An ode to Mesut Özil, the frictionless footballer not designed for the age of anger

Of course, there is no connection, just casual correlation, in the fact that the top three teams currently in Europe’s top three leagues are also the last three teams to get rid of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Arsenal, Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund have been through Aubameyang, Dortmund for quite some time. And while this is merely coincidental, it might make sense at this stage of the striker’s career, and in a sport always looking for marginal gains, for his agent to start marketing him on this basis, putting him at top clubs, backed by tough data, on the basis that hiring and then dumping Aubameyang has undeniable benefits.

Here is a player who must be treated not as a regular member of the team, but as the football equivalent of the slaughtered goats the ancient Greeks brought into battle, to offer as appeasement to the gods. Sign my client. Take him away from the squad under an agreed time. We guarantee an Aubameyang Uplift increase of at least three league places between November and March as he posts photos of his dinner in Dubai.

There is a serious point here. In a time of bloated rosters and destructive superstars, the ability to get rid of players is almost as vital as the ability to attract them. Manchester United’s squad has been stuck for years with vaguely familiar faces on mind-blowing deals. Plus, of course, and most obviously, we have the example of Arsenal, where a part of Mikel Arteta’s success has been linked to his ability to wield the blade, to pick off a number of low-value players basking in the sun. A big part of which, possibly the first day on the journey from there to here, was Mesut Özil’s total exclusion from the new age.

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With Özil’s retirement from football this week there has been a temptation to make an Aubameyang-style connection. This time between the final switch of a wonderful, occasionally maddening footballer, last seen gliding around an unhappy Emirates Stadium like a wide-eyed Victorian ghost accidentally caught on camera behind the summer house, and the simultaneous rise of Arsenal’s eight points. leader in the Premier League, a deserved reward for Arteta’s new team of ferret footballers, eager and in perpetual motion.

Özil’s optics here are not very good. And he has been duly sliced ​​and diced and processed through the mania of contrary opinion, defined as a fraudulent fanciful child or a misunderstood consumptive genius, according to his inclination.

This was always going to happen. Oddly enough now, there have been few more divisive footballers in the last decade, or at least few who have seemed to capture a failed era so perfectly. For most of his Arsenal career, the wailing and howling around Özil seemed to act like some sort of Wenger-era Viking funeral march for death, the sound of lost, sweaty, alienated middle-aged men talking with alarming fluency about his deepest feelings. and the most feverish fears, filtered through opinions about a succession of disappointing results. And to be fair, much of the unhappiness was accounted for in numbers.

Mesut Özil in Champions League action with Arsenal in 2017

Mesut Özil in Champions League action for Arsenal in 2017. The former World Cup-winning German midfielder retired this week at the age of 34. Photo: Matthias Schräder/AP

There is now a temptation to split Özil’s career at Arsenal into three separate spells. The disappointing first phase. The disappointing second phase and the exceptionally disappointing third phase, when he was paid £60m over three years, during which he scored one away league goal. And yet, and yet, and yet: this is also missing his point, judging him too harshly, as someone who has somehow chosen to be ineffective, who is deliberately withholding success by refusing to apply his divine talent. .

It’s worth noting that Özil was also an awful fit for a team that needed a near-total rebuild but wasn’t really going to get it. When he first arrived in 2014, his shared poster boy for the new age was Yaya Sanogo. Here we have the most fluid footballer in the world, the perfect supplier of bullets; he was standing next to a work in progress, the startling equivalent of an eighteenth-century blunderbuss loaded with nuts, bolts, and flailing human limbs. How exactly was this supposed to work?

And yes, Özil was frustrating and high maintenance, but there were also trophies. He ran a lot more than people thought. And his good times were as good as anyone’s good times. We remember the reversed inside-out pass, frozen in time, the pass before the pass before the kick before the penalty against Paris Saint-Germain in 2018, a dying note in a dying team that basically meant nothing but holds. on its own as a moment of pure sports art.

Or how about the moment when Özil was so ruthlessly brilliant against Chelsea in September 2016 that it led to Antonio Conte going home to Italy and producing that three-man back-line fit. Here was a performance to inspire a title charge; just not, as it happens, on the team he actually played for. So, thanks for that Mesut.

The main point with Özil is that it was not designed for the age of anger, for the age of being diced and sliced ​​and dissected into its component numbers. Özil has been called a very modern footballer because he was on social media a lot. But really he was a throwback, perhaps even the last of a very different line.

Partly because he was a true number 10, all perfect touch and slippery peripheral vision, web touches, that titanium-tipped left foot (he was so, so left-handed). Ask him to play without a ball and he becomes almost completely ineffective, exhausted, pale, the football version of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, a frail alien prince ready to be transported to a limousine waiting for his attendants.

What happened to Özil is that football changed around him, it became a much more physical, tougher discipline. This is not just nostalgia for the old days. There are few more acute pleasures at the moment than watching Arsenal’s current number 10 Martin Ødegaard, who also sees everything and maneuvers the ball with astonishing dexterity, but is also a hard worker.

While Özil focused above all on beauty, angles, even the way he moved with the ball. Arguments and objections will, of course, fade away. What we will remember are those moments in time and an indelible beauty.

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