Sorcerer's apprentice takes magical mystery tour to north London: Mesut Ozil's supreme talents will enchant Arsenal
It was a classic Mesut Ozil pass. He held the ball for just enough time to draw the defenders towards him and free up the space for Marco Reus to burst into the box, before gently and perfectly slipping the ball through to give the Dortmund forward what should have been an easy finish. Had Reus been having a better first half it would have been 1-0, and Ozil would have had his 28th assist in a Germany shirt.
In truth, it was not just Reus who was a little rusty in the first half against Austria on Friday night. Ozil too looked distracted in the opening 45 minutes. His first touch was clumsier than usual and his running not quite as incisive. He looked liked a man whose mind was elsewhere. And well it might be, with his surprise move to Arsenal dominating headlines across Europe for the last week.
Even on the quiet days, though, there is something enchanting about watching Ozil. The man once labelled "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" by Cristiano Ronaldo can drift in and out of a game when he is not at his best. But when he drifts in, the result is magical.
Like all good magicians, the trick is in the deceit. On the pitch, Ozil has the equivalent of an immensely subtle sleight of hand. When he makes a pass, receives the ball or makes a run, he has the knack of making it seem like he has moved a split-second too late, when in fact he has timed it to perfection. When he plays a through-ball his body rarely gives any clues as to the direction and power of the pass – the ball simply jumps off his foot and into the right place.
It is for that reason that Ozil has so many assists to his name, both for the national team and, even more prominently, for Real Madrid in recent years. When it comes to drawing defenders out and creating space for runners such as Reus and Ronaldo, he is almost unrivalled in the modern game. After the 3-0 win against Austria, his new clubmate, Per Mertesacker, voiced his excitement at seeing Ozil's eye for "the decisive pass" at Arsenal. "That is vital," he said. "He has a great game intelligence and his decision-making is excellent."
The expectation on Ozil's shoulders at Arsenal remains significant. As his national team coach, Joachim Löw, said: ''Mesut is a player who needs a lot of faith and support at a club and from his manager."
The 24-year-old seems to have received such support from Arsène Wenger already and, despite his naturally introverted nature, that will reinforce a confidence Ozil has in his own ability and a determination to succeed which has existed since his teenage years. This is a player, after all, who decided to move from his boyhood club, Schalke, aged 19 because he felt undervalued.
That drive for success will appeal to Arsenal fans hungry for silverware, and Ozil is certainly used to winning titles. Along with the three trophies he won at Madrid, Ozil scored the winning goal for Werder Bremen in the 2009 DFB-Pokal Final, was part of Germany's European Championship winning Under-21 side of the same year and, at the age of 17, won the German Championship with Schalke's youth team. While Ozil remains one of the most introverted superstars of the modern game, on the pitch he should not take too long to integrate at Arsenal.
He has developed a talent for establishing himself quickly in new environments. It is only seven years since the youngster with the thick Turkish accent at Schalke was expressing his excitement about training with senior players upon finally making the step up to the first team. Since then he has made himself a star first at Bremen, then with Germany and finally at Madrid.
Where a myriad other talented players have failed at the Bernabeu, Ozil wasted little time in making himself a hero to the club's fans. Despite having no Spanish, what Ozil did have, according to Ronaldo, was "the language of football". With 81 assists and 27 goals, it is little wonder he was not expected to leave Madrid. It was only the world-record signing of Gareth Bale that changed the dynamic in the Spanish capital and eventually led to his exit.
At Madrid, he had flourished in his natural role, the No 10 position which he also fills for Germany.
It not only allowed him to work his magical through-balls, but also to act as a key figure in attack. When Reus was struggling against Austria, it was Ozil's tendency to drift over to the left which allowed the Borussia Dortmund player to pick up his game and, ultimately, set up the second goal. It is typical that, even in a mediocre game by his standards, Ozil's role in the German side was crucial against Austria. Dortmund's coach, Jürgen Klopp, referred to Ozil's transfer last week as "a grenade", but on the pitch he is a far more stealthy weapon. Even when he goes unnoticed, his influence remains.
So much has been said of Ozil that it is easy to forget that his best years probably lie ahead of him. But then again, there is something indefinably intriguing about him.
He is the shy, introverted player brimming with self-confidence; the individual superstar who makes all those around him look better; the technician whose game is so simple, and yet so enchanting. One thing is for sure: even if he is not the fully fledged sorcerer yet, he is certainly no longer the apprentice.
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