While much attention was paid to the players coming and going during the waning hours of a particularly dizzying January transfer window, one of the biggest decisions came without much fanfare and publicity. Mesut Ozil, Arsenal’s world-class midfielder, signed an extension that will see him playing for the Gunners through the 2021 season. While Arsenal broke the bank for new signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to the tune of £56 million, Ozil’s new contract sees him earning an eye-watering (but well-deserved) £350,000 per week paycheck. Not only did Ozil lock himself into a lucrative contract, he also turned down a number of notable suitors including Barcelona, PSG, and
The Devil Himself his former manager Jose Mourinho at Manchester United, as well as a ludicrous £22 million a year offer from Chinese side Guangzhou Evergrande. However, the impact of this contract extension goes well beyond Arsenal’s wage bill.
The first, and most obvious, impact is in the attack, where Ozil’s influence cannot be overrstated. He is, for lack of a better analogy, the engine that propels the Gunners. His incredible ball-skill aside, Ozil’s ability to pick out a pass is nearly unparalleled within the footballing community, as he has accrued 49 assists in league play since joining Arsenal in 2013 from Real Madrid. Despite the unwarranted criticisms about his work ethic and questions about his fitness, Ozil has been one of the most consistent members of the Arsenal first team. When he is absent from the squad, the impact is palpable. No midfield player in the past five years besides the animated corpse of Santi Cazorla has been as integral to Arsenal’s attack as Mesut Ozil. With only players of the caliber of Alex Iwobi behind him, Ozil’s departure would have signaled a death knell to Arsenal’s creativity. Instead, his extension brings relief to those who saw Sanchez’s transfer as a bad omen for the Gunners’ attack, and shows Wenger’s intentions to build the attack around Mesut’s superb skill set.
Over the course of two decades, Arsenal have held a seat at the table of the footballing elite, a seat currently being occupied by the Ghost of Arsene Wenger Past. For the better part of ten years, however, Arsenal have started every season with high hopes and praise from pundits, only to see league and cup aspirations crash and burn by January due to any combination of injuries, lack of focus, or poor management, ultimately leading to accusations that Arsenal lacked “true title ambitions.” Arsenal’s wholesale exodus of languishing fringe players this past month was a landmark occasion as it signaled a departure from Wenger’s typically quiet approach to winter transfer windows. The transfers of attacking stalwarts like Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud (and that one tiny guy with the cool dogs) meant that Arsenal were looking at a hard reset with their attack. Beside the acquisition of Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang, the retention of Ozil was a huge step toward rekindling the type of ambition Arsenal are known for and expected to have, and the new contract is a showing of good faith for an attacker who has become the creative talisman of Arsenal’s free-flowing style of football.
Wenger, like most doddering grandpas, has a nostalgic soft spot. But, like most doddering grandpas, Arsene has also been averse to change. Wenger has notoriously rewarded players he likes with long-term contract extensions, regardless of their caliber or impact on the team (no one has yet to fully convince me that Francis Coquelin didn’t have incriminating pictures of Wenger at a nude beach on the French Riviera). While faith is typically an appreciated quality in a manager, Arsene’s faith in out-of-form players caused a glut of middling footballers that created a divide in the talent level of players on roster, as well as a small fortune of money being spent on players whose best years were behind them. This recent window has done much to dispel the notion that Wenger is unwilling to let go of dead weight, but his push to re-sign Ozil was a sign of his acknowledgment of Ozil’s importance in the team’s identity and his faith in his ability to be the core of Arsenal’s midfield for several years to come.
Following the transfer of the want-away Chilean in January, much was written about Arsenal and their perpetual role as a “selling club,” the chosen insult of armchair pundits who don’t understand the inner workings of football clubs or the transfer market. This cynical appellation has been cast upon Arsenal with impunity any time the club has sold a player of value, accompanied by accusations that Wenger and the club ownership being shrewd penny-pinchers despite the numerous times in recent memory that Arsenal have broken their own transfer spending records to acquire players.
Perceptions are powerful, and like a cheap cologne, they are very hard to wash off. There is an old joke about a skilled bridge builder which, while crude, sums up the difficulty with perceptions: you can spend your whole life building fantastic bridges, but you sleep with one sheep, and nobody calls you a bridge builder anymore. Arsenal’s perception has taken hit after hit with each underwhelming season as the club’s golden years are becoming a distant past, but the longterm signing of Ozil, the spurning of powerful suitors, and the acquisition of Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang are all strong steps toward combating the stigma that Arsenal places more value over loyalty than winning trophies.
Whether the sweeping squad changes bears sweeter fruit will have to be seen, but the fact remains that Ozil, ever dutiful and patient, has finally been repaid for his efforts. Now he must take the reigns and be the field general that Arsene and the Arsenal faithful believe him to be.