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Midfield Magicians: Mesut Ozil – The musician who always played the right note

Even in the fickle world that is modern football, few footballers have polarised opinions quite like Mesut Ozil.

From being the creative genius of his country and some of Europe’s top clubs, to an ostracised outcast criticised for his contribution, Ozil has spent time at both ends of the scale when it comes to footballing favour.

Born in Gelsenkirchen as the son of Turkish immigrants, Ozil’s ascent to the top of the game began on caged pitches, where the lack of space enabled the budding talent to perfect the art of performance in tight areas.

 

After spells with various clubs in the lower rungs of German football, he signed for Schalke in 2005, with his first-team emergence arriving the following year. Big things were expected from the teenager who made 19 league appearances as Schalke finished as Bundesliga runners-up in 2006/07, but a dispute over a new deal saw the club’s brightest prospect depart for Werder Bremen.

It was in northwestern Germany that his tremendous talent began to be fulfilled, as he helped Bremen to Champions League qualification in his first season and the DFB-Pokal in his second, scoring the decisive goal as Bayer Leverkusen were beaten in the final.

Ozil’s star was one now firmly on the rise. With his elegant brand of dribbling and ability to feint and shift past challenges, the technical talents of the midfielder made a refreshing change to the more traditional traits of the German game.

Despite his Turkish ancestry, Ozil opted to represent the nation of his birth and starred as Germany’s u21 side thrashed England 4-0 to win the 2009 u21 European Championship.

Another season of excellence earned him a first inclusion in the senior side, as Ozil scored nine league goals and laid on a league-leading 17 assists for Bremen.

Then at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Ozil became a household name.

Germany travelled to the World Cup having placed faith in an emerging generation, with Ozil, Sami Khedira, Jerome Boateng and Marko Marin each involved after success with the u21 side the previous summer.

In the opening game, the watching world was treated to a glimpse of next-gen Germany. Ozil was the architect of a masterful win over Australia, as Joachim Löw’s side hit four without reply in a slick and sophisticated attacking performance, epitomised by the elegance of Ozil.

“I think the devastating factor was Ozil,” Australia’s Tim Cahill said in defeat. “Credit to the youngster. He’s a great player and obviously, he’s going to do great things for the team. The way he opens up defences is a credit to him.”

Defeat to Serbia proved a setback in the second round of fixtures before Ozil scored the only goal of the game against Ghana to ensure passage to the knockout rounds. From there, up cranked the German gears. Old rivals England were embarrassed in the last 16, with Fabio Capello’s side battered 4-1 in Bloemfontein.

It was a fixture that gave one of the defining images of early Ozil, as the midfielder breezed past Gareth Barry to tee up Thomas Muller for the fourth. Barry – full of huff and puff but cruelly lacking in pace – was badly exposed, his chase of the feather-footed Ozil representative of running on sinking sand in steel toe caps.

An exhibition of clinical counterattack saw Argentina thrashed 4-0 in the last eight, before Germany’s quest to be crowned world champions ended against a Spanish side with greater knowhow. Their tournament was over, but this was just the start for a team who had captured the imagination. None more so than Ozil, who had brought Germany guile as he flittered between defensive lines.

Major tournaments are often described as the biggest shop window in the game and Ozil’s performances – and three assists – had not gone unnoticed. In swept Real Madrid, securing deals for the midfielder and Germany teammate Sami Khedira.

In the Spanish capital, Ozil continued his elevation to the elite, providing consistent chance creation as Los Blancos looked to challenge a Barcelona team at the peak of their powers under Pep Guardiola.

Jose Mourinho had looked to structure his side around the goalscoring gifts of Cristiano Ronaldo, a man who Ozil would share considerable chemistry with on the pitch. With Ozil and Angel Di Maria carving out opportunities and Karim Benzema offering selfless service as the spearhead, Mourinho’s men toppled the challenge of their Catalan rivals in 2011/12.

The capital club romped to a first league title in four seasons, breaking numerous records. La Liga landmarks for most points in a single season (100), most goals scored (121), best goal difference (+89), and most wins (32) were all set.

