After a dull 1-0 victory against Bournemouth at the start of this month, the headlines were not made by the Arsenal players on the pitch, but rather by one off it. When asked why he had chosen to leave Mesut Ozil out of the squad entirely, head coach Unai Emery bluntly responded: “It’s because I think other players deserved it more.”
After over a year of struggling to find a way to fit him into his Arsenal side, Emery appears to have finally lost patience with the German this season. Ozil has started just one Premier League game and has not featured for the club at all since their 5-0 victory over Nottingham Forest in the Carabao Cup in September. Put into further context. Ozil has seen only 71 minutes of EPL action this season (Whoscored) and 20-year-old Joe Willock has seen more than four times the total minutes Ozil has managed (310 minutes).
His plight under Emery is symptomatic of a trend that has taken over elite European football in recent times – the death of the No. 10.
There was a time when a mercurial creative talent who would operate largely in behind the central striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation was a must-have for any top European side. Former Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger was so enamoured with this type of player that during the season leading up to the finest moment of Mesut Ozil’s career – his 2014 World Cup win with Germany – the Gunners had five of them; Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil himself.
But as the Premier League began to attract Europe’s top managerial talent in Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, a 4-3-3 suddenly became the formation in vogue. Players of Mesut Ozil’s style had now reached their ice age. It was time to adapt or become extinct.
Compare him to Kevin De Bruyne. When the Belgian arrived at Manchester City in 2015, he did so as one the most promising no.10s in the world and was given free reign to do almost whatever he pleased on the pitch under Manuel Pellegrini.
But as Pellegrini was replaced by Guardiola, De Bruyne was forced to evolve his role to suit the demands of his manager’s 4-3-3 formation. He has now established himself as one of the league’s best playmakers and is on track to break the Premier League record of 20 assists that Ozil came so close to smashing himself back in the 2015/16 season. The Belgian has already made eight assists in a respectable 531 minutes (Whoscored) and with an average of an assist every 66 minutes and 30 more games to play, you can place your money on De Bruyne making that record his own.
Ozil, on the other hand, can’t even get into an Arsenal side crying out for some of the creativity he offers and is below the likes of Dani Ceballos, Joe Willock and even 18-year-old Bukayo Saka in the pecking order. Quite the ultimate downgrade for someone who was once Real Madrid’s prized asset and has numerous assists records to his name.
An era of gegenpressing and tiki-taka means what you do off the ball has become as important as what you do on it. The last side to win the Champions League featuring a No. 10 was Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid back in 2013/14. Every other winner of Europe’s elite club competition in that time has used the 4-3-3 formation.
Unai Emery simply won’t tolerate Ozil’s relaxed approach to his defensive duties, in the way that Arsene Wenger would. Ozil turned 31 this week, and the three-time Europa League-winning coach appears to prefer younger, harder working players in the attacking slot of his three in midfield.
However, in hope for a happy ending, Emery has now insisted he has been pleased with Ozil lately and he is still has a future at Arsenal.
Clarifying his comments on saying other players deserved to start ahead of Ozil, the Spaniard has dismissed any relationship rifts between himself and the 31-year-old. As quoted by Evening Standard, Emery said:
“When I said that it was because at the moment maybe physically, maybe also with more rhythm and maybe more it depends what we need from other players in each match, then they were in front of him at that moment,” said Emery.
“But now I am telling you I am feeling better with him every day in training and also he is another possibility in the squad now to play and to help us.”
The key focus on those statements from Emery is the excerpt of “players with more rhythm and what they have to offer as it stands”. The summary of it all is that Ozil must adapt to the current reality of the Arsenal squad and football itself or see himself fade out gradually on the big stage. Kevin De Bruyne who plays as a central midfielder for City is occasionally seen on the flanks whipping in crosses with no mercy and on other occasions, he could be seen just in front of the opposition box waiting to pounce on a loose ball. The luxury Ozil was afforded in his early years seems to have gone extinct with time and he must make him himself a more “complete” option to stand a chance for selection. Football has become more demanding and with increasing demand, more supply must come into play and in this context more “work-rate” and grit must be well evident.
Arsenal play Sheffield United on Monday and it would be a soothing relief for the Gunners faithful to see the darling Ozil return back to first-team action. What Emery has in mind to that effect, we will have to wait and see.