The “Assist King” has left the building as Mesut Ozil heads to boyhood club Fenerbahce after agreeing to terminate his Arsenal contract with six months remaining.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way; in fact, Arsenal fans once hoped he’d stay forever. Ozil’s £42.4 million arrival from Real Madrid in September 2013 and his subsequent £350,000-a-week deal to stay at the club, signed five years later, were heralded as landmark moments for the Gunners in their pursuit of a return to former glories.
At first, Ozil had a unifying effect on a fan base whose disgruntlement under Arsene Wenger was just beginning. But over time, the midfielder became the most polarising figure at a club evolving dramatically behind the scenes as the game’s elite clubs disappeared over the horizon.
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In the end, Ozil, heralded as the new Dennis Bergkamp, ended up as peripheral as Barcelona loanee Denis Suarez. His groundbreaking contract morphed from a statement of intent for a club near the top to a crippling burden for a team in need of serious repair. Ozil became a diamond-encrusted outcast; a thick slice of Black Forest gateaux at a club on a diet.
Ozil still commands ferocious support on social media. One reason Arsenal offered him such a huge wage in the first place was his marketing power and online pull. At the time of writing, Arsenal have 16.9m Twitter followers; Ozil’s stands at 25.8m. On Instagram, the Gunners boast 18.8m; Ozil has 23.5m. Yet instead of a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship, Ozil increasingly resorted to social media to communicate his pariah status as Arsenal sought to cut ties with a player once seen as the talisman of a new era but now a relic of past mistakes.
Each side blames the other for how this played out, but how did it come to this?
Ozil has been an emotive subject ever since joining Arsenal 7½ years ago, and it’s difficult to underestimate the excitement generated by his arrival.
It was billed as more than a transfer. A year earlier, in 2012, Arsenal had sold Robin van Persie to Manchester United, the latest in a long line of talents either approaching or at the peak of their careers who’d go on to fulfil that promise elsewhere. Van Persie would win the Golden Boot with 26 goals and fire United to the Premier League title in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season. Once bitter adversaries, here was Wenger handing Ferguson, his longtime rival, the missing piece in his puzzle.
Years of frugality due to the self-funded move from Highbury to Emirates Stadium rendered Arsenal unable to compete at the top end of the transfer market, especially one bloated by the billions of Manchester City, who followed Chelsea in fast-tracking their way to success through lavish spending. Arsenal’s trophy drought dated back to 2005, weighing heavier on Wenger’s shoulders with each passing year. But by landing Ozil, who agreed to the move on Sept. 2, 2013, Arsenal were finally competing. More than that, they were signing a bona fide star for Real Madrid and Germany — a playmaker about to turn 25 years old, with the pedigree to add real potency to Wenger’s aesthetic approach.
In a near-perfect distillation of the transition the Gunners were making, earlier that day they signed goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano on a season-long loan from Palermo, a deal more in keeping with a transfer window in which they also agreed terms with 20-year-old French striker Yaya Sanogo and re-signed midfielder Mathieu Flamini. But, with the clock ticking down to the deadline, Arsenal shattered their transfer record almost three times over to pay £42.4m for Ozil. He became the third-most expensive signing in British football.
Earlier that summer, then-chief executive Ivan Gazidis told an Arsenal fan forum that “we are beginning to see the escalation in our financial firepower” and Ozil’s arrival was proof that rhetoric could come to fruition.
Except Gazidis had in fact originally gone to Madrid to enquire about signing Angel Di Maria. A deal for Ozil only materialised as a possibility when manager Carlo Ancelotti told the Germany international that he would not be a guaranteed regular and, with Wenger a long-term admirer, Arsenal moved in to pounce, reportedly much to Cristiano Ronaldo’s chagrin.
