Ozil might have to fight for his place at new-look Arsenal
Mesut Ozil scratched the top of his head and looked to the ground as he traipsed off the field almost in slow motion.
Ozil isn’t used to being substituted at Arsenal — especially not in the big games and with the result in the balance — but these are changing times at the Premier League club, where there is a new manager, a new style of play and new demands.
For so long one of the main men at Emirates Stadium, Ozil now might have to fight for his place in the team.
And about time, too, some would say.
Few players in the Premier League divide opinion as much as the 29-year-old playmaker, whose languid, often-unhurried approach can be so pleasing to the eye but also makes him a target of critics questioning his commitment.
Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was prepared to indulge in Ozil’s mercurial nature, saying the midfielder was misunderstood and could do things with the ball most others couldn’t. Even if it appeared to fly in the face of what many were seeing on the field.
Unai Emery, Wenger’s replacement, might be different.
Arsenal was tied 2-2 with Chelsea with 22 minutes to go in an exciting, end-to-end Premier League match on Saturday when Emery decided to remove Ozil and replace him with Aaron Ramsey.
What was telling was the reason Emery gave after the game, which Arsenal went on to lose 3-2.
“He works well,” Emery said, “but we needed to keep more pressing on the pitch.”
Emery is attempting to evolve Arsenal’s play, adding energy and pressing to the passing and highly technical approach pursued by Wenger in his 22 years in charge of the London club. Ozil, it appears, is going to have to change his ways to fit into a style that doesn’t come naturally to him.
In some aspects, it’s a blank canvas under Emery. There’s a new center-back partnership and a remodeled and youthful central midfield, while 36-year-old goalkeeper Petr Cech is being asked to use his feet more to instigate attacks — something he’s never had to do before in his long, distinguished career.
It is already having an effect, with Arsenal’s second goal against Chelsea starting with Cech and his defense passing the ball out from the back.
Arsenal’s players can no longer drift along in the comfort zone, as they seemed to do under Wenger. It is clear that Emery is intent on shaking things up at Arsenal, which has lost its first two league games — tough ones against Manchester City and Chelsea — but shown promise in many aspects.
And Ozil, a player Arsenal decided to make its record wage-earner in January in handing him a lucrative new contract, won’t be spared scrutiny.
“It’s clear he needs the ball more to give more options in the attacking moments,” Emery said of Ozil after the 2-0 loss to City, when the German played out wide instead of centrally. “He needs to do it in each match, be demanding for us but defensive moments are for each and every player.”
Ozil faces competition for his place, especially if Emery decides to play two up front and bring Alexandre Lacazette into the lineup to partner main striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Henrikh Mkhitaryan plays in a similar position and style to Ozil but is having more of an impact so far this season, scoring and playing well against Chelsea.
This potential uncertainty at Arsenal comes in a challenging period in Ozil’s career. Last month, he retired from Germany’s national team over what he perceived as racially fueled criticism of him and his international performances as a result of his Turkish roots.
“I am still not accepted into society,” Ozil wrote in an impassioned statement posted on social media about his treatment by the German soccer federation, fans and media.
His departure from the national team will allow him more time to concentrate on his club career.
He just might need it.