Unai Emery was given an out. After Arsenal meekly lost 2-0 to Tottenham in the Carabao Cup quarter-final, the head coach was asked why Özil had not been included. “It was tactical,” came the reply. When asked about a future, all Emery said was “I’m thinking about Saturday’s game.”
Since Emery let slip that he didn’t consider Özil for Bournemouth nearly a month ago — because of physical demands — Özil has played 103 minutes. He missed four games with back spasms, the veracity of which seems a lot more questionable after Emery dropped him from the squad completely for a North London Derby, preferring to have Mohamed Elneny, Joe Willock and Eddie Nkethiah on the bench. This of course even after Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi have had poor runs of form as of late.
The truth is quite simple: Emery is freezing out Özil. Indeed, the situation may come to resemble Paul Pogba at Manchester United, though Emery doesn’t seem to be as much of a psychopath as Mourinho. But there is a fundamental truth about Pogba at Manchester United, playing for Mourinho, and Özil at Arsenal, playing for Emery: they are awkward fits, unnatural fits.
Pogba’s exuberance and attacking forays never worked with Mourinho’s preference for midfield discipline. As for Özil, he is not the type of No 10 that Emery has favoured; at Valencia, Emery, for example, used Alejandro Dominguez with Juan Mata in a wide position, and at Sevilla, Emery used central midfielders Ivan Rakitic and then Ever Banega as his No. 10. At PSG, Emery was convinced to play a 4-3-3 system, and so didn’t have a No. 10, but had a midfield three, usually composed of deep-lying playmakers and box-to-box runners. In effect, Emery did not frequently use a player like Mesut Özil, and had never shown a great desire to do so (whereas ironically enough, Mourinho adores Özil).
This of course is a huge problem, but it’s worth examining how this became one. In many ways, this dates back to the summer of 2017, when Arsenal let Alexis Sánchez and Özil run their contracts down to just one season. Sánchez, of course, left in exchange of useless contract assets for Mkhitaryan — an NBA-style deal — and have seen Sánchez leave. Arsenal kept Özil, on the other hand, signing him to a £350k/week contract. This was, according to Miguel Delaney of the Independent, a deal that Arsène Wenger resented sanctioning (likely because it broke the structure of wages at Arsenal) implying that this was a deal pushed on by the higher-ups at the club — including Ivan Gazidis and Sven Mislintat (though he may have been involved, Raul Sanllehi didn’t officially begin working at Arsenal until the beginning of February).
Those involved in sanctioning Özil’s contract extension, then, were the same people involved in hiring Emery four months later; the same people who should’ve done the research to see if Emery and Özil were right for each other. This is not to say that one player takes precedence over the rest of the club in deciding who the manager should be; rather, it is to make the point that the correct manager is the person who can get the most out of the resources available to them, and at present, Emery is not getting the most out of Özil. Since performing at an extremely high level against Leicester City, Özil played well against Liverpool, and was fairly unremarkable against Crystal Palace and Wolves, in two bad Arsenal performances. Then came the place on the bench against Bournemouth, the back spasm, and then being dropped completely.
One key difference between the Özil of the late-Wenger teams and the Özil that has played under Emery has been the influence Özil has been allowed to have on games. Unlike Wenger, Emery has played Özil either in a wide position or as a No. 10, but a No. 10 that is restricted to playing higher up the pitch, not dictating play. The situation is not great for Özil, but it is also unfair for Emery, bringing us back to the club’s process on these decisions. Emery’s job is to maximize the resources available to him, both in order to get Arsenal back into the Champions League, either by finishing in the top 4 or by winning the Europa League, and to build a platform for future success. With the Özil situation, Emery is not doing that, but it was also a situation that was handed to him; a problem that he had to address from his first day on the job, given his history of not utilizing No. 10s.
This precise situation becomes problematic for two reasons: firstly, Özil is on a lot of money, which affects Arsenal’s ability to re-sign and sign other players, especially with other high wages being given to other players in the squad (like Mkhitaryan, Lacazette, Auabameyang). Secondly, because Özil has just signed a new, expensive contract, it becomes very difficult to move him. Any club that buys Özil — and clearly, Arsenal are at least thinking about about selling him — would do so conscious of his wage demands. This means that they would give Arsenal a smaller transfer fee, and may even require Arsenal to subsidize wages, forcing Arsenal to take a financial loss. For a club that is self-sustaining and whose owners refuse to provide outside money, this has ramifications for the club’s ability to spend in future transfer windows.
Özil and Emery was always going to be a marriage of convenience. Unfortunately for Arsenal, it is a relationship that has broken down within six months. This results in some uncomfortable truths for the Arsenal front office and board, namely that decisions were made by Arsenal that were inherently contradictory, and were guided by a lack of foresight and thinking for the long-term.