All good things come in threes. Arsenal supporters were still convincing themselves of the merits of the first and the likelihood of the second when the third became an unexpected possibility last month. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were wonderful additions, but the most important signing was on Mesut Ozil’s new contract.
The departure of Alexis Sanchez meant Ozil’s future took on all-new importance for Arsenal. Few clubs could legislate for losing their two best players for free in consecutive transfer windows – particularly to rivals – regardless of who comes in to replace them. It illustrates a lack of forward planning and coherent thinking. Most importantly, it underlines an absence of ambition.
Arsene Wenger knew he could only afford to lose one of his two assets. He perhaps acknowledged he could only afford to keep one, too. Ozil’s raise to £350,000 a week has pushed Arsenal’s well-maintained wage structure to its very limits; it would not have been possible to keep both him and Sanchez.
The parent was forced to choose his favourite, and Wenger opted for the quieter child genius over his more unruly but still prodigiously talented son. The harmony and balance of the side was protected by keeping the orchestrator and losing the one-man band.
But with such a powerful vote of confidence comes greater responsibility. “You expect that he becomes the leader,” Wenger said of Ozil earlier this month. “He can be the technical leader of the team going forward.”
When asked whether he will now look to build the team around the German, the response was a little more considered. “I never understood completely what that means,” said the manager. “Because I think a team goes naturally through its strong points. So you cannot artificially create that.
“A team has quite a subconscious intelligence and chooses a way in the game that is most efficient. And normally when you say build a team around [a player], I will not decide that. It’s the team on the pitch that decides that. And he is naturally a focal point because they give him naturally the ball.”
The point was simple: Ozil is already central to Arsenal’s style. An increased wage does not mean there has to be a conscious effort to build the team around a player who already has the construction plans.
With Sanchez gone and Ozil committing his long-term future to the club, the wider response from neutrals and opposition fans was revealing. The German’s inclusion in our top ten players of the season was disputed by some, such is the difficulty in winning over doubters who insist on wearing blindfolds and earplugs while constantly repeating the same tiresome criticisms.
The demand was for Ozil to assume more responsibility and more authority. ‘Post-Sanchez, he needs to be a leader in that team,’ said Oliver Kay of The Times, while Paul Merson was rather more dismissive. “It’s just not his job. I just can’t imagine him saying anything to anybody,” he began. “He’s great when he’s got the ball but when he hasn’t got the ball he isn’t going to close people down. It’s not his job. So I think Arsene’s got that one horribly wrong.”
Ozil is the shadow leader of the team, he understands his teammates a lot, knowing their behavior, adjust the right pace and angle to make the right pass so they are comfortable to react and receive it. Not his biggest fan, but truly appreciate his sportsmanship.
— The Libero (@different_class) January 17, 2018
But leadership cannot only be measured in tackles made and yards covered, or in outward displays of passion or desire. It is not something a manager can bestow upon any player, nor can it be automatically transferred through an armband. The pool of viable candidates would be permanently shallow if only chest-thumping, fist-bumping players were considered capable of guiding a team.
If actions speak louder than words, Ozil’s voice carries further than most. Merson is not alone in being unable to “imagine him saying anything to anybody”, but a silent leader can be just as effective as the most vocal member of the dressing room. The Arsenal squad is a democracy, and Ozil has been appointed its figurehead by vote, not veto.
Since August 2015, the German has not started 16 Premier League games. Of those matches, Arsenal have won as many as they have lost (five each), and drawn even more (six). They have scored 21 goals, conceding 20. Only once, in the 3-3 draw with Bournemouth in January 2017, have they scored more than two goals in a game without their talisman.
It was Ozil, not Sanchez, who inspired the comeback against Liverpool in December. It was Ozil, not Sanchez, who was the spark in the Premier League draw against Chelsea and the League Cup second-leg victory over the same opponent last month. The criticism against the German has often been his perceived inability to affect such games, but he is now doing so on a regular basis. It is Ozil who is leading Arsenal by example into an exciting but uncertain future.
The 29-year-old did not score or assist a single goal in the 5-1 thrashing of Everton, the start of the club’s latest chapter. Yet he created the most chances (four), and pulled the strings while Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang and Aaron Ramsey received the plaudits. But the most striking aspect was how every Arsenal player sought to pass to Ozil at every possible opportunity.
As Wenger said earlier this month, the German “is naturally a focal point because they give him naturally the ball”. He is the main outlet for the defence and midfield, and chief creator for the attack; he is the first pass Granit Xhaka or Jack Wilshere sees, and the first run Aubameyang makes. He understands the needs of Alex Iwobi and the intricacies of Alexandre Lacazette. He is the only player who offers a unique service for each member of the squad. Ozil is Arsenal’s bespoke tailor, and Mesut fits ever so nicely.