Ozil settles in, but Arsenal spend poorly around him
Ronaldo’s frustration at Ozil’s exit from Madrid emanated from losing the ammunition provided by a man dubbed the “Assist King.” It took just 11 minutes into Ozil’s Arsenal debut to set up his first goal for Olivier Giroud. His first season ended with silverware, the 2014 FA Cup. They would sign forward Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona that summer too, another considerable coup for around £35m, and retain the trophy a year later.
In 2015-16, Ozil reached new heights, totalling 19 assists — one short of the record held by Arsenal legend Thierry Henry (2002-03) and Man City’s Kevin De Bruyne (2019-20). According to Opta, Ozil created 146 chances that season, 10 more than any other player has managed since the company started its records nearly 20 years ago. A stunning finish to win a Champions League group stage game against Ludogorets at the beginning of November ranks to this day as the best goal he scored for the club.
However, this season is perhaps where things started to go wrong. Wenger declared in the summer of 2015 that his squad was good enough without any additions beyond veteran goalkeeper Petr Cech from Chelsea. Arsenal would be the only team in Europe’s top five leagues not to sign an outfield player (though they added Mohamed Elneny in January), yet the Gunners finished second that season, 10 points behind shock champions Leicester City. Many of the established teams looked at Leicester’s incredible title win as both a fairy tale and a missed opportunity of their own, but perhaps none more so than Arsenal. Wenger later admitted his “regret and guilt.”
What followed was a series of missteps in the market.
The Gunners signed Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi, Lucas Perez for around £86m in the summer of 2016. Ozil ended the 2016-17 season with nine Premier League goals and eight assists, but the Gunners finished outside the top four for the first time in Wenger’s reign, dating back to 1996.
Against this backdrop, Ozil and Sanchez, the team’s two standout performers, entered the final year of their contracts as the 2017-18 season began, and their relationship with the rest of the squad became complicated as negotiations dragged on. Sources have told ESPN that Ozil and Sanchez missed “club days” — once a month, players would have to give up their time to fulfill the club’s various commercial, media and marketing contracts — on more than one occasion. It is understood the duo kept each other informed of their contract talks, knowing their bargaining power was even greater combined.
A deal to sell Sanchez to Manchester City collapsed in the summer window, and the situation began to grow toxic. Sanchez’s on-field form fell off a cliff and sources have told ESPN he stopped replying to internal staff emails. Relations never deteriorated to the same extent with Ozil, and by the time Sanchez was allowed to join Manchester United in January 2018 — with Henrikh Mkhitaryan coming the other way in a rare “swap deal” between two top clubs — Arsenal recognised they needed to make another statement of intent.
The pressure to stop another top player leaving — a past they felt they’d left behind — had reached a critical level. And so, on the day they broke their transfer record to sign Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund for around £56m, it was announced Ozil had signed a £350,000-a-week deal, a contract extension that would shatter the club’s existing wage structure.
Sources have told ESPN that Aubameyang wanted to know if Ozil was staying before agreeing to join the club and, similarly, Ozil had asked for indications the club would quickly invest in the squad to get back into the Champions League, having already acquired striker Alexandre Lacazette for £46.5m from Lyon.
Speculation over Wenger’s future was reaching fever pitch. Ultimately, Gazidis determined that Ozil would be the team’s central component no matter who was in charge, but things panned out rather differently.
Arsenal try to evolve, Ozil left behind
The three key figures involved in Ozil’s contract negotiations — Wenger, Gazidis and chief negotiator Dick Law — all left the club by the end of 2018. Gazidis had quietly begun stripping back Wenger’s autonomy, appointing nine new department heads and hiring Sven Mislintat from Borussia Dortmund to head up the club’s recruitment. The appointment of manager Unai Emery was designed to inject fresh energy into a tired backroom setup, re-establishing a strong work ethic and banishing a culture of comfort that had permeated the dressing room under Wenger, who although a fervent supporter of Ozil’s, still had reservations about the huge wage he had been given.
