Tuesday was another day for frustrated Arsenal fans to throw their hands up in despair and beg of the heavens: For what is Mesut Özil? On Tuesday night in Dortmund, Arsene Wenger’s Gunners were getting peppered by Jurgen Klopp’s Yellow and Black Machine. Even without some of their star players, the German team was, forgive the cliché, efficient. They were collected and calm and they were galloping all round Arsenal, like this Champions League 2:0 stuff was easy.
Arsene Wenger’s Gunners, in the grips of an injury crisis that forced them to start a teenager, had no spring in their step, no swagger in their stagger – nothing. The frail defence proved that they were far too reckless when it came to investment over the summer. Nobody was brought in to plug the gap left by Thomas Vermaelen, and Wenger will probably find all sorts of excuses to not admit his mistake. Such delusions will only be met with collective shrugs and sighs, something Arsenal fans have become accustomed to over the years. A season of Champion’s League football, and 17 on the trot is nothing to be scoffed at, but it seems as if participation in this competition has become “as good as a trophy” – just like the joke that finishing fourth has become “as good as winning a trophy”.
Football’s margins for success are exaggerated, sure, but to ignore the fundamentals of a team, i.e. replacing a pillar defender, is nothing short of shooting yourself in the foot, twice. Beyond the injury crisis, though, lurks something far more frustrating. German World Cup winner Mesut Özil seems to be painting performance tragedy after performance tragedy on the field. When he signed on, he was going to be Arsenal’s new “Bergkamp moment”. That player who, because of his monetary worth, proves the club has ambitions and that they will climb to lofty new heights through the touch of this Midas midfielder. Those lofty heights came in the form of an FA Cup trophy last season, but even that wasn’t easy (it simply would not be Arsenal if it were).
This season, the magic midfielder has stuttered more than a stuck record, though. He has not looked completely fit and, by Wenger’s own admission, he’s not. On Tuesday night against Dortmund, there were a few moments where the real Özil did stand up. Fleet-footed passes in tightly-squeezed areas and strings of violin passes that would please anyone who watches football for “the beauty of the game”. There was even a silky cross which put Danny Welbeck within reach of an opener, but that was fluffed. Still, there were more downs that ups. Arsenal’s away record in Germany with Özil in tow is not great. In five previous away matches against German teams, he had won just once, when Arsenal nicked a 1-0 victory at this stadium last season. Arsenal was nowhere on Tuesday and some cynics even dared mention the disaster of the San Siro a few years ago, when Arsenal was hammered 4-0 by AC Milan. Champions League nights are supposed to be electric and enchanting, something everyone looks forward to, but now with a 2-0 deficiency after their first match, it looks like it might end up being a burden for Arsenal.
Özil inspires such feverish exasperation perhaps not because he is not fulfilling his talent, but because his price tag precedes him. Arsenal has always consisted of miserly spenders, and to have shelled out a record sum for a player, he had to be something special. There have been glimpses of his talents, but he has not clobbered his way to the illustrious heights many had expected him to reach. That is, perhaps, as much of a mark of football’s flawed economy as it is of the simple fact that sometimes players just do not blossom and bubble like sweet caramel dripping over the pot. What the case is with Özil will become more apparent this season, once he has recovered from all his niggles and once he has recovered from the lack of confidence he is clearly struggling with at the moment. The challenges are only going to get tougher, and they are now compounded with the clear struggles at the back.
At the end of the Champions League fixture, this writer jokingly sent a Tweet saying: perhaps going to Dragon’s Den and asking for an investment for a defender will help solve the problem. The reply from a quick-witted Tweep summed it all up. Duncan: “You’ve walked in here asking for a defender, but it looks like you’ll need far more than that. And on that basis, I’m out”.
And Arsenal might be out of it all soon, too. DM
Photo: Dortmund’s Marcel Schmelzer (L) in action against Mesut Oezil (R) of Arsenal during the UEFA Champions League group D soccer match between Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal FC in Dortmund, Germany, 16 September 2014. EPA/BERND THISSEN
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