Mesut Ozil will return to the Arsenal starting XI for Sunday’s mammoth Premier League clash against Manchester City. The Germany international hasn’t started a game for Arsene Wenger’s side since the humiliating defeat by Bayern Munich in February.
Since then, Ozil has suffered with injuries, illness and watched his team-mates lose four of their last five league games for the first time since April 1995.
Ozil is no stranger to the criticism which has been deservedly levelled at the Arsenal players over the past few weeks, but his absence from the team means he has escaped the noose of many pundits, journalists and fans.
It’s often said that Ozil’s negative body language on the pitch contributes to the team’s downfall when they’re on the back foot, while others have suggested that he doesn’t cover enough ground, which is completely false.
The 28-year-old covers more distance per 90 minutes in the league than Alexis Sanchez, Laurent Koscielny, and Shkodran Mustafi.
Then there were those surprising quotes from Ozil’s agent after the defeat in Munich, which hit back at the critics and claimed his client is being made out to be a ‘scapegoat’. In an interview with German daily Bild last week, Ozil reiterated those claims and reminded those critics of his achievements in the game so far.
In December I wrote: “the former Schalke and Werder Bremen star is the perfect scapegoat in a country that has traditionally rewarded outward signs of aggression and passion. If you’re not ‘putting your foot in’, shouting at a team-mate or sprinting down the pitch for 90 minutes then your performance will almost certainly be questioned by the masses.”
Wenger’s faith in Ozil hasn’t wavered since he signed him. He has previously spoken to the £42.5million man about the problems that his body language can cause and, although there hasn’t appeared to be an improvement on that front, there is no doubt that this isn’t the reason why Arsenal have failed to produce the goods on the pitch.
"I don't give [Ozil] leeway - when the team has no possession he has to do his job like everybody else," said Wenger earlier in the season "Usually he does it well. He suffers more when we don't have the ball and at City we didn't have the ball enough, but unfortunately if you want the ball you have to win it back.
"He is a guy who works much harder than people think - his body language goes against him sometimes. We are a team who wins it back high up with Sanchez and Ozil, and he does his job very well.”
It would be harsh to criticise Sanchez, a player who has scored 18 goals in 27 appearances this season, but his 9.10km (average) distance covered per match puts him way down the table of strikers in the league. The Chilean works hard and undoubtedly produces top-class performances week in week out, but there are other off-the-pitch issues which have come into play recently and it’s evident that this has affected squad morale.
The biggest misconception here is that Ozil is lazy, doesn’t work hard enough and hasn’t been producing on the pitch because his mind is elsewhere. Goal understands that his reasons for not putting pen to paper on a new contract yet are not financially motivated and he is fully focused on getting back to form in what will be a crucial part of the season.
Wenger’s system means that Ozil rarely has to track back. His job is to win the ball high up the pitch and create goalscoring chances, and Arsenal have struggled this season to with ball recoveries in the midfield area. The fact that he started every game for Germany at Euro 2016 and is in the top five players who have played the most minutes for the Gunners this season shows that fatigue has hit him where it hurts.
There are no ‘luxury players’ in this Arsenal team. The tactics in a number of games this year haven’t worked but the return of Ozil against Manchester City could be just the boost they need. He has been training hard this week and it’s understood that the injury problems he had over the international break were completely resolved by the German medical team.
It’s now over to Ozil to prove exactly why he is Arsenal’s club record signing - and he will surely relish the pressure of such an occasion.