Given the thousand of words dedicated to Mesut Özil, adding another 800 or so to the conversation seems rather trite. Yet the German is such a charismatic, divisive figure it’s hard to avoid thinking about him, and subsequently thinking what to write about him.
The definitive Özilography was churned out two years ago by Brian Phillips on the dearly departed Grantland, but hardly a week passes without an ö-themed epistle making its way into our lives, whether panegyric, hagiography or otherwise. This unholy babel can be tiresome but is also a tribute to the mystique of this gifted, infuriating player.
David Moyes, a man who once spent £28 million on Marouane Fellaini, is famously unconvinced by Mesut Özil. “The jury’s still out,” according to the Glaswegian, and to a certain extent he is correct. Even now, after a calendar year in which Özil has been nothing short of a phenomenon, there are plenty who question his bona fides.
This lack of consensus is as understandable as it is irritating. His work rate, physical demeanour and an apparent introversion are often held up as reasons for the ambivalence that surrounds him. But fan and pundit suspicion of Özil – in the UK at least – is much more fundamental than that: people simply don’t recognise his purpose.
If you’ve ever studied a language, you’ve probably come into contact with the subjunctive mood, a hellish grammatical construct frequently the bane of existence for linguists. Used to express the more abstract side of things, including judgement, possibility and actions-that-could-potentially-occur-but-have-not-yet-occurred (there must be a German word for that), it’s hard to grasp the notions involved, and even harder to apply them practically. Consequently, language learners usually abhor the subjunctive, unable to reconcile its vagueness with the more methodical, rote-learned aspects of language acquisition. It is essential but somehow intangible, not categorised or absorbed without effort; an easy thing with which to grow exasperated.
Without entering the realm of unfettered supposition, a student’s relationship with this grammatical function is similar to that which exists between many football fans and Mesut Özil. There he goes again, we think, bloody strolling around like he hasn’t a care in the world, ruddy well perceiving things that are supposed to be imperceptible, seeing the action that could potentially occur, the possibility, and executing it for us poor saps too stupid to do it ourselves. He is elusive, incomprehensible, subjunctive. What a twat.
Özil performs with subtlety, not simplicity. Like the subjunctive, he can be difficult to comprehend, but that does not lessen his importance, or his ability to, all of a sudden, turn a nebulous idea into something palpable. German attacker and linguistic construct alike express things that are not so obvious. It’s just that, to many, the trouble it takes to understand them isn’t worth the bother. Perhaps, though, we should all try a little harder, because it’s so much easier to see his faults than his strengths.
And yet, it would not be fair to say that those who doubt him have been entirely unjustified. “There is often talk among committed Özilites about his influence as an immeasurable, gossamer force, visible only to the initiated,” wrote Barney Ronay in October 2015, after the former Real Madrid man’s virtuoso display against Manchester United. “But the fact is in two years at the club this was Özil’s first goal and second assist in 17 matches against Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, the five best teams Arsenal have played in his time.”
At times, Özil has been an intensely vexing figure in an Arsenal shirt. Observers and supporters have been given regular occasion to bristle at perceived Özilisms: his sanguine acceptance of losing possession, or the fabled lack of arbeit. Who hasn’t raged at what should have been a simple 10-yard side foot to Santi Cazorla ending up back-heeled stylishly to the opposition goalkeeper; a marauding Danny Rose allowed roam untouched to the half-way line with Özil pottering along several time-zones behind, probably thinking about trigonometry?
But the resultant fury blinds us to the moments of clarity that often follow: a clip into space leaving a centre-back homicidal; a first-time flick taking three players out of the game; a pass that cuts an angle no-one else in the stadium could spot. All done with a nonchalance too often described as complacency.
Özil sees what we don’t and can externalise it. That’s both what makes him great and what makes him so hard to appreciate. Yet, gradually, the tide of opinion is turning in his favour. Pleasingly for the he-needs-to-put-himself-about brigade, Özil has indeed put himself about more, resulting in a widespread acclaim that was absent in his early days in England. In 2015-16, a steelier Mesut took on the Premier League, and became arguably the season’s best player. Özil is becoming tangible, and it’s wonderful to watch.
By Luke Ginnell. Follow @HeavyFirstTouch