Mesut Özil, His Critics, and Smart Sports Writing

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My favorite footballer Mesut Özil. Image from Wikipedia

My favorite footballer Mesut Özil. Image from Wikipedia

Long time readers of this blog may recall that I enjoy watching soccer, and, in particular, I am a big fan of a Turkish-German international soccer superstar named Mesut Özil. Özil had a standout tournament at the 2010 World Cup. He then played for Real Madrid, before transferring to Arsenal last season. This Summer he was a starter for the 2014 World Cup winner Germany soccer team.

Truth be told, he hasn’t had a great great year. He was on a new somewhat-less-all-star team in a different league, was injured and out a month or so just after the start of 2014. Arsenal paid a lot to sign him, so some Arsenal fans are disappointed he hasn’t scored dozens of goals yet.

I really enjoyed this article at the Guardian this week. The title is Will the real Mesut Özil please stand up? Very possibly at Arsenal this season. it was written by Barney Ronay. U.S. sports writing (not that I would really know) just doesn’t use big words like tessellate. Here’s a selection:

Certainly at times last season Özil resembled not so much a high-end creative midfielder as some beautifully frail alien prince being ferried around from pitch to pitch by 10 dedicated human helpers yoked into fawning submission by his regal Martian glaze. In many ways his signing still looks like an act of mild debauchery for this lopsided Arsenal team, with its amusingly insistent excess of attacking midfield talent.

There is an argument that Özil simply isn’t the right player to build a team around, that he is only ever going to be a high-end component part, a needy little genius whose moments of fine-point inspiration arrive as a kind of repartee with those already at his level. Runs must be made, spaces found, angles devised, into which Özil’s own brilliantly gymnastic range of movement and passing will elegantly tessellate. Some might even say Özil has simply been lucky, that he is a kind of placebo footballer whose presence provides a garnish on trophies that would have arrived in any case, like the world’s greatest triangle player waiting in the wings to apply the perfect final tinkle with a single flex of a princely hand.

And I like Ronay’s conclusion, too:

Plus,it might just be worth paying a tiny bit of attention to what the rest of the world sees. Cristiano Ronaldo was said to be “furious” when Özil left Madrid, thereby depriving him of a fellow on-field seer and visionary. José Mourinho once compared Özil to Zinedine Zidane without attracting a chorus of enraged dissent from France. Not that the comparison really works. Zidane was a heavy artillery canon of a player, his talents – the swivel, the nudged passes the zigzagging dribbles – always highly visible. Whereas Özil at his best is a gossamer presence, a player who seems to see elite modern football’s reduced spaces as a kind of balletic mathematical challenge to be unpicked by stealth, carrying around with him at all times that flickering mental flowchart of movements and spaces and possibilities.

There is no doubt Özil will continue to frustrate those in England who prefer a more tangible sense of snap and snarl. But still, in a sport that has been so carefully parcelled out and broken down and lassoed with numerical registers of worth, it is heartening that football can still find a space for an elite-level player whose merits are so open to question, so unquantifiable at times, so hilariously and stubbornly spectral. Carry on, Mesut. As you were. We will – as ever – see you when we see you.

Özil isn’t as flashy as even I would like him to be. He’s always been more of an assist-star more than a goal-scorer. I’d like him to shine, to score, to bring Arsenal up to a higher level of play. But, over the course of the last year, I’ve enjoying watching him… but I think I’ve lowered my standards a bit. He just doesn’t have as many moments of brilliance as I keep wanting to see. I’ve been wondering why –  the quality of the players around him? the fact that he isn’t unknown anymore, so other teams focus on shutting him down? that he seems to be beefing up a little, changing his physique changes how he can play? or even that his own success has, in some ways gone to his head? Not sure… perhaps a combination of a number of factors.

He remains a treat to watch, though… even if it’s just occasional flashes of brilliance.

When my wife read a Guardian football article out loud to me a couple weeks ago, I realized how impenetrable this stuff can be to folks who don’t follow football. I was going to try to explain more here for the lay-reader… but now I thinking that I’ll never get this posted if I try to make it more readable. Apologies.

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