Ozil’s languid style and intermittent form made him an obvious target. Emery recognised his talent, but questioned his motivation. The new power brokers, which also included former Barcelona executive Raul Sanllehi as head of football, came to view Ozil and his contract as a symbol of past largesse, and the strength of Emery’s relationship with Ozil fluctuated.
There were some memorable moments, particularly when wearing the captain’s armband against Leicester on Oct. 22, 2018 — a goal and assist barely did a magnificent overall display justice. However, he was used sparingly throughout the season, with Emery voicing concerns over his fitness and commitment. Criticism that Ozil failed to produce in the big games lingered, particularly after the 2019 Europa League final, when he was substituted for teenager Joe Willock with the Gunners losing 4-1 to Chelsea.
Arsenal tried to move Ozil on that summer but failed to find a club ready to take on his wages. Ozil’s attitude was again questioned in certain quarters, though there is conflicting information as to whether he acted up due to mismanagement or out of arrogance. Sources have told ESPN that, on one occasion, Ozil turned up at the club’s London Colney training ground for treatment on an injury only to be sent home after being told there were no treatment tables available.
‘Football reasons’ behind Ozil’s exile, or something else?
Emery’s tenure unravelled — several leading players, not just Ozil, became disillusioned — and he was sacked in November 2019. Interim boss Freddie Ljungberg restored Ozil to the side, but quickly lost patience, citing the moment when he kicked his gloves into the air after being substituted against Manchester City as one to “make a stand” against because “at Arsenal, that’s not how we behave.”
New arrival Mikel Arteta then started Ozil in his first 10 Premier League games as Gunners boss, albeit with modest returns. Ozil’s public criticism of China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslim population caused diplomatic issues for the club, but the importance of this in his marginalisation is overplayed given that he still stayed in the team. It was only in March 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, when he refused to join the majority of his teammates in taking a pay cut, that Ozil fell out of favour for good under Arteta.
The Spaniard has cited “football reasons” for leaving Ozil out, but whatever the shift in style of play, there have been many games when 20 minutes of Ozil would hardly have made the situation worse. Arteta was central to convincing the squad to take a reduction in wages at a time when their Premier League counterparts were discussing deferrals. He personally intervened to negotiate with players on behalf of the ownership, but Ozil wanted more assurances over where the money would go. That stance deepened the internal divisions because if Ozil’s contract was a symbol of grander thinking, COVID-19 had accelerated Arsenal’s shift back towards greater fiscal conservatism, making 55 non-playing staff redundant, reducing the scouting network and even dispensing with Sanllehi.
Sources told ESPN that it felt personal to Arteta that Ozil would not heed his call for unity in taking the cut, and any chance of a reconciliation between the two was gone. They did not speak much after that, exchanging simple pleasantries whenever their paths crossed at the training ground. Ozil continued to train alongside the first-team, giving out advice and sportswear from his M10 brand to several of the younger squad members.
Arteta consequently left him out of his Premier League and Europa League squads as the club sought an exit strategy, leaving Ozil stranded on 254 appearances, scoring 44 goals and registering 77 assists. Once it became clear his situation at Emirates Stadium would not change this month, Ozil’s camp began exploring long-standing interest from Fenerbahce and MLS side D.C. United. Live tweeting about Arsenal games and offering to pay the wage of club mascot Gunnersaurus could only sustain him for so long.
In the end, Ozil’s Turkish roots (his grandparents emigrated from Turkey to Germany) and genuine affinity for Fenerbahce won the day, with the major financial obstacle removed as Arsenal agreed to pay up the majority of the £7m owed over the remainder of his contract.
Few players in the game possess Ozil’s technical ability. He provided many moments of pure joy in an Arsenal shirt, memories that should not be diminished by his latter-day troubles. But it is impossible to escape a lingering sense of regret on all sides that Ozil leaves Arsenal with a mixed legacy. In the case of a player famous for providing assists, the bottom line is that neither party did enough to help the other.