Image: Wikimedia Commons / Ronnie Macdonald
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Ronnie Macdonald

Mesut Özil leaves Arsenal: the assist king departs under dark cloud

Mesut Özil, the misunderstood enigma, has slipped away from Arsenal to Turkey after seven and a half years of service. He departs quietly, despite being one of the most talented players in the club’s history, leaving a sense that his time at Arsenal represents a missed opportunity.

Born in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, to Turkish parents, Özil has always held a strong affinity to his forbearers’ homeland and grew up a practising Muslim. Most of his childhood was spent playing football in Gelsenkirchen’s concrete ‘monkey cages’ where Özil’s talent would stand out and later lead him to Bundesliga side Schalke.

Özil then joined Werder Bremen, where he earned a call up to the national team. Impressive performances in the 2010 World Cup attracted Real Madrid for whom Özil would play 105 La Liga games before the arrival of Gareth Bale forced Madrid to flog one of their prized assets.

Arsenal’s blockbuster Deadline Day £42.5 million transfer of the “assist king” sent shockwaves through the football world. Suddenly, the club which had been publicly humiliated over the infamous Luis Suarez bid a month before appeared a genuine threat.

Özil contributed to 21 goals in 42 games in all competitions in his first season

A mixed first season with the occasional dazzling performance resulted in the ending of a nine-year trophy drought with an FA Cup final victory against Hull. Aaron Ramsey deservedly stole the headlines, but Özil contributed to 21 goals in 42 games in all competitions.

That summer he would go on to play an integral role in the German national team which would win the World Cup. The tournament saw the emergence of Barcelona’s Alexis Sánchez and Arsenal purchased the mercurial Chilean for an estimated £35 million.

Alexis hit the ground running and propelled the Gunners to another FA Cup and Özil was again overshadowed. However, his performances towards the end of the season, particularly in the final, showed the telepathic relationship the pair were beginning to develop.

Arsenal began to make serious blunders off the pitch. They needed, crucially, to strengthen up-front. Links with Zlatan Ibrahimović and Gonzalo Higuain came to nothing, and only the ageing Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech was signed.

The lack of a prolific striker would come back to haunt Arsenal

Özil was at the peak of his powers in the 2015/16 season and his 17th assist of the season for Danny Welbeck’s 95th-minute winner against Leicester City looked prematurely title-deciding. It seemed certain he would beat Thierry Henry’s record of 20 for a whole season.

But the lack of a prolific striker would come back to haunt Arsenal. Olivier Giroud’s fifteen-game goal drought meant the German only registered two more assists as he and the club fell short of the best chance at winning the title since 2004.

Another horrendous transfer window saw Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Pérez brought in for a total just under £100 million. The club failed to build around Özil and Alexis and subsequently didn’t qualify for the Champions League for the first time in 21 years.

Equally worrying, the dynamic duo had been allowed to have their contracts run down into their final year. The club was reluctant to lose both stars and an in-form Özil was rewarded an outrageous £350,000-a-week contract. Alexis left in the winter for Manchester United, and both players soon looked lost without each other.

I am German when we win but I am an immigrant when we lose

– Mesut Özil

Özil and the German national team would crash humiliatingly out of the group stage in the 2018 World Cup. Özil had taken a photo with, and shown support for, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan before the tournament and he was targeted with racist and Islamophobic attacks. The German Football Association’s president Reinhard Grindel also used Özil as a scapegoat and raised doubts over his loyalty. Özil would retire from international football, saying “I am German when we win but I am an immigrant when we lose.”

Unai Emery took the helm at Arsenal in 2018 following the departure of legendary manager Arsène Wenger and offered support to Özil. Arsenal went 22-games unbeaten, including Özil’s captaining of the side to an eye-catching 3-1 win against Leicester in one of his best ever games.

Early optimism soured. Özil missed games through unexplained ‘injury’ or ‘illness’ and looked languid when he played. A poor season ended in an embarrassing 4-1 drubbing by Chelsea in the Europa League final.

