Monday 23 September 2019

Ozil all the better for being the ultimate luxury in football

If you force Arsenal star to hustle, you lose essence of what makes him great

Arsenal's Mesut Ozil Picture: Reuters
Arsenal's Mesut Ozil Picture: Reuters

Jonathan Liew

It was often said of Zsa Zsa Gabor, who died last Sunday at the age of 99, that she was famous simply for being famous.

Though she was a star of stage and screen for six decades, she had no great acting pedigree or garlanded body of work to speak of.

What people spoke of, conversely, was Gabor herself: the nine husbands and dozens of lovers, the dry wit and penchant for luxury. Gabor was a personal brand, long before the term even existed.

Unlike modern celebrities - the myriad Kardashians and Jenners to whom she is frequently compared - Gabor showed no great interest in leveraging her renown for commercial ventures. No, what was being sold above all was the idea of Gabor herself: a vision of elegant, hedonistic, fur-lined glamour that ensured she would continue to be the story, even when she did nothing at all.

On the face of things, this would seem an inopportune moment to start eulogising about Mesut Ozil. His minimalist performance in Arsenal's 2-1 defeat by Manchester City was universally panned by critics, and reopened the age-old debate about Ozil: yes, very nice, but what does he do exactly?

Yet the aftermath of a poor game is actually the perfect time to discuss Ozil's qualities, because of the unique way in which these same qualities are also his flaws.

"But he doesn't press!" his detractors howl, as if an all-action, shirt-grabbing, tactically-fouling Ozil would somehow be twice the player.

"But he disappears in big games!" they cry, ignoring the fact that Ozil was peerless against Liverpool, Manchester United and City last season, against Chelsea this.

In any case, all this seems fundamentally to miss the point of Ozil, which is serene, almost self-referential detachment.

The whole idea behind Ozil (pictured) is that he does the opposite of what everybody else does: the percussionist hitting the off-beats, the apostate in a world of believers.

I like that he does not press. I like that whenever a corner swings into the Arsenal penalty area, Ozil counter-intuitively wanders away from the action: not out of a sickening cowardice, but in anticipation of a counter-attack.

In the age of the defensive winger, the ball-playing centre-half, the dribbling goalkeeper, Ozil offers a very refined, specialised excellence: one of the last classic, free-roaming No 10s, with all the gilded privilege and prerogative that entails.

Force him to hustle, and you very likely lose the essence of what makes him great.

So he had a bad game last Sunday. Guess what: he will have more. There will be days of sublime, effortless magic, and days when he simply ambles forlornly, like a man who dropped a coin somewhere on the pitch and has no idea where.

If that makes him a luxury player, then so be it.

Perhaps it is worth looking up the dictionary definition of luxury - "a state of great comfort or elegance" - and reflecting that only in football's weirdly Presbyterian universe are these qualities seen as a negative.

It was said of Gabor that simply by turning up at a premiere she would garner more column inches than the stars of the film.

Perhaps Ozil's fate, too, is to be remembered not for what he does or achieves, not as an international-class playmaker or the engine of Wenger's last great Arsenal side, but for what he represents: Ozilism, a one-man whirlwind of beauty, luxury repartee and old-school glamour, swaddled in diamonds and furs.

You cannot see what he does and so, even when he does nothing, you cannot stop looking. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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