Tuesday 28 January 2020

Gloves may come off as Arteta sets out to solve Ozil conundrum

Arsenal's Mesut Ozil. Photo: PA
Arsenal's Mesut Ozil. Photo: PA

Sam Dean

The closest Mesut Ozil came to hurting Manchester City last weekend was not on the pitch but on the touchline when the German let loose on a pair of gloves following his unceremonious substitution. It was a wild swipe, just a few metres from the City coaching staff, and those woolly mittens could have gone anywhere.

They could even have travelled as far as Mikel Arteta, watching from behind Pep Guardiola and no doubt forming his own opinion on the great Ozil issue. As it was with Unai Emery, this will be one of the defining themes of Arteta's reign as Arsenal head coach. What to do with the club's highest-paid player, who has no intention of leaving but also, seemingly, no intention of playing anything but his own laid-back brand of Ozil-ball?

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It was hard not to think of Ozil on Friday night, when Arteta's message at his opening press conference could be roughly summarised as: do as I say, or get out of the club. Ozil never quite did what Emery wanted, despite the Spaniard's attempts to motivate his most mercurial talent, so it will be fascinating to see how much of an impact Arteta might have on him.

It took Emery a few months to lose faith in Ozil, dropping him from the squad around this time last year. It has taken Freddie Ljungberg, the interim head coach, only a couple of weeks.

Ozil could not play against Everton yesterday because he had a foot injury, Ljungberg said, before adding the killer line: "He would not have been in the squad anyway, after what happened in the last game."

If this was to be Ljungberg's last involvement with Arsenal - and that depends on his conversations with Arteta - it is fair to say the Swede was going down swinging. And why not?

Ozil has clearly not bought into Ljungberg's approach, either, and the arrival of Arteta had essentially given the Swede a free pass to say what he wanted and select who he wanted. The fresh-faced Emile Smith Rowe, Reiss Nelson, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli were the beneficiaries at Goodison Park.

As for the relationship between Arteta and Ozil, it is worth noting that they played together for three seasons. Ozil was among the first to comment on the Spaniard's arrival, posting on social media an image of them together during a Champions League match a few years ago. "Welcome back to the Arsenal family," Ozil said.

Asked about Ozil, Arteta said: "He is a massive player for this football club. What I want is to understand how they are feeling and what they need. It's not so much about what I need. When you understand them, I can take the excuses out of them and focus on the things that are relevant and have an impact on the team on and off the pitch. I know when he clicks, what he can bring to the team. It's my job to get the best out of him."

And yet it remains hard to envisage a situation in which Ozil fits into Arteta's vision of football, which we can assume is similar to Guardiola's. In fact, it is hard to see a way in which Ozil fits into any modern, progressive system, given the gradual phasing out of old-fashioned No 10s from the game. Emery managed it occasionally when he played with a back three, although the former Arsenal coach said this week he could not play Ozil when he wanted to use a high-pressing style.

"Ozil is a very important player if you can find a way to make it work with other players," Emery told the BBC. "He has talent that allows other players to be better, but when you want a bit more aggressive pressure he does not have the best qualities."

Yet few in the squad boast the creative qualities of Ozil. Arteta, a renowned analyst of the game, will know that. There were a few moments at Goodison Park when Smith Rowe found space in the gaps between the midfield and the defence - the Ozil zone - but could not find the key pass.

Arteta therefore has plenty to ponder, with his first match on St Stephen's Day, away to Bournemouth. He spoke on Friday about not having the time to "build something" at the moment, with a short-term impact on results being the immediate focus. Ozil may well fit into those plans, but Arteta has vowed to be "ruthless" and it is clear he will not suffer anyone who does not fully commit to the project, no matter their reputation or salary.

In that sense, the pressure is very much on Ozil. At 31, is he willing to run and fight for a head coach who used to be his team-mate? And, if not, is Arteta willing to let the best-paid player amble around and run down his contract?

Emery never found an emphatic answer to these questions and so much of Arteta's hopes could hinge on whether he finds a solution of his own.



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