In European soccer, there are few players more polarizing than Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil. He is either the savior or the pariah, depending on the day. When Arsenal loses when he’s on the pitch, he bears the lion’s share of the blame, often accused of disappearing or playing without passion or intensity. When Arsenal loses and he’s not on the pitch, it is his absence that becomes a primary scapegoat for the loss. No matter the case, he is typically silent in the face of criticism, which only tends to invite more criticism toward the German international.
This season has been a poor one for both Arsenal and Ozil. Ever since Unai Emery took over following Arsene Wenger’s departure, the club seemed to be on a positive trajectory. However, the club has suffered a crisis of identity and performance since December and have not looked capable of righting the ship any time soon. After losing 7 of the last 14 matches across all competitions, falling out of the FA Cup and the Carabao Cup, and now facing a very real chance of not suriving the first round of the Europa League knockout stages, things are looking grim for the Gunners.
One of the biggest losers in all of this has been Ozil. Emery’s early-season proclamation that he was planning on building the team around Ozil and the now-departing Aaron Ramsey seem to be from a fever dream we all imagined instead of the reassurance we believed it to be.
After Thursday’s embarrassing 1-0 loss to BATE Borisov in the Europa League, the criticisms of Unai Emery have never been louder. In what was one of Arsenal’s worst performances in recent history, the Gunners lacked many things that Ozil is often credited with bringing to the side - creativity, pinpoint passing, and fluidity in the attack. But as has been the case for much of the season, Ozil was not only left off the team sheet, but left back in London for the crucial first leg of the Europa League round of 32.
Nearly 24 hours after the debacle in Belarus, Ozil posted a cryptic-but-timely Instagram post:
While some might read this merely as a vote of confidence in his club following a deflating defeat, Ozil’s message is a shot across the bow of Emery that resonates with the discontent of many Arsenal fans who are bewildered at the ostracization of the club’s most creative (and highest paid) player.
From a PR perspective, the timing could not have been more appropriate. With many now wondering if Emery will survive long enough to see another season with Arsenal, Ozil’s message seems to indicate a desire to stay with the Gunners, a notion which seemed to have been cemented with the signing of his contract extension last season but has since been brought into question.
Second is the prominence of the Captain’s armband in the photo. After being named one of Arsenal’s five captains by Emery heading into the season, Ozil’s fallout with the new manager has felt even more bizarre, as he has failed to start or make the team sheet for the majority of Arsenal’s matches.
Lastly, he makes brilliant use of a quote from none other than Arsenal legend Dennis Bergkamp, arguably the club’s most famous #10. Despite finally obtaining the coveted kit number from the departed Jack Wilshere during the summer, Ozil has not been given many chances to excel in is chosen position by Emery, who has seemed averse to creative midfielders in lieu of holding or defensive midfielders.
It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see that Ozil is taking a shot at a manager who has appeared intent on driving him out of the side. After signing such a lucrative contract with the club, many believed it was an indicator that he was dedicating himself to the club for the remainder of his tenure as a top-flight player. Now, in the face of exile from his current manager, he has thrown down a gauntlet that says “I will be here long after you’re gone.”
If Arsenal cannot get back on track, he may be right.