There was a first-day-of-school feeling around Arsenal’s training ground when their squad returned from the September 2013 international break. They had a star in their midst and the sense was one of genuine elation. Mesut Özil’s arrival was a show of intent quite out of keeping with the half-decade that preceded it: this seemed the turning of a page and, with that in mind, the players snapped and crackled their way through the morning’s drills.
“It was a complete buzz,” says a senior staff member from that time, who worked with Özil on a daily basis and saw him quickly forge instinctive understandings with fellow schemers such as Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky. “All of a sudden you get a big one coming in, and you felt something was happening again. You could see things forming. There was a real electricity among everyone; you felt something was coming.”
The contrast with Özil’s departure, which largely involved a low-key set of farewells on Sunday, could hardly be more telling. While there was never any chance he would slip away invisibly, given the level of scrutiny that has followed him across seven and a half years, the overriding impression when he joins Fenerbahce will be of relief. It is nothing personal but many at present-day Arsenal had been crossing their fingers that this day would come: the dramas surrounding a non-playing footballer had been a negative weight for too long, and impossible to make someone else’s problem until a notoriously expensive contract was terminated.
He leaves a legacy of contradictions and contortions; heady times mixed with bad, none of which should be glossed over. Özil became, in the modern style, the subject of binary “pro v anti” battles among the fanbase but few things are that simple. Perceptions of his spell are perhaps coloured by the fact his signing never quite brought about the liftoff it was supposed to. He came to symbolise the wider frustrations of the final years of the Arsène Wenger era but few involved would contend his addition was a destabilising factor in those early years.
He was hardly a long-term target, even though Arsenal had scouted him extensively at Werder Bremen. Some doubts were harboured, back then, about his stamina and elements of his attitude but those appeared to have been misplaced when he became a global A-lister with Real.
Özil was not seriously on Arsenal’s radar when Jorge Mendes, the ubiquitous agent, called their then-transfer negotiator, Dick Law, and suggested Real Madrid, needing cash to fund the purchase of Gareth Bale, were ready to sell Karim Benzema and Ángel Di María. The former had long been of interest to Wenger and, given they had already tried to sign Luis Suárez and Gonzalo Higuaín, Arsenal took the idea seriously. They scrambled a delegation to meet Real in Spain, only to turn up and be infuriated when they were told proposal was no longer on the table. Instead they were offered Özil, who was Cristiano Ronaldo’s accomplice in chief, and almost fell off their chairs.
“We were shocked,” Law remembers. He tells an entertaining, complex story about the machinations that followed: the tale of a £42.5m transfer that, had any one among an intricate series of connections crisscrossing Europe gone awry, would not have beaten the pre-deadline dash. “Over those final four or five days the pieces just began to fall into place,” he says. “Any time you do a deal of that magnitude you’re excited. There’s a lot of tension involved but we knew he was going to make us better, and he did.”
Law is correct. Özil had not wanted to leave Real; it felt like a step down that he would not have considered if the La Liga club had not made clear he would be jettisoned. But he settled in quickly, helped by the presence of his Germany teammates Lukas Podolski and Per Mertesacker along with the kindred football brain of Cazorla. Any latent concerns about his work rate were dispelled by a stream of assists and figures that, at least in his first two or three seasons, gave the lie to perceptions he would not run around.
Özil could indeed appear languid and even insiders were surprised he regularly appeared at the top end of Arsenal’s statistics for ground covered, along with related exertions. By contrast, Alexis Sánchez was routinely lauded for his all-action style after his own high-profile arrival the following season but, largely operating in bursts, generally fell near the bottom of those rankings.
Meanwhile, Özil was providing assists constantly and Arsenal were climbing the table, although they would miss a good opportunity to crown their ambition when failing to properly challenge Leicester for the title in 2015-16. In training he would confound teammates by bobbling the ball over their feet in five v two drills, in which the pair are required to win possession back. That would later translate into the “chop” finish, kicking it into the ground before it spun up and in, that became a hit on matchdays and arguably reverberates as his trademark manoeuvre.
Unusually in a football world that sees gossip travel with relative freedom, there is little consensus regarding how and why things went wrong. There is certainly a scarcity of information about why Mikel Arteta cut him so cleanly from his plans this year. Most theories trace back to the £350,000-a-week contract he signed, after considerable wrangling, at the start of 2018. Wenger had been desperate for Özil to stay, although the size of the deal eventually offered did not sit well with the manager, either at the time or since.
“Most of the time now we think when we sign a player for five years we have a good player for five years,” Wenger said in 2019. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they practise, they play their best. Because they might be in their comfort zone.”
Wenger did his bit to indulge Özil, turning a blind eye when his application levels away from home, in particular, began to dip. But Özil was a footballer after his own heart, “playerish” as the manager described one of his earlier Arsenal teams. A feature of Wenger’s final decade in charge was a weakness for players who tended to offer highlights-package moments at the expense of structure, and Özil epitomised that to some degree.
“Arsène knew how to deal with Mesut, as a player and a man, and Mesut really respected him,” says the backroom member who captured that first-day training-ground buzz. “They were on the same wavelength. He was given room to breathe and play, not many restrictions, and I think Mesut needs that. You can tie him down to certain things but, with players like that, you’ve got to let them have that freedom to go and express themselves. Arsène understood him and knew what he was.”
Set against that, Wenger’s departure – months after the new deal was signed – comes to appear a defining moment. Perhaps that was when the romance faded on both sides. Özil did not enjoy life under Unai Emery, who dropped him and emphasised the point by describing him as “like another player”. His unhappiness was little secret in what, at the time, was a troubled dressing room. A tight alliance with Sead Kolasinac and Shkodran Mustafi is understood not always to have transmitted itself positively. It should be pointed out, though, that few who worked closely with Özil during Wenger’s reign have reservations about his character.
A brief upturn after the arrival of his former teammate Arteta, including an assist for Alexandre Lacazette’s winner against West Ham in what proved his final appearance, ran aground after the Covid-19 shutdown. The circumstances remain a mystery although, given Arteta is known to have informed his players soon after taking over that he would expect a hard-pressing style, it is hardly outlandish to suggest a player in his early 30s with diminishing output was not up to that job.
Özil was certainly disillusioned by Arsenal’s lily-livered distancing from his stance regarding China’s treatment of the Uighurs in December 2019, and again found himself at odds with the hierarchy when refusing a pay cut. He has numerous charitable interests but it was viewed as a breaking of ranks. There was a sense internally that, while his contribution on the pitch was declining, the number of headaches he provided off it were mounting. But there has never been any evidence non-footballing factors were involved in his demise; it is more likely to have been the result of a steady slide and, ultimately, a failure of communication and management on all sides. By the autumn Özil, or at least a public relations employee in his name, was reduced to microblogging Arsenal games on Twitter and seeking validation from the core of supporters to whom he could still do little wrong.
They were still wed to a notion of Özil, rather than any remaining reality, and perhaps that explains why there will never be any consensus around his accomplishments. In finally splashing out the bounty of their feverish commercial expansion of the early 2010s, Arsenal created the vision of a glittering tomorrow that crystallised in Özil’s form. Özil and Arsenal could not deliver what the initial lightning bolt promised, and what remains is a half-legacy of jaw-dropping moments few other top-flight players could have produced. To some that will be enough; to others it will not, leaving an enigma that will forever be left hanging in the air.