Özil would then be a victim of an armed car-jacking attempt alongside Arsenal teammate Sead Kolašinac, who would chase off the two men. The pair were given time off football by the club to recover from a traumatic ordeal. Kolašinac would return to the squad but Özil would only make his return in a Carabao Cup fixture against Liverpool in late October.

Arsenal’s woeful form continued and Emery was sacked in November 2019. Former Arsenal captain Mikel Arteta was appointed Head Coach and offered brief respite for Özil who was reintegrated and produced standout performances against Newcastle and West Ham.

Arsenal’s release of club mascot Gunnersauras prompted heavy backlash

However, the COVID-19 lockdown posed significant challenges for the club and a PR battle would ensue with Özil. The players were asked to take a pay-cut, which Özil refused, and the £350,000-a-week player would be made a scapegoat for the redundancy of 55 staff.

Arsenal’s release of club mascot Gunnersauras, Jerry Quy, prompted heavy backlash to which Özil responded by publicly offering to cover Quy’s wages.

Ironically, Özil became somewhat of a mascot himself. Following his exile from the team, he showed his ‘support’ on Twitter. But it appeared merely an attempt to emphasise his bewildering absence on “footballing reasons”, as Arsenal looked bereft of creativity. How can someone of Özil’s talent be excluded from such a poor squad?

The Arsenal and Özil brands had clashed previously. When Özil spoke out against China inflicting genocide upon its Uighur Muslim population the club shamefully distanced itself. It has been speculated that Özil’s omission from the club is a to protect Arsenal’s commercial value in the Chinese market.

Özil’s demotion was plagued by uncertainty that has ultimately cost the club results. The club’s simple explanation of “footballing reasons” does not suffice. Speculation is rife and if the justification relates to China there is little surprise the club does not wish to make this public.

However, it is now clear that, from the comfort of Fenerbahçe, Özil will now have greater freedom to express his football as well as his politics.

Özil moves to Turkey and joins the club he supported as a boy

Özil merits his humanitarian reputation through extensive charity work. However, questions remain over his friendship with Turkish President Erdoğan, currently presiding over Turkey’s harsh treatment of minority groups and the Kurdish people.

Özil moves to Turkey and joins the club he supported as a boy, aiming to win their first title since 2014. Özil will slot into his favoured ‘Number Ten’ role in the Turkish side just in front of the Brazilian stalwart and captain Luiz Gustavo and Crystal Palace-linked Ozan Tufan.

The Turkish Süper Lig has shown that it can continue to attract the biggest names in football. Turkish football has been home to fellow maestros in Galatasaray’s Gheorghe Hagi and Wesley Sneijder and Özil will hope to emulate their success in the Yellow and Blue side of Istanbul.

Fenerbahçe fans will hope Özil can fill the creative void left following Diego Perotti’s season-ending knee injury.

The departures of Sokratis, Özil and Kolašinac (on loan at Schalke) represent a major clear out of high-wage underperformers at Arsenal. Mikel Arteta’s revolution led by young stars, Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli, shows promise – even if the shadowy presence of ‘super-agent’ Kia Joorabchian looms ominously over the club.

He was no Thierry Henry or Dennis Bergkamp

Arsenal will be relieved to have put the £350,000/week nightmare behind them, but this should not take away from Özil’s achievements.

No, he did not live up to the lofty expectations. No, he was no Thierry Henry or Dennis Bergkamp. But, whilst the club’s best players consistently left for rivals, Mesut Özil decided to stay. He was brought in to end the desperate hunt for silverware and he delivered. Özil does not deserve the send-off, or lack of, he has been given by the club.

Mesut Özil leaves behind a very successful career at Arsenal littered with a series of magical passes, a wondergoal against Ludogorets and four FA Cups. However, there remains a tinge of disappointment at a legacy which should have been far greater than it turned out.

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