February 17, 2019 By Fabian Odhiambo
There was a point towards the end of Arsene Wenger’s 22-year old reign at Arsenal that things were so dire and the future so bleak that I stopped writing about the club altogether. For some reason, that eerily feeling seems to be well and truly back even when I for one thought the good times would be back when he called it a day at the end of last season. One isn’t supposed to catch chicken pox twice in a lifetime and lightning ought not to strike twice, but with Arsenal the rules of the universe don’t apply. Sadly, I must add.
Unai Emery came in and being the new broom, you’d expect the house to be a bit cleaner, right? And for a while earlier in the season that seemed the case as we went on solid albeit not so convincing 22-match unbeaten run. The performances weren’t jaw-dropping, but the team was grinding out results, outrunning opponents and generally being a nuisance to play against. That was pretty much palatable considering how remarkable a change it was from the past when we’d strut our silky stuff but with no end product to match.
Fast forward to Thursday night, in the competition no one wants to play, in the cold rectums of Eastern Europe (as Tony Mochama would say) somewhere in Belarus and Emery presided over one of the most uninspired, limp and unnecessary displays you’ll see anywhere as Arsenal lost 1-0 to BATE Borisov. Imagine losing to a team whose first name is so needless it has to be abbreviated you’d think it’s the stadium groundsman’s WiFi password. Oh and again Mesut Özil did not play. That’s putting it too mildly – he did not even travel from London.
Enough of the backstory and playing nice. It’s been a while since I last did this anyway. Straight to it then: I am a Mesut Özil person, always have been and it’d probably take the Pope’s personal intervention for me to abandon that position. The head coach though thinks otherwise and would rather let the planet perish if to save it meant he and Özil had to become buddies. Yikes! Why doesn’t Unai Emery play Özil?
Last season the talk that dominated discussions around the club was whether or not Alexis Sanchez and Mesut, both of whom were in the last year of their respective contracts, would put ink on the dotted lines to extend their stay at the club. Sanchez did sod off to the second best team in Manchester as we got Henrikh Mkhitrayan in return. Has a more pointless swap ever been done since the great era of barter trade? Anyway, Özil, after toying with us all eventually did sign a new deal. Of course I’ll go ahead and say it – he signed a new contract worth £350,000 per week, just over 18 million pounds per year. What a man! Come on, getting the club honchos to sign off on that was nothing but impressive. Essentially the club had hedged its short term future on the then 29-going-30 year old. You would then think, surely, after giving this player such a supreme vote of confidence he would be central to the club’s plans going forward?
Unai Emery got the Arsenal job on the back of wowing the then recruitment team of Ivan Gazidis, Raul Sanllehi and Sven Mislintat with his allegedly detailed and impressive (PowerPoint) presentation, literally surging past the earlier club favourite (and mine too), Manchester City Assistant Manager and former Arsenal captain Mikel Arteta. Fair play, sometimes someone is just more impressive than you and gets the job instead. You want to imagine that one of the concerns by the recruiting trio to the candidates was how they would work with the club’s latest and costliest investment (Özil) and gauge how central or otherwise he would be to their thinking. Why? Well obviously the club wouldn’t want to look daft by hiring a coach that didn’t fancy a player they had committed so much money on just a few months prior. This only means that Unai believed Mesut Özil would be a key player as he sought to build his team. Either that or he duped Sanllehi and co just to get the job – which is pretty slick and impressive and cunning and downright hilarious. Heck! To further cement his decision, Emery made the number 10 one of his five captains along with Laurent Koscielny, Petr Cech, Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka. Worth noting that out of that pentagon, Ramsey is leaving for Juventus while Cech is retiring at the end of the season. With Özil ostracized, you’re left with Koscielny and Xhaka as the leaders of the club and to be honest, if we were actually a serious club de futbol, those two would be nowhere near our starting XI. Makes you wonder about the thinking behind that particular decision making.
I’m making all this noise about Özil but is he worth all this hassle, you may wonder. Admittedly, he is not the same player that had me texting a friend enthusiastically about just moments before Germany opened their 2010 World Cup campaign against Australia: “Watch out for the Germany no.8. He’s really good.” That said, he is still the best footballer at Arsenal Football Club at the moment and it’s not even close. For me, Özil is a personification of football itself, how the game is supposed to be played. What has happened throughout his 6 years at Arsenal is that he has never had the luxury of playing with players his caliber. Stop looking at me like that, that’s how bad things have been and you know it’s true. So in the end criticism leveled against him has always been about him not showing as much passion, or being as physical or as defensively minded as his obvious inferiors.
To be fair, his body language has been wanting and that’s something he’ll have to live with, but for the kind of player he is, the one constantly setting chance creation records inspite of all of his laziness you really can’t begrudge him. The result of his absence from the team is that creativity is at an all-time low and chances as scanty as rain in the Kalahari. We are actually relying on Sead Kolasinac, a left back, to be our main source of creativity and spark upfront – which is funny because the Bosnian as decent as he can get is not exactly a Marcelo, David Alaba or even an Andy Robertson.
Since the last match of that well documented unbeaten run, a 1-0 win over Qarabag in the Europa League in mid-December, we have played 14 matches and lost 7, exactly half of those. From losing 2 in 24 to losing 7 in the next 14 is one hell of a negative compensation, isn’t it? In the other 7 games Arsenal have won 6 and drawn 1. The wins have been against Burnley, Fulham, Blackpool, Chelsea, Cardiff and Huddersfield of which apart from Chelsea isn’t really opposition worth mentioning. And even then, remember Chelsea are having considerable adaptation difficulties of their own. In a nutshell, we really are not in a good place at all and it doesn’t look like it’s just a bad patch. It feels and smells like we are in our level. If things are that bad, where then does the logic of freezing out your most creative players come from? What’s the justification? And it’s not perceived laziness and lethargy because even Aaron Ramsey, one of the more energetic players at the club has had to contend with being called upon only as a matter of acute necessity.
We are not trying to hound Mister Emery out of the club before he’s even gotten accustomed to his next door neighbours, far from it. But we all have eyes and most fans are struggling to see what the plan here is. Mesut Özil is just a player and like all the others, he’s there to do a job. Even if I love him, I am still going to be an Arsenal fan after he leaves as I was before he came. It is not an Emery v Özil agenda. We are in a bad rut, at risk of crashing out of the Europa League which is our most realistic route to Champions League football next season. Yeah, finishing in the top four in the league doesn’t seem like happening, get over it. Common sense says that you get your best players back to the fold, especially when things get real tough.
For what it’s worth, and I’m sure the Arsenal board is well aware too, Özil still has two more years on his deal with the added bonus of life in London. If it means just enjoying life relaxing at home playing video games while the fat pay cheque keeps coming through he won’t be in a hurry to leave. Would you? Furthermore, if Unai really wants to cut him loose, wouldn’t he be better off giving Özil a fair crack at the team for the remaining three months of the season if only to get back up the interest of potential suitors? What does he have to lose? I’d say not much.