There is undoubtedly a whiff of the unwanted to the Europa League, particularly its early stages before the dream of winning it to qualify for the Champions League is close to being realised. By extension, then, the implication can be that players asked to appear on Thursday nights are not in the manager’s favour when it comes to his first-choice XI.
On that basis, it was not exactly a surprise that Mesut Ozil was named by Unai Emery in an Arsenal starting XI for the first time since Dec. 26, for the 3-0 victory against BATE Borisov in a round-of-32 second-leg match.
The continuing saga of Ozil’s career at the Emirates Stadium remains profoundly curious, and is one that would make little sense to anyone unfamiliar with the fickle nature of football. Just over a year ago, the German international signed a lucrative new contract, but since Emery replaced Arsene Wenger, his stock has fallen.
But this game saw him back in the team and, what is more, at its creative heart in the No. 10 role just behind Aubameyang. This was the perfect opportunity for Emery to give Ozil another chance: The competition is down the list of priorities, but after the 1-0 first-leg defeat to BATE, there was just enough peril to suggest he was getting a serious outing.
“Such a good feeling to stand on the pitch again,” Ozil tweeted after the game. In an era when social media posts are analysed, then overanalysed, then overanalysed some more, it was tempting to interpret his words as a pointed statement, akin to: “Good to be back; about time.”
Even if the manager is not convinced, Ozil still a popular man in some quarters; when his name was announced before kickoff, not only did the man on the public-address system seem to give it just a little bit more oomph, but it was greeted with hearty cheers from the home support.
Like all too many of his performances in an Arsenal shirt over his five years at the club, maybe the ensuing 90 minutes proved why. Ozil has a curious capacity to be obviously the game’s best player and yet have very little tangible impact. Never mind Emery, that is why he is frustrating to everyone.
There was a moment in the second half when Ozil might have felt justified in wondering how he even has to share a pitch with those around him, let alone not be able to get in the team ahead of them. Nothing much looked on when he received possession in the BATE penalty area in a tight spot, but he silkily rolled the ball around his instep, scooped it without looking and fed a perfect backheel to Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Like someone handing a Ming vase to Laurel and Hardy, though, Mkhitaryan slipped over and nearly handled, then recovered in enough time to hit a low cross that went directly to a defender. The ball somehow deflected out to Granit Xhaka on the edge of the box, who promptly hoofed a shot into the stands. Another fine mess, etc. and so on.
Ozil faded into the background after that, occasionally appearing to play a neat pass or combine pleasantly with Alex iwobi, but nothing more. There was certainly little to prove he truly does exist on a higher plane. Ozil was fine, he played pretty well, but when you have a manager unconvinced by what you offer, “fine” is not good enough when you get a chance.
“Well,” Emery said when asked how Ozil played. “My message to him is to carry on. To be available like today and the last two weeks. Today I am happy, and he was like we want. We’re going to play a lot of matches and sometimes we need him to be in the first XI. His combinations with some players wer What you can read into those words is up to you: written down they look pretty upbeat, but heard out loud they felt a little like a man being damned with faint praise. Emery essentially seemed to be saying that Ozil is a handy part of the Arsenal squad, who will be useful when they have a fixture pileup.
It might be true, but is not the sort of thing you expect to hear about a team’s best-paid, highest-profile and arguably most talented player. Moreover, it is not exactly huge encouragement that Ozil’s performance had forced his way more into Emery’s thinking.
The onus has been mainly on Arsenal’s manager in this whole saga and why he has not selected the World Cup winner more often. But when he knows the manager is a sceptic, it is Ozil’s responsibility to change his mind.
He needs to be outstanding, rather than merely good. That was not the case against BATE, which means little will change, and that more Thursday nights of work lie ahead.