MISSING MESUT: CAN ARSENAL AFFORD TO LOSE ÖZIL
With the announcement last week that Arsenal midfielder Mesut Özil has not been included in Mikel Arteta’s 25-man Premier League squad, the end of a strange, sometimes brilliant era is upon us.
At the time of his signing in 2013 Özil was one of the best playmakers, if not the best, in the world and securing his signature was a deadline day masterstroke from the then-Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger. In his first five campaigns for the Gunners, Özil either scored or assisted 108 goals in all competitions as he helped Arsenal end their nine-year trophy drought by winning the 2014 FA Cup -followed by a further two FA Cups in the next three seasons. Those 108 goal contributions meant that he was averaging 21.6 involvements per season across his first five seasons, yet in the following two seasons (2018/19 and 2019/20) he managed only 13 contributions – 9 in the 18/19 season and just 4 in the 19/20 campaign. Though some of this decline can be explained by fewer appearances each season, his lack of output was mainly down to poorer performances.
Özil’s rapid fall from grace across those 7 terms leads us to today, in what his 8th season as an Arsenal player. Only now, he is less of a player and more someone who trains with the players. Left out of both Arsenal’s Premier League and Europa League squads, it seems the earliest game Özil is likely to get is in January if a move to another club were to materialise. It can’t be much fun for any senior player to be left out of their team’s squad, as Sokratis also has for Arsenal and Phil Jones and Sergio Romero have for Manchester United, as other high-profile examples. However, Mesut Özil is not just any player. He’s Arsenal’s highest-paid player who has a history of polarizing opinions with his playing style and off-the-field activities. This is a huge call by Arteta and Arsenal. At the time he was offered his contract with massive wages, Arsenal clearly saw Özil as not only a part of the future of the club, but a major asset to it – a stark contrast to the situation he now finds himself in.
So, can Arsenal replace him? Have they replaced him? Do they need to replace him?
When looking at his most recent form, specifically his previous two seasons at the club, it shouldn’t be hard for Arsenal to replace his 13 goal contributions. Last season, 18-year-old Bukayo Saka contributed to 15 goals in his first full season in the Arsenal first team, having stepped up from the under 23s towards the end of the previous campaign. Those 15 goal contributions, two more than Özil managed in his last two seasons combined, were contributions Arsenal did not have the previous season before Saka was in the team.
What’s more is that, at 18 years old, Saka is only just beginning and can surely be expected to only improve from here. Such is the faith shown in him by Arteta and the board that they have handed him the number 7 shirt for this season, clearly showing their intentions for him to be a part of the first team for as long as they can keep him.
On top of Saka’s explosion onto the scene, this season Arsenal have gone some way to addressing the gap that Özil, or at least an in-form version of Özil, would leave. Dipping into the transfer market, Arsenal activated the release clause of Thomas Partey and also secured Willian’s services on a free transfer and renewed the loan of Dani Ceballos. Willian, though no longer in his prime, will be sure to add an element of creativity to Arsenal’s attack and demonstrated this in the first league game of the season, providing two assists for the three goals Arsenal scored.
Centrally though, the signing of Partey to marshal midfield and protect the defence with Xhaka will allow Ceballos and Saka to roam higher up the pitch and join in with the attack, safe in the knowledge they have a solid screen should they be dispossessed. Last season, and in the first few games of this season, Arsenal have sometimes suffered with a slow, stuttering approach with a disjointed transition from midfield to attack – something an in-form Özil would have once been the perfect answer to. It does seem though that Arteta is building the foundations of a team set to play in the way he wants the team to play, which at present is a more cautious, defensive style. Though it has led to some blunt attacking, the bolstered defence has been a welcome addition and it will escape the attention of no Arsenal fan that Özil did not offer a whole lot when it came to defending.
From watching the first few games of this season, it seems there is work to be done in the attacking department. However, with Thomas Partey’s full debut only coming just a few days ago, this Arsenal squad has not been able to fully flex their muscles just yet. It may be the case that a few different players will have to band together to provide the assists that Mesut Özil was once providing on his own, but Arteta seems to have put the squad in a position to be able to do that and therefore, sadly in some ways, Özil’s contributions will not be missed.