The omission of Mesut Ozil from the entire squad — not just the starting XI — for Arsenal’s defeat by Tottenham Hotspur in the Carabao Cup was arguably the most significant development yet in a saga that is threatening to overshadow the inescapably impressive work that Unai Emery has done since his arrival in north London.
For the first time this season, Ozil was dropped from the squad for “tactical reasons”. There was no illness (the reason given for his absence against West Ham in August) and no back pain (which kept him out of meetings with Spurs, Manchester United and Huddersfield). This was a purely footballing decision, with Emery instead choosing to select the likes of Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock and Mohamed Elneny on the substitutes’ bench.
READ MORE: Ozil could leave Arsenal in January
The closest we have come to this situation so far this season was when Arsenal played Bournemouth in November and Ozil was an unused substitute. Emery said afterwards that he wanted a side that could cope with the “physicality and intensity” of Eddie Howe’s side. It is perhaps a natural extension of the theme that Ozil would therefore not fit in Emery’s plans for the north London derby, arguably the most “physical and intense” match of the season, but his complete omission on Wednesday night will no doubt be viewed as Emery sending Ozil a message.
After the match, the Arsenal head coach was asked more directly than at any point in the last three months about Ozil’s future. In the interests of clarity, here is the full exchange between newspaper reporters and Emery.
Q: There was no Mesut Ozil tonight, and he’s not injured is he? What was your reasoning behind not even including him on the bench?
“It’s a tactical decision because I thought that the players that were with us today were the best choices for this match.”
Q: Was he at the stadium, watching the game?
Q: How did he react to that decision of yours?
“We are thinking of every player. We have 24 or 25 players and when they are playing one game and not in another, it’s the decision. Today it was tactical.”
Q: If a club wanted to sign him in January, would you be happy to let him go?
“My focus now is analysing this match and also Saturday against Burnley is very important. We are going to assess every player, how they are tomorrow in training and for a difficult match against Burnley on Saturday.”
Q: Does he have a future at Arsenal in your plans? Does he feature in your plans?
“I am thinking about the match on Saturday, and not thinking about another situation.”
Q: You can see why the question arises, surely because he is such a star player - a big player for you.
“Every player is a big player. Every player. I decided not to play him. It’s only a tactical decision.”
In short, Emery was given multiple opportunities to provide assurances about Ozil’s future. He chose not to do so. Arsenal could also have smoothed over the situation by saying he had a minor injury. They chose not to do so. So what does this all mean, and where does it leave the club?
The primary issue here is that Ozil signed a new deal in January worth £350,000 a week. It was a move that shattered Arsenal’s wage structure, and it was made when there was genuine fear he would be leaving the club for free at the end of last season. Alexis Sanchez had signed for Manchester United a week earlier, and Arsenal decided that they simply could not afford to lose their two star players — for no financial return — in such a short space of time.
So many of Arsenal’s subsequent difficulties have arisen from that decision, and it would be a surprise if there are not more in the immediate future. The withdrawal of a new contract offer to Aaron Ramsey was in no small part related to the pressure on the wage bill at Arsenal.
Financially speaking, the club’s highest earners offer worryingly little resale value. Ozil is 30, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is 29, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan is 29. All three have contracts until 2021. Meanwhile Ramsey, a midfielder in his prime, will be leaving the club for free in the summer.
It is often forgotten that Arsene Wenger, the previous manager, warned that breaking the wage structure would cause problems. “Some people tell me: ‘just give him what he wants.’ But then you cannot respect any more any wage structure and you put the club in trouble as well,” Wenger said. “You have to make the decision in an objective way. Always the club has to be the priority.”
If Ozil is not part of Emery’s plans — and that certainly seems to be the case at the moment — then Arsenal are going to be paying an eye-watering amount of cash to a player who is not even part of the team. With Ozil offering nothing, who would begrudge more important players, or indeed any player who is featuring under Emery, from thinking they too were deserving of a pay-rise?
There is no easy way out of this. It is hugely unlikely that any club would be willing to pay Ozil the sort of money he is earning now, and that is assuming he wanted to leave London in any case. If they wanted to sell him, it would not be easy and, at the age of 30, he will not command a big transfer fee.
The club’s most senior figures will no doubt be hoping that he can rediscover his form and his place in Emery’s side. That would be the obvious, ideal solution, but we are a long way from that now. It is to the credit of Arsenal’s board, though, that Emery has not faced pressure to pick Ozil from above. The Spaniard has been hired to coach the team, and that is what he is being allowed to do.
Emery’s motivations here are open to interpretation. It is unavoidably the case that he has not been happy with Ozil’s performances (only in one match, against Leicester, has Ozil really delivered a genuine, world-class showing this season) but the decision to drop him could easily be an attempt to prompt him into action rather than freeze him out.
After so many years of soft treatment from Wenger, Emery has taken a different approach. It’s his way, or you don’t play. It seems that this change of mentality was desperately needed at a club where it felt like the star players could do what they want, when they wanted, and still be guaranteed a place in the team every week.
The crucial context here is Emery’s time at Paris Saint-Germain, and his relationship with Neymar. “I know when I am the principal person in the group and when I am not,” Emery said after his departure from PSG was announced. “At PSG, the leader is Neymar. At Manchester City, it’s Pep Guardiola. My priority was to make Neymar happy, it didn’t matter how.”
Emery has been decisive ever since he arrived in north London (one of his first acts, remember, was to tell fan favourite Jack Wilshere that he was not good enough to get in his team) and he has surely learned from his experience at PSG. There is no doubt that he is the “principal person” in the group at the Emirates, and Ozil is learning that too.
After last night’s latest power play, it appears that the ball is in Ozil’s court. He could buckle up and work his way back into the side. He could push for a move, even if that would likely mean a sizeable pay cut. Or he can stay where he is, a fringe player who is paid the salary of a world-beater at a club where finances are stretched precariously tight.