Football Features

Mesut Ozil: Unai Emery must embrace the man who lit up Anfield to boost Arsenal’s status

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 11:27, 1 November 2019 | Updated: 13:38, 27 November 2019

Arsenal lost on penalties to Liverpool after a sensational, breathless 5-5 draw in the Carabao Cup fourth-round on Wednesday night.

The game saw the Gunners twice throw away two-goal leads, and then ultimately lose on penalties. For Unai Emery, it was perhaps not quite so good, especially as the Reds put out a weakened side with young players aplenty.

But for Mesut Ozil, the match was a showcase for his sublime talents. The German had been out of the side for a month prior to Anfield, and it looked as though an impasse with coach Emery was spelling the end of his time at the Emirates. But he got recalled for the trip to Merseyside and absolutely made the most of his chance.

Ozil put in a phenomenal performance at Anfield. The German was on his game from the jump. After Arsenal fell behind after six minutes, Ozil took control. He played two key passes in the space of 10 seconds; first to Ainsley Maitland-Niles, but when that broke down, he got the ball back and played a delicious cutback for Bukayo Saka. His shot was saved, but Lucas Torreira pounced on the rebound. 1-1.

Seven minutes later, Ozil drifted centrally and became pressurised by Jurgen Klopp’s energetic side, so he quickly played a wicked pass into the path of Maitland-Niles. The Englishman delivered a cross which was blocked, but Gabriel Martinelli scored on the rebound. 1-2.

Ten minutes after that, Liverpool were forced into making a loose pass back to Joe Gomez. Ozil pounced, rushing towards, and in front, of Gomez before playing a delicious reverse pass with his first touch, sending Saka free into the box. The youngster took a touch, measured a cross and delivered low for Martinelli to finish. 1-3.

James Milner pulled one back for Liverpool just before the half. And so Arsenal knew they’d need another goal to stand any chance of progression. In the second half, Milner played a soft back-pass towards goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher, but Maitland-Niles was on hand to capitalise on the loose ball, scorching past a staggering Milner before rounding Kelleher. His touch was heavy and he appeared to have taken the ball too wide.

Luckily for Maitland-Niles, Ozil was on the scene. The German raced towards the ball and, even though it was heading out of play, he conjured up the most devilishly, delightfully daring assist of the season. Without even pausing for thought, Ozil stepped over the ball and backheeled it clean into Maitland-Niles’ path. The Liverpool defender on the line was flummoxed by the pass and Maitland-Niles thumped the ball into the roof of the net. 2-4.

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From there, Ozil’s influence waned as he tired (remember, this was his first action on the pitch in a month), Arsenal subsequently collapsed defensively and then Ozil was substituted with the score at 4-4. The Gunners retook the lead, then threw it away at the death before falling on penalties. But the mark Ozil left on the game was as bright as any other player. He illuminated Anfield.

Now questions are being asked: should he start against Wolves at the weekend? Should he become a regular in the side? And the answer to these questions must surely be yes. Mesut Ozil is a world-class talent, a peerless creative force. Yes he needs to be accommodated as a No. 10, but given Arsenal have been playing a 4-2-3-1 on numerous occasions this season. That wouldn’t even be an issue.

Having Ozil at the hub of the side would be a huge boon to the Gunners. Firstly, they’d be able to unlock tightly-packed defences with greater ease through Ozil’s passing and positional prowess. The forwards ahead of him would benefit hugely from Ozil’s creativity, finding themselves the beneficiaries of the chances he sets up.

And behind him, the central midfielders would be under less pressure to directly impact the final third and could instead work on controlling the game and protecting their defence. That would be a huge help to the likes of Torreira, Matteo Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka. It would also mean that Emery could stop playing Dani Ceballos high up the pitch and instead use him deeper, where his ability to carry the ball and skip by opponents would be transformative for Arsenal’s capacity to move the ball from defence to attack.

There’s basically no reason for Arsenal to not start Ozil. He’s already on gargantuan wages, so playing him would only help the Gunners get their money’s worth (or even increase his sell-on value). And with Ozil, structuring the side maybe they’ll develop patterns of play that would mean Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang isn’t having to magic goals out of thin air in order to keep Arsenal successful.

Alright, maybe for the biggest games where you know you’re going to barely have the ball you drop him for a more defensive-minded player, but the idea that Ozil has to work like Torreira is absurd. He’s a gifted creator, put him in the position to create and see the benefits. He is Arsenal’s only world-class player (perhaps also Aubameyang) so make him the talisman of the side and see the status of that side rise. Gifted attackers would want to play with him, committed workers will want to do his defending, and Arsenal would become a respectable side once more.