The £42m question that will be hanging over Mesut Özil at the Emirates tonight can be easily simplified. Is it all just an illusion?
Özil has become such an enigma that both his detractors and supporters would probably both answer yes, albeit for very different reasons.
To the small but growing group of critics, recent performances are proof that his status as one of the world's best footballers is misguided and Real Madrid were astute to value him at half of Gareth Bale yet still the second most expensive player in Premier League history.
Özil's cheerleaders, chief among them Arsene Wenger, actually agree about the illusion but argue that the misconception surrounding Özil is altogether more complicated. For them, Özil's languid playing style has been unfairly distorting the view of his contribution. It was an argument being advanced with predictable conviction yesterday by Wenger, who described the "contradiction" between the sometimes aloof body language of his record signing and a personality who is determined to deliver.
"He feels the pressure of course because he knows a lot is expected," said the Arsenal manager. "He's not a guy who doesn't care. His style can sometimes look like that but he's really the opposite character. He needs more support, he needs understanding."
Wenger also had his statistics to hand and, although there was tacit acknowledgement of Özil's anonymous display against Liverpool on Saturday, he rejected any suggestion of a wider trend.
"He had a good game at Southampton under very difficult circumstances," he said. "Against Crystal Palace, he was a bit quieter but still played over 100 passes in the game and every single pass was intelligent."
Further supporting evidence was found in the list of leading assist-makers in the Premier League, with Özil second behind only Wayne Rooney and ahead of rivals playing in a similar role such as Eden Hazard, David Silva, Philippe Coutinho, Oscar or Jesus Navas.
The discussion about Özil, then, is only relative. By most standards, he has been having a solid first season in English football. The issue, however, is that Arsenal did not spend £42m for a solid or even just a very good player. They spent £42m to add the special star ingredient that will ensure dominance against the lesser teams and make the difference at the defining moments of the season.
It is what Luiz Suarez is bringing to Liverpool, Sergio Aguero has done for Manchester City, what Hazard is adding to Chelsea and, latterly, what Emmanuel Adebayor is unexpectedly providing for Tottenham.
Özil's best performances were before Christmas, notably in the 2-0 Champions League win against Napoli and, for all Wenger's rose-tinted analysis, there has been a definite lull.
His walking off without acknowledging the travelling Arsenal supporters against Manchester City may just have been a slip of the mind but Per Mertesacker's angry reaction hinted at the possibility of something deeper.
Özil's contribution against Liverpool on Saturday, when he made only four touches inside his own half, showed an alarming lack of defensive responsibility.
That would be less concerning if he was delivering further up the pitch but, after scoring four goals and providing six assists in his first 12 Premier League games, there have been no goals and only two assists in the subsequent eight matches.
Wenger highlighted areas for physical and technical improvement yesterday rather than any issues with Özil's attitude. The physical was something that Jose Mourinho was also keen to address while managing Özil during three years at Real Madrid.
In that time, Özil added around a stone in body weight but questions were still raised by how often he was substituted. Wenger has taken Özil off in three of the club's last four Premier League games and revealed yesterday that the 25-year-old had been working in the gym specifically on his strength.
Unlike the very top-heavy challenge of La Liga, Özil is also discovering how the Premier League is relentless in the questions it asks of its players. "He thinks it's more physical here for sure and he works on his body strength to deal with it," explained Wenger.
Finishing is the other main area of Özil's game that is being targeted at Arsenal's training base. Özil's goal-scoring record has never been prolific but Wenger is convinced that his ratio of a goal every three games for Germany could be replicated at club level. For both Arsenal and Real Madrid before, Özil has been chugging along at more like a goal every six games.
"There is a big expectation level but he should not worry about that, just play in the team and enjoy it," said Wenger. "He comes from Real Madrid where the pressure is always huge. He's used to it. Sometimes he is too obsessed with making the perfect pass when he could take a shot."
Another issue, of course, is whether Olivier Giroud is a striker whose style will bring out the best in Özil. A creator like Özil is also dependent on the quality of the movement around him and it is perhaps no coincidence that this dip has coincided with injuries to both Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott.
Wenger was dismissive yesterday of any suggestion that he might drop Özil and remains adamant that the 5-1 drubbing against Liverpool was an "accident" rather than illustrative of a trend. The blame, said Wenger, must be shared. "We have not to be focused on one player. Our whole team performance was poor."
Accordingly, Wenger expects only "one or two" changes tonight against Manchester United for a match that is likely to be critical in determining whether Arsenal's title challenge is lasting. Kieran Gibbs is pressurising the place of Nacho Monreal while Wenger may also rotate Jack Wilshere.
After United tonight, Arsenal face Liverpool in the FA Cup on Sunday, then Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Next month, they play Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City in consecutive league matches.
It is the sort of period that should inspire the greatest players. Wenger was asked yesterday if, like Suarez and Hazard, we may have to wait until Özil's second or third year in England before he reaches his peak. "I want to see the best of him until the end of the season," he said. And therein lies the problem. The time to properly judge Özil, obviously, will be next season. Yet having waited nine years for silverware, Arsenal and their fans yearn for a rather more express delivery.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)
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