In a parallel universe, Mesut Ozil is the consummate player Arsene Wenger has always dreamed of: Somewhat aloof, but buttressed by an unmatchable skill set and that gossamer touch, allowing the German to orchestrate the play from his favoured number ten position, at the ready, to split opposing defences open with cunning through balls.
Instead, on Wednesday against Bayern Munich, with a prime chance for redemption and 90 minutes to silence a growing army of critics in the wake of his poor form, Ozil was nowhere to be seen. Had he sneaked out of the doughnut-like stadium that the Allianz Arena is with a Houdini act?
Ozil’s vanishing act
Ozil and Arsenal were pummelled. The stats – worse than damned lies, according to Mark Twain – were a case in point. In Ozil’s 90 minutes, he attempted a paltry 20 passes, conjuring up a single chance. His total was so low that only Munich’s goalkeeper Manuel Neuer finished with fewer passes.
Thiago Alcantara, Ozil’s opposite number, who scored two goals, was pacing the game. Bayern’s No. 6 provided an assist and completed 36 passes in the final third. The math then becomes simple – that is 16 passes more than Ozil managed in the entire match. The German had been invisible.
That also reveals a pattern. Ozil, like Arsenal, goes missing in the major matches – when it really matters. Alexis Sanchez was the sole Arsenal player to not cave in. The high-energy Chilean did not want to accept his fate. He resisted the scenario of an unravelling Arsenal, but by the end of the evening, even he crouched on his haunches – exasperated and crestfallen at the ineptitude of his team. He had drowned in a morass of clownish football.
Not that Munich had bullied the Londoners, a tried and trusted method to force Arsenal into submission. Bully Arsenal and bully Ozil, and they will scuttle. Munich need not too. They scarcely had to apply the full “arsenal” of their powers to win. Munich simply “Robb-ed” and “Mullered” Arsenal for “fun”.
Dreamy when on song, peripheral when not
Ozil and Arsenal barely registered a sentient presence. The German embodies his club. He is emblematic of their pushover status. Yet Ozil’s talent is unquestionable. On a fine day, he merits high praise as one of the game’s best passers, with exceptional skills. The same goes for Arsenal. They can still play superlative football, that unique version of “Wengerball”, when the players and ball move in dreamy harmony. When they click, they can be phenomenal, but those glory days increasingly belong to yesteryear and the hazy heights of the “Invincibles”.
Get in Ozil’s face and he fades. Get in Arsenal’s face and they fade. When tested and when bullied, Arsenal yield and, at times, self-inflict defeat. On Wednesday, they faced adversity – not fierce and desperate tackles, but a slick unit. Arsenal’s response was puzzling, because it was simply non-existent.
The real Arsenal and the real Ozil surfaced. The true test of a team and its marquee player is their reaction when falling a goal behind. Sanchez responded, the rest of Arsenal did not. Ozil was Arsenal’s biggest disappointed, vanishing when in the spotlight.
It has been the story of his entire season. Domestically, against the top six, he has scored just once. True, he has never been prolific in front of goal, but he has not delivered an assist either against those teams. In the Champions League he registered three goals and four assists, but that was against Ludogorets and Basel, two minnows of European football.
Ozil’s confidence has taken a dent, resulting in part in his lackadaisical attitude, but Wenger has also refused to bench him. The German, however, is not to blame for Arsenal’s demise – the problems run far deeper – but at the age of 28, Ozil will remain Ozil. He cannot be expected to track back Robben or Thomas Muller. But that he was so rudderless against Munich was telling of a steer-less Arsenal. Both Ozil and Arsenal must improve. As long as they do not, victory and silverware will remain elusive.