Ozil's resurgence symbolises Arteta's evolving Arsenal
When Mesut Ozil noticed that he was being substituted against Manchester City two weeks ago the red mist came down.
With Arsenal already 3-0 behind against the Premier League champions, Ozil trudged slowly off the pitch, drawing the ire of some of the frustrated home fans inside Emirates Stadium.
The playmaker whipped off his gloves when he reached the touchline and booted them high into the cold north London air. It was a reaction that would earn him a public ticking off from interim boss Freddie Ljungberg, who hit out at the German, saying it was not the type of behaviour he would expect from an Arsenal player.
But that incident typified the mood around the club. The mere fact that Ozil, so often the darling of the Emirates, found himself being unceremoniously ushered off the pitch by supporters encapsulated the levels of frustration that were being felt.
Wind the clock forward a fortnight, to the reaction when Ozil was replaced against Chelsea on Sunday, and things couldn't have been more different.
Granted, Arsenal were winning at the time but the standing ovation the 31-year-old received as he headed towards the touchline demonstrated the shift in mood.
Once again, the gloves came off, but this time they weren’t booted into the air. Instead they stayed firmly within Ozil’s grasp as he applauded the Gunners fans who had just seen him turn in one of his best performances in years.
There is no doubt that Ozil’s influence on games has dropped sharply in recent times. Whether it be down to formation choices or how he has been used on the pitch, Arsenal’s creator-in-chief has found assists far harder to come by than he once did.
Since setting up 19 Premier League goals in the 2015-16 season, Ozil’s numbers have been in decline.
In 2016-17 he contributed nine assists, in 2017-18 that number fell to eight and then during Unai Emery’s debut campaign in 2018-19 just two league goals were directly set up by Ozil.
Most presumed Ozil’s days at Arsenal were numbered. Emery sidelined him, sometimes even leaving him out of his squad altogether, despite the former Real Madrid’s eye-watering £350,000-a-week salary.
However, he is very much back in the fold and under new head coach Mikel Arteta he looks set to reclaim his place as one of the first names down on the Arsenal team sheet.
“I put him in the team if I see every day that his attitude, desire and understanding of what we’re trying to do is there,” Arteta said.
“He has the will and if he is in a better moment than somebody else, I will pick him. The moment that this changes, then he won’t play.”
Ozil has started each of the two games since Arteta returned to Emirates and shone on both occasions. He should line up in the No.10 role once again this evening when Arsenal kick-off 2020 with a home game against Manchester United.
When Arteta arrived at Arsenal to replace Emery, many wondered whether Ozil would be able to cope with the type of physical demands that the Spaniard would bring with him from Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
The early signs are positive. Ozil was excellent against Bournemouth and his first-half performance against Chelsea was as good as he’s delivered in a long time - on and off the ball.
“I know him really well, so I’m not surprised,” Arteta said. “I know his ability and I know the player we have there.
“I’m hoping he can sustain this level every three or four days. He’s putting in everything he has to try and do that, and I think his numbers physically have improved so much as well. He’s willing every day in training.”
Ozil and Arteta were team-mates at Arsenal for three years before the latter called time on his playing days in 2016. It was telling that when his appointment as head coach was confirmed, Ozil was the first member of the squad to congratulate his former captain on coming back.
After the dark days of Emery, he clearly sensed his chance to revitalise a career that seemed to be heading only in one direction. Suddenly he was going to be working under a coach who knew first-hand how effective he could be in a side set up to play to his strengths.
“I want to avoid the weaknesses and promote our strengths as much as possible,” said Arteta. “I think that Mesut in these kinds of positions can be very, very effective.
“On his own he can’t do it. He needs the collective structure and organisation and his teammates. Nowadays, there are only one or two players in the world who can do something on their own.
“He needs help and he needs the team to play in a certain way to facilitate his strengths more and more in the game. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Ozil, during Arteta’s first two games, symbolises the change in mood at Arsenal. The work-rate, the hunger, the desire to win the ball back and defend as a team.
Against Chelsea he was rightly praised for his quality and his work-rate. If Alexandre Lacazette had been sharper at Bournemouth he would have picked up at least one assist for his efforts.
At 31, Ozil is not the long-term solution to Arsenal’s problems but it’s clear he is far from a busted flush. Emery may not have been able to get the best out of him, but under Arteta things could be different.
The past 12 months certainly won’t rank among the best of Ozil’s career but 2019 at least ended on a more positive note for the mercurial playmaker.
What follows in 2020 only time will tell, but if Arteta’s first two games are anything to go by then a player many had written off may be about to show that he has plenty more life left in the tank.