Mesut Ozil and the death of the #10

Fly, indeed ...
Fly, indeed ...
Image: Getty Images

If it feels like the Mesut Ozil and Arsenal soap opera has lasted longer than most actual soap operas, you’re not alone. It’s been over three seasons, spanned two managers (and an interim one), a couple different Arsenal regimes, and certainly countless social media posts and anonymous whispers from the club itself. It finally came to an end last week, when Arsenal terminated his controversial (in a few ways) contract and Ozil signed for Turkey’s Fenberbahce.

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Ozil’s saga with Arsenal contains many more strands than just what he meant or didn’t mean on the field. There were constant questions about his commitment and attitude, and that was from three different managers. Ozil’s reluctance to be a part of the playing staff’s voluntary wage cut to help out during the pandemic was apparently the final straw for manager Mikel Arteta. However, Ozil was right to question just what exactly was going to be done with that money, and it wasn’t simply Ozil not acquiescing that led to Arsenal laying off scores of employees. To simply say that Ozil didn’t fit into Arsenal’s plan misses the wider picture, though.

To boil it down to its most elemental level, Ozil’s position doesn’t really exist in the modern game anymore. At least not at the top level it doesn’t. It’s amazing how quickly that can change, because Ozil’s arrival at Arsenal in 2013 felt like a true Earth-shifting moment. This was before the Premier League had come to dominate the global transfer scene. The very top strata of players still went to Spain, as Ozil had done. This was a player who had stormed the 2010 World Cup, which earned him his move to Real Madrid, where he would rack up an obscene amount of assists over four seasons. These kinds of players just didn’t end up in England. They weren’t tough enough, they wouldn’t like the rain, they were just too delicate. Which really meant their level of technical skill just didn’t exist in the Premier League, which gives you a pretty clear indication of why the English national team has ended up with their dick in the dirt at most every tournament for the past few decades.

While injuries were always a problem, Ozil was a significant contributor over his first four seasons in North London, topped by a 19-assist campaign in 2015-2016, when Arsenal finished second. They, and Ozil, haven’t come close to that level since.

That’s the time that the game and league passed manager Arsene Wenger by, and Ozil along with it. The languid, elegant passing-style that Wenger had brought to the league and brought Arsenal its greatest stretch of success was being ushered out by the high-pressure, high-pressing, high-octane styles that Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, and others had brought to England. Suddenly there was no room for a genuine #10, the player who sits behind the opponent’s midfield and in front of their defense and weaves passes through to the forwards.

It wasn’t that long ago that the game was rife with them. Zinedine Zidane, Rui Costa, Ronaldinho, Kaka, Raul (kinda), and a host of others anchored the giants around Europe. There was something mythical about these types of players, the way the game would just stop when they had the ball and wouldn’t start again until they deemed it appropriate. They seemed to float through the game, such was their knack of simply popping up in spaces you or the defense didn’t see and finding a pass that would open up teams like an autopsy. They were the players the songs in the terraces were written about. They saw the things we couldn’t see.

But as with a lot of sports, true creativity generally gets stomped out by functionality. Lionel Messi, who is just about the most natural #10 ever conceived, has rarely if ever played there for Barcelona, either starting on the wing and coming inside or playing as a false-nine. More and more managers began to see the benefits of winning the ball as close to the opposition goal as possible, instead of constantly trying to weave patterns to work the length of the field. Which meant teams needed forwards that would run just as hard without the ball as they would with it. Which doesn’t really allocate room for players like Ozil, who generally pull out the newspaper, a coffee, and a smoke when the other team has the ball.

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Genuine #10s had to be either retro-fitted into a front three, playing from a wing, or into a midfield where their lack of steel was generally a detriment. Managers have instead decided that instead of installing a player in that space between midfield and defense as you would a #10, they’d rather get players there from other areas to be harder to mark, such as the wings (where Messi comes from generally), a forward dropping in there, or a midfielder surging in (like Kevin de Bruyne). It’s harder to find them when they “arrive” there than when they’re stationed there constantly.

Ozil isn’t the first #10 to be cast aside at the top level. Philippe Coutinhno has been a jagged fit at best in both Barcelona and Munich, and considered expendable by Liverpool for a gargantuan fee, simply because he doesn’t really fit in a forward line and is too lightweight for a midfield. Jack Grealish, currently inspiring Aston Villa to a possible memorable season, is another who in a previous generation would have been installed in that spot, but has to make do with starting on the left of their forward line now and coming inside (which he’s done brilliantly, to be fair). Kai Havertz has struggled mightily with Chelsea (though his bout with COVID has something to do with that) because they don’t play with the same role that he starred in with Leverkusen. David Silva, a linchpin for City, was transformed into a midfielder from his previous days as a #10. Eden Hazard, for the seven minutes per month he’s upright, is yet another working in a forward line instead of behind a striker or two as he would have been 10-15 years ago. But all those players, aside from Havertz and he has time on his side, found a way to adjust to new positions that aren’t totally tailored to them. Ozil never did.

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If you can’t be a pacey, determined forward or a midfielder that can break things up as well as create, there’s no in-between anymore. Ozil excelled at being the in-between. Big clubs just don’t have that anymore. Man City don’t play with one. Neither do Liverpool. Barcelona haven’t in ages, and neither has Madrid. Thomas Muller is kind of one at Munich, but his skill-set is different. Neymar at PSG is part of a front three. Ozil harkens back to a different era, much like the multi-inning reliever in baseball. But hey, those are coming back, right?

Still, teams come up against packed defenses where pressing for turnovers isn’t a top priority. They need to be unlocked. Arsenal have screamed out for inspiration in many matches against teams that were easily holding them at bay over the past few seasons. Ozil and his type are certainly worthy introductions to those types of games as substitutes. They see what we can’t.

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But it didn’t happen, and the role of impact-sub almost seems beneath players like Ozil. They are, or maybe were, the game’s true artisans, and having them do street-caricatures almost feels like a waste. It certainly felt that way to Ozil. And you wouldn’t keep a player like that, on those wages, simply to play 15-20 minutes every other game.And players who can do what Ozil can, or did, get those wages and rep.

Sports move on, roles change, everything evolves. Sometimes players like Ozil get passed by before they even realize.

We can't be too careful. Two guys in an airport...talking? It's a little fishy.