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Arsenal have a Mesut Özil problem

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Mesut Özil has been a complicated, polarizing figure throughout his career. Why would the end of his time at Arsenal be any different?

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Arsenal Training Session Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Mesut Özil is a distraction. He hasn’t played for Arsenal since before the shutdown in March, but he’s still the first thing Mikel Arteta gets asked about at his press conferences. With his exclusion from both the Premier League and Europa League 25-man rosters, the earliest he can play a competitive match for Arsenal is in January after the re-registration window opens. But the prevailing wisdom is that he’s probably played his last match for the club.

Arteta said he takes “full responsibility” for not getting the best out of Özil and that he “failed” his player. Özil released a statement on Twitter, saying “loyalty is hard to come by” and was clearly subtweeting Arsenal and Mikel Arteta with his birthday wishes for Arsene Wenger in which he praised his former manager’s trust, support, respect, fairness, and honesty.

Özil’s agent, Dr. Erkut Sogut, was less politic in his comments to ESPN.

Arsenal fans deserve an honest explanation, not [Arteta] saying, ‘I failed Ozil.’ You didn’t fail Ozil. You failed to be fair, honest and transparent and treat someone with respect who has a contract and was loyal all the time.

Every single person outside knows he hasn’t treated him fairly.

Everyone says he’s training well...I spoke with at least five teammates who say he is training great. They say Mesut is one of their best players, and they cannot understand why he is left out. So it can’t be the training. If it is not the pitch, what are the footballing reasons? If you talk, you should tell the truth that the Arsenal fans deserve, otherwise don’t talk at all.

Right now, Özil is setting everything up as him versus Arsenal. He wants to play but the club won’t let him. The club furloughed Jerry Quy, better known as Gunnersaurus, but he’s willing to pay his salary. Arsenal wanted the players to take paycuts back in March, which almost all of them did, but he had reservations about how much good it would actually accomplish so he didn’t join.

Arsenal keep gifting him PR tap-ins. Firing 55 employees in August because of financial constraints after he said it wasn’t clear whether taking a paycut would help anything. Getting rid of Gunnersaurus then splashing the cash on Thomas Partey. Now, the propriety of using job losses as pieces in a PR war is a separate question, but given all the charity work Özil does, I’m inclined to believe his concern for the working man at Arsenal is genuine.

Maybe the buzz will die down as we get further from Özil not being registered to play in either the Europa or Premier League. We are still in the “reaction” phase, after all. Everybody feels the need to have their say — Arsenal, Özil’s camp, the punditry.

But when you combine Özil being the club’s top earner on £350K per-week with his creativity on the pitch (something which Arsenal have an alarming lack thereof), you get a conversation topic that may not go away. It’s easy “what if” content that generates engagement. Play the Arsenal hits, right? They’re soft as a club, by the way.

It doesn’t appear as if Özil is ready to fade into obscurity either, at least if his tweeting during the Rapid Wien match is an indicator. On their face, the tweets are innocuous — they’re positive comments on the match and supportive of his squadmates. For what it’s worth, Mikel Arteta praised Özil for supporting his teammates on social media. But Özil has never really live-tweeted an Arsenal match like that, which you can’t separate from his recent non-registration. It’s snark. He’s got an agenda and wants to keep himself front and center. He feels wronged and wants to win in the court of public opinion.

But you can easily flip Özil and his agent’s comments about loyalty on their head. If Mesut was completely committed to remaining at Arsenal, why did he run his previous contract down to the final 6 months and extract such a massive deal from the club? It was about money, not loyalty. He’s got every right to secure his bag, but if that’s how you want to play things, miss me with the loyalty shtick.

Perhaps he’s working through what is understandably a difficult moment for him. He is, after all, a professional footballer who was just told he didn’t make the team. I’d be upset too and would probably take a few snarky, subtweeting potshots myself.

The problem is he’s not just going to go away. He’s at the center of his own massive, international brand and has a larger social media following than the club. He has shown a willingness to speak up about hot-button sociopolitical issues like the prosecution of the Uighurs in China and the armed conflict in Nagorny-Karabakh region between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Arsenal immediately distanced themselves from Özil’s comments on China, saying the club “has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics.” It was a cowardly thing for the club to do that seems to have caused lasting damage to the relationship with Özil. We won’t ever know how much damage it caused and whether Özil is playing it up to advance his side of things in his spat with the club, but Arsenal came out of that particular incident looking the worse of the pair.

