At his pre-match press conference for Saturday’s crucial match against Liverpool, Arsene Wenger revealed that Mesut Ozil “should be ok” to face Liverpool this weekend. The German playmaker was sent home from training on Wednesday with a bout of sickness, and speculation suggested he might miss the match at Anfield. Even if he recovers sufficiently, there has to be real doubt every whether he starts the game: right now, Ozil is simply not justifying his place.
Something is definitely up with Arsenal’s record signing. Since the turn of the year, he has fallen well short of the standards he set for himself in the early part of the campaign. Arguably the nadir of his campaign came against Bayern Munich a couple of weeks back, when he failed to exert any real influence on the game against his countrymen.
Worryingly for Arsenal, his dip in form has coincided with intense speculation about his future. Ozil’s physical commitment has been questioned throughout his time at Arsenal—but now his broader commitment to the club is under scrutiny.
Ozil is not enjoying the attention. His agent Dr Erkut Sogut told BBC Sport the player feels he has become a lightning-rod for criticism:
"Criticism is normal if a player plays badly. But Mesut feels people are not focusing on his performance; they are using him as a scapegoat for the team after bad results. In these games people usually target a player who cost a lot of money and earns a lot of money – that is Mesut. But he can't be always be the scapegoat. That's not fair. Football is a team sport and Arsenal are not performing well as a team. Eleven players were on the pitch but Mesut was singled out for criticism.”
The reality Ozil must face is that when you’re the club’s highest-earning player, the pay-packet brings with it a level of expectation.
After the Munich mauling, Ozil was sent away for some rest and recuperation. From the outside, that appeared a move designed to afford some healing to a troubled mind as well as a struggling body. Now he has returned to London Colney, it’s anticipated that he’ll resume his place as an automatic starter.
However, perhaps it shouldn’t necessarily be so. When news spared of Ozil’s potential unavailability, there were certainly those among the Arsenal support who were interested to see how Wenger might line-up without his preferred playmaker.
After all, Ozil’s biggest problem of late has been his difficulty imposing himself on big away games. Given the stakes, there are few bigger than this match at Anfield. Arsenal may have tumbled out of the title race, but they now find themselves in an equally fraught battle for a spot in the top four. Liverpool may be out of form, but they’ll know a win over a beleaguered Arsenal could be just what’s required to reignite their Champions League hopes. Defeat at Anfield could leave Arsenal in sixth place and facing an uphill struggle.
Jurgen Klopp will surely set out his team to press and harry Arsenal at every possible opportunity—the exact approach that can wreak a kryptonite-like effect on the contact-shy Ozil. In his absence, Arsenal could field a physical team with the athleticism and ball-carrying ability to escape Liverpool’s attentions. Rather than a 4-2-3-1, they could field a more stable 4-3-3 with the dynamic Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain joining Granit Xhaka and Francis Coquelin in a sturdy-looking midfield.
In these big matches, even Wenger’s loyalty to Ozil is tested—he sometimes accommodates him out wide rather than as a central player. However, that feels like an uneasy compromise, and can leave Arsenal defensively vulnerable on the flanks.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the match an Anfield could have a huge influence on Wenger’s chances at remaining at Arsenal beyond this season. There are two big away games between now and the end of the season—Liverpool and Spurs—which will play a big role in determining both the mood among the fans and Arsenal’s chances of making the top four. Wenger must pick the best team for the occasion—and right now, that doesn’t include Ozil.