Mesut Özil’s ballet in Bulgaria was the goal that summed up Arsenal’s decade

Mesut Özil’s ballet in Bulgaria was the goal that summed up Arsenal’s decade

Between those first champagne-fuelled wails of Auld Lang Syne way back in 2010 and the last of their kind in 2019, Arsenal fans saw their team put the ball in the back of the net somewhere in the region of a thousand times. Some were better than others, certainly; some more memorable, more majestic. Perhaps the prospect of ranking them all from ‘best’ to ‘worst’ would excite some.

But those people are horrible, horrible humans and I would argue that attempting to rank such a vast and varied assortment of goals, in pursuit of one definitive goal – the best of the decade – would be an absurd task made all but redundant by the omnipresence of a little thing called subjectivity.

What makes a goal ‘good’ is, of course, influenced by its style, skill and timing. How it altered the game, and the competition, within which it was lashed, flicked, dinked, or poked into existence matters too. But, crucially, what makes one goal mean more than any other is decided almost exclusively by the unique context in which each fan witnesses it, ensuring the goal’s actual physical form pales in significance when compared to, say, where each and every goal’s viewer was when it was scored, who they were with, how they were feeling a second before the shot rippled against the net and how drastically their mood changed in the joyous furore that immediately followed.

Any effort by one man to name one singular crowning Arsenal goal, set against the backdrop of a whole decade’s worth of goals, would be an exercise in futility. But to attempt instead to name the goal that best encapsulated Arsenal between 1 January 2010 and 31 December 2019? That isn’t nearly so daunting a task. In fact, there’s precisely one goal that does it far better than any other and it was scored on 1 November 2016 against Ludogorets Razgrad by a footballer named Mesut Özil.

For as long as many Arsenal supporters are able to recall, the Gunners have been defined by a crystal-like dichotomy – beautiful but fragile. The decade in question did little to rage against this enduring cliché. On the contrary, throughout the 2010s, Arsenal routinely added fuel to its flame, often by the rig-load.

So often Arsenal would blow away their lesser contemporaries only to shrink in the shadows of mightier foes. In singular moments of splendour they would show themselves to be capable of scoring goals of exceptional fluidity and faultless execution: think Jack Wilshere’s tiki-taka masterclass at home to Norwich, Olivier Giroud’s audacious scorpion kick against Crystal Palace, Aaron Ramsey’s improvised pièce de résistance away to Fulham, to name a small fraction.

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Yet never would they prove themselves capable of permanently shedding the deeply engrained frailty that made routine courtships with major trophies all too often a tantalising pipe dream at best. Özil’s goal against Ludogorets, its surrounding context and what duly followed in the ensuing months, represented all of this in one exquisitely crafted nutshell.

Arsenal journeyed to Bulgaria in aid of their fourth fixture of the season’s Champions League group stage. In the competition’s curtain-raiser, a late Alexis Sánchez equaliser had earned the club their first point of the campaign against Paris Saint-Germain before Basel were professionally dispatched and Ludogorets mercilessly dismantled. In the latter’s return fixture, having just a fortnight earlier delivered six without reply against their evening’s hosts, a similarly one-sided encounter was anticipated.

But before Arsenal’s class could win out, their similarly distinctive softshell was exposed twice early on, leaving the Gunners with a two-goal debt to claw back with barely a quarter of an hour played. Arsenal rallied, Granit Xhaka halving the deficit before Giroud ensured his side would depart for half-time with parity restored, but work was to be done in the second half in order to fulfil the Londoners’ desire for all three points. An erratic, end-to-end period ensued and it wasn’t until the 87th-minute that Arsenal finally found the goal that would win them the game, courtesy of Özil. 

It was born from an ill-conceived Ludogorets raid forward that broke down midway into Arsenal’s half of the field, leaving Mohamed Elneny to pick up the loose possession. Spotting his German teammate scampering into space, the Egyptian midfielder swept a searching ball into Özil’s unfolding path, over the heads and desperately raised arms of the defenders inviting an offside call to no avail.

After a single touch that slowed the ball to match his stride, Özil lifted his head and found the goalkeeper suddenly out of his area and bearing down on him at speed. Feigning an early shot, he dinked the ball neatly over the despairing custodian, leaving him to clutch at thin air as he arced backwards in slow, dramatic fashion, before Özil took one further cushioned touch with the outside of his left boot to prepare the ball for its imminent pass into the goal.

Read  |  Super Robert Pirès

By this time, the two Ludogorets defenders most intent on hampering Özil’s progress had scurried back to their area and, in support of their ailing ‘keeper, positioned themselves between the attacker and his target. As Özil raised his foot once more, the pair leapt to action. The defenders traded blocks, like two giant swinging axes crossing in a booby-trapped cave; they dived, in perfect synchronisation, in the way of precisely nothing before falling to the ground. The German, far too seasoned a spelunker to be bested so close to his treasure, simply faked one last shot before evading them entirely and rolling the ball into the unguarded goal.

Seeing Özil skipping merrily toward goal, outwitting not one, not two, but three opponents, playing his own game at his own pace and making bumbling buffoons of Champions League-standard footballers, was enrapturing. Witnessing a World Cup winner scoring a goal drenched in class while adorned in an Arsenal shirt felt affirming but not unusual.

It was spectacular but it was far from a one-off. Arsenal fans know a thing or two about goals of a similarly sumptuous ilk, as Özil’s own dazzling effort joined a club made far from exclusive by the likes of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pirès before him. Equally, Arsenal are sadly just as familiar with the fate that befell them a short while after the game won by Özil’s brilliance.

Following a brace of respectable results that served to secure the club’s safe passage into the Champions League knockout round, the club were subsequently mauled at the hands of Bayern Munich – a 10-2 humbling delivered by one of so many teams clearly possessing the depth of quality and killer instinct that Arsenal lacked throughout the decade. That beautiful crystal could shine, and shine it did, but oh how it could so easily be smashed.

It is that – the beautiful-but-fragile essence of the modern-day Arsenal – that Özil’s goal so neatly captured. The stunning fashion in which the goal was scored, the lowly opponents against whom it was so effortlessly registered, the harder-than-necessary context in which it was required, and, perhaps most pertinent of all, the inconsistent player whose boot it was scored by, whose signature was said to herald a new dawn that never quite arrived. It was all so very Arsenal.

As we amble our way into a new decade filled with new possibilities, it is impossible to know just what kind of goal will come to define Arsenal and its impending fates in another ten years’ time. All the club’s supporters can hope for is the opportunity to look back upon it, one day many years from now, and recall it for its beauty. What’s more, they’ll hope to remember a goal that wasn’t quite so desperately needed, that didn’t precede an undignified pasting, and that served to hide a little less of that crystal-like fragility too.

By Will Sharp @shillwarp

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