London – Arsène Wenger has become accustomed to putting on his best front for the pre-match media fandango. Given the volatile climate he arrives, straight bat at the ready, intent to defuse and dampen. It was all steady and predictable enough before this weekend’s visit of Manchester United when the line of questions suddenly took an unexpected bounce. What did Wenger think of Mesut Özil renewing the Tarmac on his driveway?
Was this a trick question?
Wenger looked momentarily baffled. What does Tarmac on a drive have to do with Arsenal’s predicament? The inquisitor clarified with the suggestion that maybe doing some home improvements meant Özil wanted to stick around a while. A promising sign for the contract situation, perhaps. “Oh, that’s a good conclusion,” Wenger replied cheerfully, enjoying a brief moment of levity.
Here is the thing, though. Özil’s form has dipped to the point where the handsome offer, on the table for ages, has become a serious debating point. Arsenal are not in the business of routinely offering players in the region of the £250,000 to £300,000 per week mooted to tempt Özil and Alexis Sánchez. So when they do it really needs to be worth that extra push.
There was a point earlier in the season when Özil began to look more than ever like the technical leader and inspirer-in-chief Arsenal were eager to pin their hopes on. On 1 November he scored a virtuoso goal that was the talk of Europe, a matchwinner at Ludogorets that seemed to crystallise a new sense the player was keyed up to score goals and influence games more directly than the stereotype of Özil the floating, vulnerable muse. He scored nine goals in 20 games leading up to December. It felt different. More anchored in notable determination.
Arsenal allowed themselves to wonder whether he had evolved enough to be their cake as well as the cherry on top. But the subsequent months – retreating to a period of quiet ineffectiveness on the periphery as the team struggled desperately for mojo – have allowed all the old reservations to resurface.
There are too many divisive figures at Arsenal these days and Özil has again become a figure that splits opinion. The purists cling to his inherent ability. The doubters wonder how he invariably seems to stay on for a full 90 minutes when he drifts through games. Is that form convincing enough to merit one of the most expensive salary offers the club has ever drummed up?
In his autobiography, Die Magie des Spiels [The Magic of the Game], Özil noted how José Mourinho accused him of not giving everything during their time together at Real Madrid, quoting the manager as saying: “You think two beautiful passes are enough. You think you’re so good that 50% is enough.”
Wenger agrees Özil is a character who benefits from some tough love. “We had some good conversations with him as well, you know,” he says.
Not for the first time, Wenger is compelled to offer up a defence of Özil while the critics sharpen their opinion of someone who can be an easy target because of his languid style. “Big players have to carry the responsibility of the team. People look at it like that,” Wenger says.
“Last Sunday [at Tottenham] to just criticise Mesut Özil’s performance does not reflect exactly what happened on the pitch. I think he did fight very hard in recent games – we looked at his physical performance and they were at a very high level. But like the rest of the team on Sunday we were below what we produced recently. The big players get more criticised than the others. His style is more fluid, less aggressive, but it doesn’t mean you want it less than others.
“At the end of the day his style is his style and what you measure with Mesut Özil is the efficiency. His basic quality is retention and the creation of goal chances.” Even in this patchy season Özil is currently the Premier League’s top passer in the opposition half, with a success rate that exceeds Eden Hazard and Christian Eriksen.
Wenger had an intriguingly evasive reply to a question about whether it suits Özil to carry the kind of responsibility usually handed to the highest-profile players. “I’m not sure,” he says. “I think he embraces the challenge to play big games. Does he embrace the challenge to be criticised? I’m not sure. Does he like to be criticised? I’m not sure.
“You want all your players to be at their best in every single game so when they don’t achieve that of course you are frustrated but we all played football. We know we are only human beings and you have to accept the ups and downs.”
Does this drop in form make Wenger reconsider the sense in the massive contract on offer? “Before we spend big money we analyse all the aspects of commitments, because we have not only Mesut Özil and Sánchez to extend. We have many other players to extend and you have to make sure you have the resources available to extend the other players that you think are needed to be successful in the future. For example, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is part of that.”
The great Özil debate becomes a broader Arsenal-related discourse with the bigger picture question: can you build a team around him? The answer should be yes – as long as the other component parts are complementary and forgiving of the foibles of a delicate craftsman. Would Özil have flourished more in a Wenger team which had a midfield with the power and precision of Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit behind him rather than the struggles of Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey? Would he have produced more with the runs of Thierry Henry to aim for instead of Olivier Giroud?
The lack of balance in the team this season has not made for a perfect environment for Özil, even if he has not helped himself to the point that a tough old timer, Martin Keown, pulled few punches in his newspaper column this week when he claimed Arsenal “are simply carrying Mesut Özil and they cannot afford to”.
If too many big games are passing him by, Özil might remember that one of his best performances came in this fixture last season, when Arsenal defeated Manchester United 3-0. Özil was the architect of the opening goal and scorer of the second. He made a similar impact with Arsenal’s highest-calibre display this term when they beat Chelsea by the same margin.
The challenge to eke out more of those performances remains an Arsenal riddle, and it’s one that will be under consideration during the summer if Özil’s contract extension stays unsigned.
That begs the question of which clubs might queue up to spend lavishly on this gossamer talent and match or exceed those big wages for class that has not shone consistently for Arsenal. Have there been any offers, any signs of interest from other clubs? “No,” says Wenger bluntly. After another pause he offers a cryptic addendum. “Not officially.”
The Guardian Sport