Suffering an existential crisis – particularly one which is being played out in the full glare of public life - cannot be a pleasant experience, but it could be that Mesut Ozil's rejuvenating performance against Everton, during which he contributed a goal and assist to help Arsenal into the semi-final of the FA Cup, will mark the end of his recent travails.
The German’s dip in form - likely accentuated by the relentless pace and intensity of top-flight football in England, and the fact he's near untouchable at Arsenal - did not only subject Ozil to scrutiny, it came to undermine his very essence as a player, make us doubt everything we knew about him.
Suddenly, after a fine start to his Arsenal career, Ozil was the £42m record signing who had been exposed as a bankrupt fraud; the playmaker who had stopped creating goals; or, as one back page had it, the wonderfully talented Germany international who was now ‘Oh-zil’, the ‘flop’. All nonsense of course, but it stuck.
Indeed, such was the extent of Ozil’s recent malaise, in midweek, when being substituted in the 89th minute in Stuttgart, he was booed by Germany supporters despite setting up the only goal of the game in a 1-0 friendly win over Chile, prompting general manager Oliver Bierhoff to call the reaction of the fans “a shame … I don’t understand the whistling”.
Some sections of the German press haven't been much more forgiving. In the build-up to the Chile game, Kicker attempted to drill to the very core of the matter, its headline reading: ‘The Ozil debate: Is he one for the big games?’ Former greats such as Guenter Netzer, Lothar Matthaeus and Andreas Moeller held an audit of the player who did so much to establish Germany's new reputation for youthful, thrilling football by concluding he was not a leader.
All this despite the fact that Ozil was Germany's top scorer in World Cup qualification with eight goals.
However, the recent scrutiny was not undeserved. Following Ozil’s very own dark night of the soul – that missed penalty against Bayern Munich in the Champions League, and the flagellation that followed as he looked distraught and then, unforgivably, disinterested chasing shadows across the Emirates pitch – he had been left out entirely for a 4-1 home win over Sunderland and only made the bench for the 1-0 defeat at Stoke City.
Then, having been condemned by his own supporters whilst pulling on a Germany shirt, this seemed to have become a crisis that struck right at the heart of Ozil as a player and as a man. What kind of footballer was he really? What kind of character?
A 4-1 quarter-final win over Everton on Saturday does not provide a definitive answer, but Ozil addressed the questions being asked of him nonetheless. If it is the end of his personal crisis, then it has pleasing symmetry: the last goal he had scored for Arsenal prior to Saturday was on December 8 against the same opposition. Perhaps these goals against Everton will bookend his barren period.
The opening goal was a picture of calm and assurance as Ozil received a pass from Santi Cazorla, who had accelerated away from the wobbly James McCarthy, and guided the ball into the bottom corner with his right instep. In the 85th minute he provided the penultimate touch to a goal that was in Arsenal’s very best traditions, knocking the ball square to Olivier Giroud to finish off a luminescent counter-attack. A goal and an assist; finisher and creator.
Arsene Wenger said: “Of course it's important for him he took his chance because sometimes you want him to take the chance because he always looks for the good pass. I hope that will encourage him. What I liked with him is that physically he looked regenerated, having more power in his runs. As well I liked that he did a lot of dirty work for a player like him, that means he tracked back in the first half - especially on the counter-attack he came back with long runs. When he behaves like that of course you have a better chance to win the game.”
A rejoinder, then, to those critics who rather lost the plot over a drop in form, significant as it was, in his first season in a new league. As for Kicker’s debate over whether Ozil is ‘one for the big games’, he now has the chance to take on that line of enquiry too, as Arsenal have a trip to Wembley coming up, and possibly another after that.
An upcoming FA Cup semi-final is not the closest Arsenal have come to ending their much-publicised trophy drought – they have lost a Champions League final and two League Cup finals since 2005 after all – but the quality of teams left in the competition means the scent of silverware is in the nostrils.
On Sunday, Sheffield United play Charlton, Hull take on Sunderland and Manchester City face Wigan in the three remaining quarter-finals. Of those six teams, the only one you would back to beat Arsenal are the League Cup winners. The problem, of course, is that if Arsenal are to lift the trophy at Wembley in May, they will almost certainly have to defeat City in one of their next two games in the competition – a feat they have managed only twice in their last 11 encounters. Indeed, City destroyed them 6-3 at the Etihad Stadium earlier this summer.
Arsenal’s recent record against the best teams is enough to provoke an existential crisis of its own. But as Ozil has shown, such struggles can be overcome.
Tom Adams - @tomEurosport
- Sports & Recreation
- Mesut Ozil
- existential crisis