Earlier today, The Athletic published a lengthy piece where Mesut Ozil told his side of the story, so to speak, about being frozen out of the Arsenal squad during Project Restart. I want to respect their paywall, so I won’t quote extensively from the article, but hopefully I can give you the gist of things before trying to parse out what is going on behind the scenes at the club.
When Mikel Arteta took over, Ozil seemed to be part of the plan — he started all 10 of Arteta’s Premier League matches in charge before the shutdown. During the shutdown, Arsenal asked the players to take a 12.5% pay cut to help the club financially, and after Arteta’s intervention, it was reported that all the players but Ozil did.
In the article, however, Ozil says that to his knowledge, he WAS NOT the only player to refuse the pay cut. He also reiterates his reasoning for not accepting It — that he didn’t think it fair to the younger players and that the club didn’t provide enough information about where the money was going.
Ozil thinks that his refusal to fall in line may have affected his playing time. If you recall, he played in the warm-up matches before the restart, but did not see the pitch in a competitive match. He made the substitutes bench twice, but other than that was left off the matchday squads. The timeline doesn’t totally add up — the pay cut issue happened before Ozil played in the friendlies. But I don’t think that playing in meaningless matches negates that he may have been frozen out over the pay cut.
At the risk of sounding like a PR shill for Ozil, I’ll point out that It looks as if he was right. The pay cut did not save the jobs of the 55 employees Arsenal laid off last week. The players, Ozil included I’m sure, are reportedly and rightfully incensed by the move.
If you’re Mesut Ozil, why would you believe anything the club tells you? When he criticized the treatment of Uighur Muslims in China, the club distanced itself from his remarks with a milquetoast “we don’t comment on political issues” statement. That stance is difficult to square with Arsenal’s Black Lives Matter activism. To be clear, I’m not criticizing the club for supporting BLM. I’m calling out their inconsistency in only supporting causes that are “safe” to back and don’t run the risk of losing favor in one of the largest growth markets in the world in terms of minting new fans. But I digress.
Ozil says that he was healthy enough to play during the restart. He admits that the back issue caused him to miss some time and that he may have been affected by the birth of his daughter, but that, for the most part, he was good to go. Arteta has consistently said that it was a purely footballing decision, but that explanation seems impossibly flimsy at this point.
It’s pretty clear that if the brass at Arsenal could move on from Ozil and get his £350k per-week wage off the books they would. Could the order to freeze him out be part of an effort from the brass (read: above Arteta) to “convince” him to seek a transfer? It could be; Ozil definitely thinks so.
When talking about his future, Ozil has said time and again that he committed to Arsenal on a four-year contract and wants to see out the last year of his deal. He thinks (and is right, in my opinion) that he still can contribute at the club and help the team on the pitch. He’s still training with the team. And weirdly(?), he’s still being used for promotional material.
What is the takeaway here? Unfortunately, the main takeaway is that the Mesut Ozil “drama” is far from over. I don’t think he’s going to move off his steadfast resolution to finish his contract at Arsenal. And we’ve yet to see any signs of movement from the club off their position, either. Yes, Mikel Arteta has left the door open to a reconciliation and return to the squad, but really, what else is he going to say? That the highest wage-earner isn’t going to play for the club again? That’s not happening.
I think it’s in everybody’s best interest to find a way for Mesut Ozil to play for Arsenal again. I don’t think there is any realistic transfer or buyout that will net more than the value that Ozil can provide on the field this upcoming season, even if it’s just in cup competitions and “lesser” matches. And despite my earlier point about the lack of trust, I don’t think the relationship is beyond repair.
I’ve gone back and forth throughout this entire saga with which “side” I’m on. Every position I’ve taken and advocated for has come with the “remember, we don’t have the entire story, there are things we do not and will never know” caveat. That’s true today for the position I just articulated. There is more to this.
At some point, it becomes useless to speculate and pontificate. Even as I edited this piece, I thought of more things to say and different ways to interpret the trickle of information. In a way, it’s tiring because it’s so easy to keep spinning the wheels and getting nowhere. But it’s in our nature to want answers, to want something definite or some kind of resolution. So we will keep wondering, and the journalists will keep asking, as they should.
I’ll leave you with this: if you’re working towards an opinion or have already come to a conclusion, be self-critical. What biases do you have going in? What assumptions are you making? Who is getting your benefit of the doubt? Why does the club deserve it any more or less than Mesut Ozil does? What do you know for a fact and what is color that you’re adding? If you answer those questions honestly, I think you’ll be surprised at how your read on all this changes.