Poor Mesut Ozil. We knew he was suffering a dip in form, but last night really was the pits, the very bottom point in his rollercoaster season, the moment the car reaches the end of the ride and comes to a complete standstill.
In a game when Arsenal needed their best players to perform if there was any chance of progress, in a game moreover which offered him the chance for immediate redemption after his penalty miss in the first leg, he disappeared completely from view. For much of the game in the Allianz Arena he did a very good impression of someone auditioning for the remake of The Invisible Man.
Not since I saw Louis Tomlinson of One Direction make his professional debut with Doncaster Rovers Reserves have I seen a footballer so keen not to touch a football as Ozil was last night. Positioned wide right, at every opportunity he did his best to skulk away from the action.
He didn’t tackle, he didn’t seek to take possession from a team-mate, the only time he moved in a hurry was when Bacary Sagna had the ball immediately behind him on the right wing and he appeared to be looking to get as far away as possible from his colleague. Even his short game seemed to go awry: when he was at the end of a lengthy passing move involving most of the Arsenal team, he underhit his return to Santi Cazorla woefully, leaving the Spaniard scrabbling for possession.
When he didn’t reappear after half-time, nobody can have been surprised. Such was his lack of presence, the Bayern fans barely raised a hoot of derision to note his telling substitution. Afterwards, Arsene Wenger revealed Ozil had suffered from a tight hamstring and could be out for a few weeks. Though you wonder how he managed to pull a muscle, given that he appeared not to be involved in a single tussle for the ball.
What must have pained every Arsenal fan watching him drowning out in Munich, was the contrast he presented with those playing inside him. Cazorla never stopped trying, never stopped battling. As for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, he was everything Ozil wasn’t: determined, full of effort, wanting the ball, brave in possession. The Ox constantly worried Bayern’s backline, which resorted to chopping him at the ankles as the only way to stop his surging, skill-packed runs.
My, he was good last night. As good as Ozil was bad. Wherever Roy Hodgson was watching the game, he would have smiled at the evidence before him of one of his players mixing it with the world’s best, worrying the finest club side in Europe to the point of distraction.
Playing in the centre of midfield, The Ox also gave hint of what he can bring to the England party. This was real versatility on display. Chamberlain, who always yearned for a chance to influence things from the middle, offers not only a flying winger, but a plausible, driving, ball-carrying centre midfielder. It was the most timely of auditions.
And for Wenger, it must have been a cause of frustration, a glimpse of what might have been. If only Ozil could have matched such application. After all, it was to make a difference in games like this that he was bought. For £42 million the manager is entitled to expect a little more than total absence.
As it was, the rest of the Arsenal team played well against the European champions. If they had been sitting on a two-goal advantage from the first leg, then we would this morning have been eulogising the perfect European away performance. Unfortunately, the first-leg defeat had left them with way too much to do at a stadium that has become a victory factory this season.
Wenger was still chuntering after the game that the turning point had been the sending off of his goalkeeper in the first leg. Possibly so. But there was nothing controversial about the referee’s decision. It was the right one. The manager’s problem in the Allianz was that he effectively began the second leg too with 10 men.
So Arsenal have departed from the Champions League in the last 16 for the fourth season in succession. Next year it might be wise to take the precaution of winning their qualification group so that they are not up against a side as accomplished as Bayern, a side whose strength could be measured in the fact they had on the bench Thomas Mueller, Claudio Pizzaro and Toni Kroos. Nice of Kroos to be there, incidentally, taking time out from using Manchester United as a patsy in his current contract negotiations.
The truth is, Ozil will have another opportunity. That is the thing about football, the chance to rectify a bad performance – even a performance as bad as his last night – comes quickly. Before he can, however, whatever it is that is causing his catastrophic slump in form needs to be rectified pronto.
If Wenger was telling the truth and the injury talk wasn’t a smokescreen, a two- or three-week lay-off while his hamstring heals could be precisely what he requires to recover his missing verve, an early spring rather than a mid-winter break.
Bring him back refreshed for the FA Cup semi-final, bring him back to assist Arsenal in the search of the one trophy left open to them, a trophy that is theirs for the taking and he could fly once more.
If he does that, if he gives a performance of which he is capable to help produce the silverware, then last night will be quickly forgotten. Which is just as well.
- Sports & Recreation
- Mesut Ozil
- Arsene Wenger