Southampton vs Arsenal: Why Mesut Ozil may be the final pawn to topple in Unai Emery’s overhaul

Tom Kershaw

How many times have we heard the same shtick about Mesut Ozil? The tortured cycle of a player who goes missing for months at a time in fits of slothful defending, slunk shoulders, and on-pitch strops. A talisman who maddens simply by way of withholding his own brilliance, infuriating to the point where he is almost given up on, when, and only then, comes the exhibition of artistry which renders everyone else on a pitch mundane. Skill so pure it can’t quite ever be reconciled with consistency.

It’s the way Ozil has always been since arriving at Arsenal five-and-a-half years ago. That one entrancing performance against Leicester in October; his FA Cup-winning parade against Chelsea in 2015/16; the six-month spell in the season prior where he assisted in a matter even Jeeves might find imperious. The fleeting moments of Ozil which all of football regales in and sucks applause even from opposition fans.

For those moments alone, many managers have granted Ozil special treatment throughout his career. Under Arsene Wenger, Ozil was able to train idly, pull sickies, and miss mediocre Europa League games – even when said to agitate other members of the dressing room – in a bid to nurture such a performance from him.

Even Jose Mourinho and his proud ambivalence to pandering allowed for Ozil to be treated like a separate clef at Real Madrid. A player from a classical era who has to be treated delicately to avoid being drowned out by the high-tempo tiki-taka of the Pep Guardiolas.

“Ozil is Ozil,” Mourinho once said. “If you were expecting Ozil to be super aggressive and to be running miles and miles from side to side and to show great enthusiasm and aggressiveness, this is not Mesut.”

But under Unai Emery, Ozil finds himself in the antithetical circumstance, faced by a manager who loathes partisanship to star players. Emery is still scarred by losing the leadership to Neymar at PSG, and for that reason admires how Guardiola ousted big egos in Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Yaya Toure to establish his own regimes at Barcelona and Manchester City.

An overhaul Emery began to replicate at Arsenal even before the club’s 23-game undefeated streak began, when stalwart physio Colin Lewin was sacked, Jack Wilshere was released and Steve Bould was relegated to a lesser capacity. A streak which has since continued with the upcoming departures of Aaron Ramsey and Danny Welbeck.

“The chairs had to be moved in all sectors of the club,” Emery said in a recent interview with Marca. “And not because of previous negligence, but to motivate everyone again: to shake it up, to sweep things under the carpet, to open the windows.”

Arsenal travel to Southampton on Sunday where Ozil is expected to feature (Getty)
Arsenal travel to Southampton on Sunday where Ozil is expected to feature (Getty)

Whether Ozil will join those confined to a bygone legacy at Arsenal remains unclear as Emery grapples to draw the player from his cocoon. A task which is almost impossible for the 30-year-old who is so die-cast in his own unique footballing philosophy yet remains something that Emery can’t accommodate, bearing too many hallmarks to his past failure at PSG.

As a result there has been a type of unspoken power struggle between the pair as Emery attempts to bend Ozil’s will into his management methodology. As early as the second week of the season, where Ozil was shocked to be substituted at Stamford Bridge after 70 minutes with the score at 2-2, Emery has offered up an ultimatum: my way or don’t play. At Crystal Palace a few weeks later, Ozil threw his gloves to the floor after being withdrawn again at a crucial stage in the match. In all, he has completed the full 90 minutes in the Premier League just four times under Emery.

Steadily, Emery has consigned Ozil to the same plateau as everyone else in the squad, where no one is afforded luxury whether World Cup winner or turning 18. To cement his authority at Arsenal, every player must be totally attuned to his mantra – something Ozil, so stuck to his own sheet music. A transition already seen to not be altogether smooth with squabbles said to have broken out between the pair after Ozil was told he was being left out of the starting eleven, or even in press conferences where Emery becomes visibly clenched when questioned about the German.

It is why there’s a feeling around Arsenal that although Ozil’s departure is not imminent, it may now be inevitable. He is a player too intertwined with Wenger’s reign at the club, a last representation of the culture Emery has otherwise sought to so steadfastly eradicate. The last pawn which needs to be toppled before the manager can command his very own Arsenal.

Whether one last cycle of Ozil can be conjured in the meantime via Emery’s firm approach remains as typically uncertain. It could come at Southampton as readily as never at all. Whatever way he feels inclined.