This piece originally appeared on www.sabotagetimes.com.
Arsenal’s capture of Mesut Özil was undoubtedly the shock of the transfer window. It was a bolt from the blue: an earth-shaking big-money deal, the symbolic strike that supporters have vocally demanded for years. The German playmaker’s arrival brought with it emphatic declarations that the Gunners were back among the big boys: real contenders to once again win the Premier League title.
It is tempting, even as a neutral, to wish that such a statement were true, but it is early days in the reconstruction of London’s biggest club. Özil may possess a frankly ludicrous level of skill, including the invaluable ability to make his teammates play well, but he remains one single player. Arsenal do not possess enough of his calibre to be considered a serious force just yet.
After all, twenty-first century football is a squad game. Arsenal’s starting eleven has always been as good as that of their rivals but any side whose first team is reduced to twelve fit players in August will find silverware comfortably out of reach in May. Arsène Wenger’s team has had world class figureheads before but quantity is as important as quality.
If the Frenchman could not win the title with teams led by Cesc Fàbregas, Robin Van Persie or Santi Cazorla, then he will not win it with one led by Özil.
The truth is that Arsenal’s great leap forward only sees them reach the level that Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea were already at in 2012-13. They may have captured a bona fide superstar but their rivals already have one or two each in that bracket.
The hell that Arsenal have endured over the summer shows just how hard it is for them to convince players to choose them over alternative options. Özil is their player by luck as much as anything: if he had become available in June or July – before Paris Saint-Germain, Monaco, Manchester City and company had finished doing business – he would surely have joined one of them instead. Look at Gonzalo Higuaín for the proof.
Even if Arsenal’s squad is made equal to those of their rivals over the coming transfer windows, the Gunners’ collective culture is distinctly lacking in comparison.
For example, Manchester United win because their identity dictates that there is no other option. Ryan Giggs has spoken of Sir Alex Ferguson’s insistence that he was not particularly bothered about tactics before most games: he only demanded that the eleven players selected on the day returned to the dressing room after the match with three points in the bag. Ferguson may have retired but that philosophy remains.
Similarly, Chelsea have welcomed back the manager whose tenure shaped the club’s ‘win at all costs’ mentality. So lasting was José Mourinho’s effect that no successor was ever able to emerge from his shadow. Every attempt to make a stylistic change resulted in the departure of an unpopular reformist and a return to resolute, backs-against-the-wall, us-against-the-world ideology – and, with it, victory.
Manchester City’s status as nouveau riche arrivistes means they do not have this cultural cachet ingrained at quite so deep a level, but what they lack in winning habits they make up for with a lack of inherent negativity. Put bluntly, City’s fans have never booed them off at half time in a preseason friendly.
By contrast, Arsenal are a team permanently on the verge of complete meltdown. The Emirates’ atmosphere is often so toxic that if Jesus Christ had to give a sermon there, he would end up renouncing God and volunteering for crucifixion.
Blowing £43m on an admittedly fantastic player cannot solve this problem. The Gunners’ ‘crisis club’ tag did not spring up overnight, and nor did it disappear when they splurged on Andrey Arshavin, Theo Walcott, Thomas Vermaelen, Mikel Arteta, Lukas Podolski or Olivier Giroud, so there is no reason to expect spending lots of money to banish it to the history books forever.
This season, Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City will finish above Arsenal, who will once again contest fourth place with Tottenham and Liverpool. The signing of Mesut Özil gives them an advantage in that race but it might not be enough to secure victory.
This is all based on assumption, of course, but it is worth pointing out that the world and his wife is assuming that Özil will succeed at Arsenal. Indeed, given his abundant ability, one would think that he will, but Arsenal have developed a remarkable capacity to ruin a promising player, by misusing him, mistreating him or feeding him to the lions.
Arsenal need only look to previous record signings to see how badly things can go for a supposedly sure bet. Sylvain Wiltord and José Antonio Reyes never really justified their price tags, while Andrey Arshavin ended up being a total disaster. The Russian maestro arrived to a similar level of acclaim as Özil, having dominated Euro 2008 and won numerous titles, including the Europa League, with Zenit St Petersburg.
A stunning beginning to life in English football saw Arshavin finish second in Arsenal’s Player of the Season poll despite featuring in fewer than a quarter of Arsenal’s matches all season but from there on it was downhill.
A perceived lack of effort never justified the many moments of genius Arshavin produced and the famously demanding Emirates crowd eventually turned on the Russian – just as they did Emmanuel Eboué, Nicklas Bendtner and Marouane Chamakh – and his career never recovered.
The only criticism one can have of Özil is that he has, like Arshavin, failed to make a noticeable mark on big games. World Cup semi-finals, European Championship semi-finals, Champions League semi-finals, Clásicos – Özil has lost them all. José Mourinho described him as the best number ten in the world, which he probably is if ability is the key criterion, but the Portuguese was also the first to sharpen the knives after one invisible showing too many against Barcelona.
There is also the fact that Özil has signed for Arsenal and, while this writer does not wish injury on anyone, it is a fact of life that Arsenal players – at least those treated by the current medical team – routinely find themselves spending a minimum of three months per season on the sidelines.
Robin Van Persie is one of the best forwards in the world now but his eight seasons at Highbury and the Emirates were blighted by injuries, many of which were preventable or poorly addressed. Eventually, he became fed up of hearing about friends and colleagues in the Dutch national team receiving better treatment for injuries that he could not get over. He began using his own medical team instead of Arsenal’s and has not been injured since.
Similarly, Tomáš Rosický arrived at Arsenal with a relatively clean injury record and has spent almost his entire time at the club in the treatment room. Thomas Vermaelen, Abou Diaby, Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs have also spent as much time recovering from assorted niggles and strains as they have playing. There is nothing to suggest that Mesut Özil is immune to whatever it is that leads to Arsenal facing biannual injury crises.
I do not wish to ruin Arsenal’s party. Özil’s arrival is reason to be cheerful and of late the Gunners have played the type of counter-attacking football that suits him down to the ground. If in the summer of 2014 Wenger adds to his squad with players of similar stature, and the fans eventually spend less time furiously booing and more time supportively chanting, then a turnaround is possible. They just have to be patient.