Arsène Wenger and the failure of the Mesut Ozil project

James McNicholas bemoans the form of Arsenal's German attacker...


When Arsenal are heavily beaten, it’s inevitable that pundits will swiftly train their sights on Mesut Ozil. His languid style makes him an easy target—he won’t jump for a header, but he’ll happily jump out of a tackle. However, It’s not necessarily fair to single Ozil out above the others—no outfield Arsenal player emerged from the defeat at Anfield with any real credit. Nevertheless, it is perhaps time to examine his role at the club in further detail.

After four years, the Ozil project at Arsenal has failed.

Wenger’s two decade reign at Arsenal can effectively be broken down into eras. There was the Patrick Vieira period, where the Frenchman arrived to revolutionise Premier League midfield play forever. That evolved into the glorious Invincibles era, spearheaded by Thierry Henry. Then followed ‘project youth’, a period of enforced parsimony where Cesc Fabregas was charged with leading a squad of talented but raw youngsters.

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Since 2013, we have been in the Ozil era. His signing was a major milestone in the club’s history—the start of a new chapter where Wenger was finally able to sprinkle serious stardust on top of his squad. It’s been a bit like a budget version of Real Madrid’s “Galacticos y Pavones” policy—big stars like Ozil and Alexis Sanchez supplemented by academy products like Hector Bellerin and Alex Iwobi. 

The investment in Ozil has been huge—and not just financially. When the German arrived, Wenger adapted the formation to suit him. The 4-3-3 became more of a 4-2-3-1, and Ozil was effectively liberated from any kind of defensive responsibility.

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Wenger gave Ozil the keys to the Arsenal midfield—this swiftly became his team. One year after making Ozil his record signing, he even snubbed the opportunity to re-sign Fabregas, claiming he had no need for the former skipper with the German as his primary playmaker. 

Ultimately, Wenger’s plan has failed to bear the intended fruit. Ozil has experienced some success with Arsenal: no-one can be too snobby about lifting three FA Cups in four years. However, the true measure of a side’s performance comes in the league table, and in the same period Arsenal’s Premier League standing has been in a general trend of decline.

Last season saw the club hit their nadir under Wenger, as they finally dropped out of the Champions League.

Some of that is on Ozil. No-one doubts his talent, but his suitability for the Premier League has to be questioned. Name another English club that is willing and able to grant a playmaker that kind of liberty. Even if you can find one, it’s highly unlikely they’ve won the title. This is a division where athleticism and physicality are essential complements to technique and imagination. N’golo Kante has won the league two years in succession—Angel di Maria barely made an impression.

However, a lot of the responsibility lies with Wenger too. Having put all his eggs in the ‘Ozil’ basket, he did not provide him with an appropriate platform to flourish. Wenger has never really done the necessary work on the Arsenal midfield to balance out Ozil’s inclination to wander. It took him four years to spend big money on a top-class striker to feed off his supply line. Wenger decided to build his team around Ozil, but then forgot to assemble the rest of the parts.

He also ought to have realised sooner that this project was not going to work. It’s been clear to most observers of Arsenal that the spine of their team requires a radical overhaul. Arsenal have allowed Ozil to hold them to ransom over a new contract, when it might have been a better move to dispense with the former Real Madrid man and go back to the drawing board.

That decision may be forced upon Wenger sooner rather than later. Right now, it’s difficult to envisage him putting pen to paper on a new deal. The shame is that Wenger has seemingly wasted several of his remaining years pursuing a vision that simply hasn’t paid off.

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