious era.  When the side didn’t play well or the attacking unit didn’t function, the questions were no longer about Ronaldo, Kaka or Benzema, they were about Ozil.  That’s hard for a player; to go from being a supporting act to a starring role is an adjustment as awkward as the move between La Liga and the Premier League.

The problem for him last season was one of context: he wasn’t provided with any.  Mesut Ozil was struggling against an invisible physical wall, a false perception of what he was, and an emotional scenario that he wasn’t really mentally equipped for.

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