I believe athletes and clubs should use their platforms to advocate for positive change in the world. “Don’t imprison and kill people because of their religion” isn’t really a controversial thing for Arsenal to support. But they didn’t back Özil, opting instead to try to protect the bottom line and business in China. “We don’t do politics” rings hollow when, as a club, you’re (rightly, mind you) involved in anti-homophobia, anti-racism, and other sociopolitical campaigns. You shouldn’t get to support only the safe, en vogue issues without at least being called out for your hypocrisy.

Of course when you encourage athletes to speak out on social issues, you run the risk of them saying something you don’t agree with. Which depending on where you stand, may have happened with Özil’s position on Nagorny-Karabakh. It’s a decades-long, complex conflict, and I’m not going to try to explain it. But coming down on the same side as Turkish President Recep Erdoğan is probably not great. It’s not the first time Özil’s relationship with Erdoğan, who was a legal witness at his wedding, has been the source of controversy.

Özil’s Turkish-German identity has always been a complicated one. When he retired from the national team in 2018, he cited discrimination and a lack of support from within in the national team apparatus and from Germany as a whole as a major part of his decision, particularly as it related to a then-recent controversy about a photo with him, İlkay Gündoğan, and Erdoğan. He was German when he had a good game and Turkish-German when he had a bad one.

He’s had a similar relationship with most Arsenal fans, at least as far as running hot and cold on him is concerned. They never really fully, unreservedly embraced him. Sure, they loved him when Arsenal scored three, but he was often an unfair scapegoat when things didn’t go Arsenal’s way. Mesut Özil “doesn’t defend” or “work hard enough” or “care” was such a lazy, overused trope.

Everything is complicated when it comes to Mesut Özil. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. People are complicated. Running a football team is complicated. Life is complicated.

It’s fitting, then, that the apparent end to the Özil-Arsenal relationship has been complicated. It looks as if he’s played his last competitive match in an Arsenal shirt — March 7th, 89 minutes in a 1-0 win over West Ham. But he’s under contract through the end of the season, and it could be a long 8 months. Perhaps with time and more information we’ll better understand what exactly happened, but right now, it’s about as clear as mud.

There’s really no reason to attempt to apportion blame because there’s plenty to go around on both sides. Neither handled things particularly well. Similarly, there’s not much reason to play the “what if” game or to speculate about why Özil or Arsenal handled a particular moment how they did. There’s just too much we don’t know. We’ll just end up spinning our wheels but getting nowhere. Coulda, shoulda, woulda.

That’s not a cop-out, by the way. I really do think Özil and Arsenal share the responsibility for where things have ended up. I’m not sure there is a “right answer” to all of this. There may not be some grand takeaway. No lesson to be learned about Mesut Özil or the way Arsenal do business. Sometimes things don’t end the way you want them to.

But this particular ending is a bummer. It’s a disappointing, sad end to a story that could have been a legendary one in the annals of the club.

I was absolutely over the moon when Arsenal signed Mesut Özil on Deadline Day in 2013 for a then club-record fee. It signaled a change in course for the club’s transfer dealings — Arsenal didn’t sign star players in their prime for top dollar. And yet they just had.

Özil didn’t disappoint either. He was arguably the best midfielder in Europe for a multi-year stretch. He created the most chances of anybody in the Premier League for several seasons. He saw space on the football pitch differently, and it was a joy to watch him pick passes that nobody else could. His creativity was a pure expression of the freewheeling, attacking style that had become synonymous with Arsenal and Arsene Wenger. And I still haven’t really figured out how he does that magnificent “kick the ball into the ground” thing.

He should have been a club legend, instead we have whatever this messy breakup is. There is still the faintest glimmer of hope that the story will have a happy ending — he can technically be registered for either the Premier League or the Europa League in January. He may have another moment of magic in an Arsenal shirt left in him. Or at least a substitute, cameo appearance late in the season, hopefully with at least some fans at the Emirates, to give him the Arsenal send-off he deserves.

But odds are his Arsenal legacy will be just as his time at the club — complicated.