After Arsène Wenger left, there was no player more identifiable with Arsenal’s legacy than Mesut Özil. The song, after all, went, “He’s Arsène Wenger’s man” and when it rang out at the Emirates throughout the fall of 2019, it represented the rebellion of Arsenal’s fans against Unai Emery, and against his style of football. Indeed, Özil became representative, in a culture war between playing football the way we grew up watching Arsenal, and playing a more unsuccessful, more pragmatic, and less aesthetically pleasing style.
Of course, in the autumn of 2020, when Özil was exiled, there weren’t any fans. But online, the context remained the same. With Arsenal flailing under Mikel Arteta, and playing some truly dreadful football, Özil again became a symbol, a representation of nostalgia for the past.
Indeed, the simple truth is that Mesut Özil is in the latter stages of his career, and he isn’t as effective a player as he once was. Part of that, of course, is because of his teammates, and watching Arsenal in recent months, a peak Lionel Messi would struggle with the non-movement of Willian and co. But it is also Özil. Emile Smith Rowe has had as many assists in four Premier League games this season as Özil had in eighteen last season. While Özil’s skill in possession undoubtedly would’ve been useful to have—especially if it meant Not Willian—someone like Smith Rowe also has verve, energy, and is very much the future. We should cherish Smith Rowe now as we cherished Özil in the past.
Another element of Mesut Özil becoming part of Arsenal’s culture war is that it became deeply unpleasant to discuss him. Sides were taken and lines in the sand were draw. This is a shame, because it feels dangerous to mention previous iterations of Mesut Özil. This is a player who will forever be part of Arsenal’s history. His signing, in 2013, was a complete shock. With Arsenal having failed to sign anyone in the summer of 2013, anger had boiled over at the Emirates. There was the failed dalliance with Luis Suarez, and the transfer window would close in a day. Arsenal beat Tottenham Hotspur 1-0, and then, Wenger smiled, and said, “Maybe we will have a good surprise for you.” Later that day, the first link with Özil surfaced; 24 hours later, Arsenal would spend a record amount of money to sign him, proof that the days of austerity at the Emirates were over.
Özil was transformative. Arsenal were top of the league until March. With Özil in the team, Aaron Ramsey developed into an excellent all-round midfielder, adding goals to his game. Arsenal became good from set pieces, and with Özil’s creativity, calmness, and quality, Arsenal won a trophy. Indeed, in Özil’s first season, 2013-14, Arsenal got 79 points. They haven’t topped that amount since.
Özil’s arrival meant Arsenal were once again players on the big stage. It allowed Arsenal to sign Alexis Sánchez, another outstanding footballer. But Özil also brought Arsenal back from the footballing doldrums. The last season before Özil was painful at times. Arsenal were devastatingly bereft of creativity, sneaking into the Champions League on the back of a resolute Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny led defence. That defence led Arsenal to 8 wins in their final 10 games, but it was built in only conceding five goals. The follow autumn, with Champions League secured, Özil came in, and brought that missing creativity, skill, and verve. He brought delicate passes played on the half-turn from an inside left position, an in-swinging cross from an inside right position, a cutback from the left, and his signature shot, the Özil chop, where he deliberately hit the ball into the ground to bounce over the advancing goalkeeper.
There were undoubtedly some bad games, and disappointments. The missed penalty in 2014 against Bayern Munich comes to mind, as do some others. But there was also the 2015-16 season, where Özil almost single-handedly took a front line that spent a significant part of the season with Joel Campbell playing to the brink of winning the league. There was a starring role in beating Manchester United 3-0 at the Emirates in October 2015, which felt like a statement, the demolition of Chelsea in 2016, that goal against Ludogorets in 2016, Özil’s starring performances in the FA Cup semi-final and final in 2017, a final takedown of Tottenham in the 2017/18 season, and the Europa League run of that season, where Özil excelled.
And then, Arsène Wenger left, and the Özil of yesteryear never came fully back. Perhaps Unai Emery didn’t know how to use him. Perhaps he, justifiably, lost passion for the game after being blamed for Germany’s 2018 World Cup. Özil contended that he was singled out because of his Turkish background, and given how the German federation handled his exit from the national team, Özil’s contention of racism was essentially proven right. After the 2018 World Cup, we increasingly saw Özil fleetingly, his absence creating larger headlines than his performances.
Perhaps it would’ve been better had Mesut Özil left the year Arsène Wenger did. Perhaps his exit would’ve been cleaner, and far less acrimonious. That Özil stayed after Wenger never felt completely right; Özil was a Wenger player, his record signing, and representative of the beauty and art that Wenger sought in football. But while Wenger’s legacy at Arsenal is assured, Özil’s is far more complicated. Perhaps his legacy will become clearer over time and distance. Maybe Arsenal’s academy produced #10 in 2026 will have grown up watching Özil at Arsenal, grown up hearing the Arsenal fans sing, “He’s better than Zidane/We’ve got Mesut Özil.”