Arsenal fans got what they wanted most on Thursday evening: a recall for Mesut Ozil. Unai Emery was also a satisfied man after the Gunners gave him serene progress into the Europa League last 16 and, mercifully for the Spaniard, no more controversy or calamity after a week the manager spent stewing over comfortably the worst performance of his reign.
“We play another 90 minutes next week and I am sure it is going to be different,” said Emery after the miserable 1-0 defeat in Belarus at BATE Borisov. “I trust in our players.”
That seems not to be the case when it comes to Ozil. The German has been handed only one start since Boxing Day, with Emery quite willing to voice his reasons for omitting Arsenal’s highest-paid player from his XI and, on a couple of occasions, the matchday squad altogether.
“The key is in his hands,” said Emery yesterday, most likely having already decided to give Ozil the chance to unpick the BATE lock. “I ask him in our conversation for consistency, to be available for us for training, when you can train consistently you can help us with your best performance in the games. He needs to be available consistently for training, without the injuries, without the sickness. Without that we cannot see the best Mesut with us.”
After watching Ozil complete 90 minutes for only the seventh time this season, both parties, Arsenal supporters and Emery, will claim that what they witnessed further strengthened their original arguments. Ozil offered a tidy performance with the odd moment of inspiration – a flick or a disguised pass – to satisfy his fans’ anticipation. But against a team still in their close season which appeared not to share Aleksei Baga’s “100%” belief that his side “will achieve the big result”, Ozil showed Emery little else to sway his stance.
Ozil was employed in a central role behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang with a brief to ensure the centre-forward was better served than Alexandre Lacazette last week, when the France star was so starved he could no longer contain his frustration. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi were handed the opportunity to redeem themselves either side of the playmaker, and it was towards Iwobi on the left that Ozil naturally drifted. Much of his good work was done off the ball to allow Iwobi to dart inside.
In possession, Ozil carried and distributed the ball with the kind of tentativeness one might expect of player who has missed just over half of Arsenal’s matches and, as Emery suggested, more training sessions than the manager would wish. Everything was safe and short, with Ozil having the second-highest number of touches while retaining the second-best passing accuracy. But you would be hard pressed to remember many of his contributions.
When Arsenal’s goals came, they arrived courtesy of an own-goal, the product of a fast, high-pressing start, and two corners being nodded in by centre-backs. A third of their 22 shots on goal came from set-pieces, with BATE keeper Denis Scherbitski enjoying a relatively calm evening, despite so much of the play moving around his box. Ozil had three opportunities to test Scherbitski. With the first, he tripped over; the second he volleyed over; and the third was shanked wide.
Arsenal supporters who gave Ozil’s name a more enthusiastic reception than any other when it was announced before kick-off will wait with baited breath to discover whether their hero will get another chance to get his eye in this weekend. The Gunners take on bottom half opposition in two home games in the coming six days before a week in which they face Tottenham and Manchester United either side of the first leg of the next round of the Europa League – a competition Emery prioritised very early on, and the importance was evident in the manager’s touchline demeanour.
Ozil’s inclusion demonstrated that Emery is willing to consider the playmaker. But the manager will require far more convincing in the coming week if Ozil is to play even a supporting role during a period which could further define Arsenal’s season.