As he walked off the field in Baku during Arsenal’s embarrassing performance in the Europa League final, the relatively paltry numbers of Arsenal fans in attendance serenaded Mesut Özil with boos. Özil had just put in yet another lackluster performance in a big game for the Gunners, showing once again how poorly Özil seems to fit in new manager Unai Emery’s system and how unable or uninterested the German is in correcting that. It was a performance so memorably bad that it might have led to Özil’s merciful ousting from Arsenal, if not for his enormous contract that makes the prospect of any dignity-saving divorce feel almost impossible.
In between bouts with injury and illness this season, Özil simply has not been the player he once was, even as recently as last year. In just 24 appearances in the Premier League this year, Özil racked up a meager two assists—six fewer than last season with similar amounts of playing time. Since his best season in London (2015-2016, where he tallied 6 goals and an eye-popping 19 assists as Arsenal finished second behind Leicester City), Özil’s creative stats have steadily slid downward, hitting their nadir this year. His 2.3 key passes per 90 minutes are his lowest figures of his career. His 0.22 expected assists per 90 minutes are his lowest of the five seasons advanced stats site UnderStat has data on. By any metric, the stats Özil put up this year as a good team’s highly paid creator are very bad.
Those kinds of numbers would perhaps be okay if Özil provided literally anything else on the field. Instead, he’s one of the worst defensive players in England, and he’s not a particularly good scorer either. (Though he did get five goals this season, his underlying stats say that number flatters him.) That, plus his low work rate and shift to conservative passing this season, has left him as one of the least valuable players on the Arsenal roster. In spite of that, his contract, signed in February of 2018 and lasting through the end of the 2020-2021 season, pays him a reported €400,000 a week, by far the highest on the Arsenal payroll.
For a 30-year-old player who can no longer consistently do the one thing he used to be good at, a massive salary like that makes Özil nigh-impossible to move off the books. (See also Bale, Gareth) Özil did have a couple of good showings this season that hinted at his enduring talent’s presence somewhere in there, but the rarity of these performances (most notably, his one-man demolition of Leicester City in October) comes at too high a cost.
As Arsenal trailed off in the latter stages of the Premier League season— eventually finishing fifth after dropping points to Crystal Palace, Wolves, and Brighton in the last month of the season—the Europa League final gave them the opportunity to save the season. Beat Chelsea in Baku, and they would have made it into the Champions League next season. While Özil might not have the stamina or motivation to play at a high level for a full season anymore, surely he could get up for a single match of such massive implications for Arsenal.
But he didn’t. Instead , Özil dropped one of the most anonymous performances of his career, playing short, harmless passes across the field, only attempting to get the ball into the box (and onto the feet of Arsenal’s two best players, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette) three times, and never really making anything happen:
Özil is not the reason Arsenal lost 4-1, but he’s perhaps the best symbol for how Arsenal’s season went: perfectly competent, but just not good enough. The languid genius whom Gooners once defended full-heartedly against accusations that he was an under-invested, lazy, luxury player has seen his creativity dry up and the public’s patience for his style evaporate right along with it.
Because of all that, it would probably be best if the club and player could part ways. Özil would be well served getting a fresh start elsewhere to see if, through either tactics or motivation, he could rekindle enough of his old flame to become a useful player once more. Arsenal could desperately use throwing off Özil’s millstone of a contract to get someone younger, better, and more befitting of their current style of play to help them make the charge back to contention.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to envision Arsenal finding a taker for that contract and/or Özil consenting to a new deal somewhere else that would pay him a fraction of what he’s now guaranteed. Barring a miracle, this bad situation might only get worse.