Write off Ozil and Arsenal at your peril

Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil. (Alastair Grant/AP)

Two contradictory valuations are floating around football right now. There’s the idea of Wayne Rooney being worth the £300,000 a week that Manchester United has just offered him and the idea of Mesut Ozil not being worth £42million Arsenal paid for him last summer.

It’s fair to say that the combined logic of these valuations doesn’t work especially well. If Rooney is worth such significant cash for any reason you can come up with, then so is Ozil.

Try and disagree with these statements. If Manchester United needs Rooney to prove that it’s still a big club to itself and others, then Arsenal needed Ozil for the same reason last summer. If United needs Rooney’s quality, even in the state he’s in now, then Arsenal still needs Ozil’s quality, even if he missed one dumb penalty and had a few games where he wasn’t the absolute star of the show.

You can’t disagree, really, can you? One set of logic has to go with the other. And, measured up directly against each other, quality for quality, Ozil surely wins, too.

Both players are number 10s. Rooney is 28 years old, fits into a smaller category of player each season he goes on—from playmaker, to pure goal scorer, to set-piece clunker—and has roughed-up his seven-placed club twice already in the past with transfer requests. Ozil is 25, quiet, and has had a mixed first season in English football that, whichever way you look at it, has coincided with Arsenal’s strongest title challenge for ages.

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Ozil will be around for longer, will probably get better and, unless anyone would go as far as deciding he’s had a negative impact on his team, has contributed positively to a team in second place, rather than one in seven. He has a couple of assists fewer than Rooney, but his team has scored more goals overall, which is surely a better measure of a team’s playmaker.

And yet there seems a general willingness to adopt the long-term, deeply sympathetic view with Rooney, not just from United fans who sing his name in desperation, but from sycophantic British pundits who lust after his red-faced interpretation of top-class football. Whereas the opposite view is being accepted on Ozil: despite the tiny sample size, it’s not hard to find paid opinion makers who’ll tell you that he’ll never thrive at Arsenal.

Valuing one player differently to another like this surely comes from the circumstances around which they’re being discussed as much as the objective contributions they make. For instance, the willingness to reduce Ozil to an Arshavin-equivalent misfit seems to me to be a part of reducing Arsenal to a team that’s fizzling out.

The way it works is that anyone who fancied Arsenal to lose its fizz in February isn’t interested in agreeing that this hasn’t happened. They thought it would, so they decide it did. Part of this is deciding that one of the key differences between what Arsenal is like now and what it was like before isn’t really a difference at all—Ozil isn’t a powerful catalyst or a masterful addition, but a mediocre, overrated waste of money.

Ozil’s supposed disappearing act is a part of some people feeling that they’re being proven right about Arsenal, even as it remains in a title race no one thought it would be in and played well against Bayern Munich until going down to 10 men in the Champions League.

When he turned up at Arsenal, Ozil was given credit for everything from starting a run of results which had actually started months before, to showing Olivier Giroud how to score when his arrival actually coincided with a slight drop-off in Giroud’s goal scoring rate from the first few games of the season. He was worthy of some of the credit, and not worthy of a lot of it.

From that exaggerated base, he could only really make his way downwards.

So, while no one would argue that he’s had a truly, truly exceptional first season in English football, my point is that questioning his value now doesn’t really seem to be about that.

If it was about how the guy was playing, then far more of the current valuations would have taken into account how well he was doing against Bayern before missing the aforementioned penalty, or how neatly he played against Liverpool the second time around. But there’s no room for nuances like those when you’re filling in pre-planned, master narratives.

People want to pull someone apart, so they compare him against the large number he appears next to. It doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with that player—a naff performance against Liverpool or two aside.

I think Ozil’s done fine. There’s just been enough of a sag in his performances since January to let in anyone who had another reason to decide he wasn’t worth the £42million to have a bit of a go. As far deciding how good at football he is at the moment goes, all this talk of him not being worth it means about as much as that mesh of football, legal and financial agreement which formed the transfer fee in the first place: they’re simply talking about completely different things.

My footballing valuation: He’s quite good now. He will in all likelihood produce even better soon. And I’d have him over Wayne Rooney most days.

Ethan Dean-Richards is a London-based writer. Follow him on Twitter.

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