Ozil excelled in the club’s counterattacking system, able to keep a cool head in the final third even when his side broke at breakneck speed. He assisted a crucial goal for Ronaldo as Mourinho’s men beat Barcelona at Camp Nou, a result which effectively secured the title. A pass of perfect weight, Ronaldo did the rest and the iconic ‘calma’ celebration was born.

Ozil led the league for assists (18), following a campaign in which his creativity blossomed. His left foot served like a surgeon’s scalpel, able to dissect defences with precision. It was a weapon used to open up avenues and expose the vulnerable areas of oppenents.

Across his three seasons at Real Madrid, no player across Europe’s top five leagues provided more assists than Ozil (80), who led La Liga for goals created in each campaign. It was a rate of production unmatched across Europe but, as ever, the magpies of Madrid soon had their eyes on the next shiny signing.

As Gareth Bale arrived in a world-record deal, Ozil was ushered out the exit door. Sergio Ramos and Ronaldo were among those vocal in their unhappiness at his departure.

Arsenal secured a £42.5m deal to make Ozil their record transfer, a statement signing for the club after a period of decline. Excitement was understandably high and an assist arrived on debut for Ozil, who began to form encouraging understandings with the Gunners creative cast.

After nine seasons without silverware, Ozil’s contribution helped Arsenal to FA Cup success during his debut campaign. He added a second FA Cup the following season, two triumphs sandwiched between the ultimate success on the international stage.

In 2014, the seeds sewn on South African soil four years earlier came out in full bloom, as Germany were crowned world champions for a fourth time. Ozil scored the extra-time winner as his side edged Algeria in the last 16 and led the tournament for passes completed in the final third (171), while ranking second for chances created (17), and possession won in the final third (6).

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There is no bigger success than the World Cup and as Ozil clutched football’s most famous prize at the Maracanã Stadium, it fuelled the fire for his return to north London.

A return to the top of the English game failed to materialise for Arsenal, despite Ozil’s best efforts in 2015/16. His seven seasons with the Gunners were blighted with inconsistency and off-the-pitch issues, but that campaign was one of almost continued highs.

Ozil was exquisite in his finest season post-Madrid, leading the Premier League for assists (19) and creating a record-breaking 146 chances, a record that remains. Full of invention and an ability to find gaps in any rearguard, he mesmerised to win Arsenal’s Player of the Season accolade.

But Ozil’s best more often came in flickers and flashes. There was a hat-trick against Ludogorets in the Champions League and the ludicrousy of his winner against the Bulgarians in the return. A sublime scooped finish in a 3-3 draw with Liverpool was another reminder of his natural gifts.

As Ozil’s impact began to decline, his off-pitch issues rose. He retired from international football after being scapegoated for Germany’s 2018 World Cup exit, citing ‘racism and disrespect’ after criticism for a photo with the Turkish president during his visit to London.

In December 2019, Arsenal distanced themselves from comments the midfielder made criticising the Chinese government over its treatment of Uighur Muslims. His relationship with Mikel Arteta also proved fractious, with his former teammate unhappy with Ozil’s application.

Ozil was latterly viewed as a languid luxury, one who imbalanced sides rather than improved them. As the intensity of modern football increased around him, Ozil continued at his own nonchalant pace. The distinctive demeanour that had once made the game look effortless to Ozil, was now the very same style that saw his critics come out in full force. Once indulged, he was now exiled and on a downward slope he never came back from.

After being excluded from Arsenal’s 25-man squad for the 2020/21 Premier League season, he departed for Fenerbahce in January 2021. An underwhelming impact followed, before a short, injury-hit, spell at İstanbul Başakşehir before retirement.

It was a dull end to a career which had given so much. One World Cup, a La Liga title and six domestic cups won in three different countries, having topped the assist chart in Germany, Spain and England. For Germany he won 92 caps and scored 23 goals, holding the record as a five-time winner of the German Player of the Year award.

As impressive as the statistics are, recollections of Ozil will more memorably recall the intangibles. The grace, the guile, the gasp-inducing touches and the threaded passes were what made Ozil special – a footballer quite simply born to create.

Read – Midfield Magicians: Michael Ballack – Little Kaiser

See Aso – Midfield Magicians: David Silva – El Mago

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