If Arsene Wenger was watching Arsenal play Leicester last night on his 69th birthday, he no doubt felt vindicated by what he saw. Mesut Ozil didn’t so much grab the game by the scruff in the second half, but rip its head off. Even Jamie Vardy almost sh*t himself.
For the last few years of his tenure at the club, Wenger would frequently tell fans, players and anyone else who would listen how close this team was to becoming something special. Luck, he often said, just wasn’t on their side.
What the great man couldn’t see, however, was that he wasn’t the right man to bring it out of them. His time had come and gone and although he had laid sturdy foundations for another generation of Wengerball, it needed a fresh approach to help it burst forth.
Many names were linked with Arsenal over the summer, but it seems to me that Unai Emery was the perfect choice. Ten wins on the trot would seem to back me up. Arsenal didn’t need an overhaul as much as they needed something new, someone who could identify what needed to stay and, perhaps more importantly, what needed to change.
Others would have arrived wanting to rip it all up in order that they could stamp their own style across the club. That would never have ended well and it’s debatable whether we would have got 10 games without serious calls for yet more change. A 10-game-winning streak would have been a distant dream.
This week, we also had Wenger and Emery make two contradictory statements about the effect Ozil’s international retirement would have on him. Mystic Weg, so often years ahead of the rest of football with his pronouncements, feared it would get to the German. Emery was unconcerned, and it seems he had every right not to be.
Handed the captain’s armband at the start for the first time, Ozil was found wanting in the first half. Who from the Arsenal side wasn’t? But the spotlight falls heavy on him, as it should, now he’s earning £350k-a-week.
Much is made of Ozil’s character, but I don’t know many people who could have made it through his summer unscathed.
His country turned on him, while teammates from his national side, made it clear they weren’t on his side. Bayern Munich quickly identified him as the vehicle in which they would drive away all criticism of their own players who had been so heavily involved in Germany’s World Cup failure.
It shouldn’t surprise any of us, then, that it has taken him a month or two to get his head around his new reality. Money protects you from a lot of things. Incessant and racially-motivated criticism is not one of them.
The Ozil we saw emerge from the Emirates tunnel at 9pm on Monday night was the man Arsene Wenger bought and the player every Arsenal fan wet themselves about signing. The performance from the team, first 45 minutes aside, was everything Wenger told us this side could be.
It was slick and quick, direct and deadly. From Leno to 3-1 in nine moves. Checkmate, Foxes!
I hope Arsene was watching, glass of red in hand.
I hope, as Mesut Ozil dummied the ball to continue his run into the box he exclaimed a little ‘ooohhh’ like the rest of us. I like to think that, as Ozil squared it to Aubameyang for a tap-in, Wenger was off his feet, sloshing his wine around his living room as he tried to appreciate what he had just witnessed.
But knowing Arsene as I think we all do, he most likely simply let out a knowing smile.
He did know, after all.