Jonas Olsson is not a big watcher of football but when the West Bromwich Albion defender sat down last Tuesday and tuned into Arsenal's Champions' League game against Napoli, what he saw from Mesut Özil came as no surprise.
Özil's master class of a performance merely confirmed what Olsson knew already from personal experience, having seen the German's brilliance close up in 2014 World Cup qualifying with Sweden. "He is world class," says Olsson, who faces Özil once more today when Arsenal visit the Hawthorns. "In that position he is one of the very best. I played against him when Sweden played Germany. He was the pick of a very strong German side."
That encounter last October saw a remarkable fightback as Sweden retrieved a four-goal deficit to draw 4-4, yet Özil's display in the opening hour, capped by scoring Germany's fourth goal, is something Olsson has not forgotten. "He was so difficult to read," he adds. "One time he went short, then deep; he has all the qualities. He's great on the ball in small, tight areas, and that's the type of footballer that tends to play for Arsenal. He's so good in and around the box, that's why he sees their way of playing so well. He obviously has a great understanding of the game and he sees passes that other people don't."
Olsson might have actually been sharing the away dressing room with Özil today if rumours of Arsenal's interest in him earlier this year can be believed. It is something the 30-year-old is reluctant to comment on, though he admits London holds a special lure. "I would not have signed a contract last year if I was not happy. I like London, one day I would like to live there and play football but I am very happy here and if I were to leave this club, it would be for something really good."
The tall, long-haired Olsson looks very much the imposing centre-back the modern Arsenal sometimes appear to lack, even when his 6ft 4in frame is compressed in a chair, legs crossed, he confesses, to avoid showing the split in his jeans. A fresh battle scar above his eye – collected in last Saturday's famous victory at Manchester United – only adds to the Viking good looks.
Olsson is back to his best after a difficult finish to last term because of Achilles problems – and the same applies to his team. "We're in a good place. I'm looking forward to Sunday. It will be a tough task but so was Man United. We managed to get all the things right to beat them."
If improving on last season's eighth-placed finish will not be easy – "the step from 10th to eighth is a lot easier than from eighth to sixth" – he sees a stronger squad now at the Hawthorns. "We were lacking a bit in the last part of last season. Now we have greater depth," he adds, pointing to the deadline-day addition of attacking trio Stéphane Sessègnon, Victor Anichebe and Morgan Amalfitano, author of an impressive solo goal at Old Trafford. "I didn't know about him. I spoke to a Swedish team-mate who'd played against him in France and he said he was a top player."
Olsson's curiosity evidently goes beyond football. He did a law course when with NEC Nijmegen in Holland and has an interest in human rights, though he bristles at the prospect of being portrayed as a "thinking" footballer. "The general opinion of a footballer is of a person in this bubble, buying watches, buying cars. In no other parts of society do you generalise in that way. With footballers it's OK because society has a picture of footballers just being kids getting paid a lot of money for chasing a ball. That's not it. You read papers, you follow what is going on in the world and you speak about it."
That said, he is reluctant to discuss the Qatar 2022 question. "I've followed the debate but I don't want to share an opinion Whenever I comment on an issue close to my heart it gets blown up in the media like 'this footballer cares'. Everybody in the team cares about human rights. We do a lot of stuff that rarely gets highlighted."
The headlines will be Albion's if they stop Arsenal this afternoon.Reuse content