21 February 2014

Mesut Özil unveiling, circa 2031

Mesut Özil has gone down in history as one of the Club's greatest players of all time, having delivered a club-record 129 assists from 417 appearances over ten trophy-laden seasons with Arsenal.

After joining from Real Madrid in September 2013, Özil, then 25, made his Gunners debut in the fourth match of the 2013-14 season—a 3-1 win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light on 14 September 2013. Only 11 minutes into the game, Özil tallied his first assist as a Gunner, collecting a pass along the left flank and slid a pass through the penalty-area for teammate Olivier Giroud to slot home. The assist ratcheted up expectations around the new player to unreasonable levels, especially for a fan-base starved for silverware and weary of player-departures.

His first competitive goal for the Club came eight minutes into his fifth game—a well-struck if languid one -touch volley from just inside the area in a 2-0 Champions League group-stage win over Napoli on 1 October 2013. He also turned provided on the second goal, dribbling along the end-line before flicking into the box for Giroud to put it home.

In all, Özil finished with 15 assists and 8 goals in his debut season from 43 games—including 14 assists and five goals in 30 league games—leading the team in assists for the season.

This was just the beginning of an illustrious career that saw Özil register double-digit assists in each of his ten seasons with the club, including a high of 21 in 2014-15, which surpassed club legend Dennis Bergkamp's 20 in 1997-98.

On average, Özil played 41.7 games and 12.9 assists per season for Arsenal. He started 337 of his 417 games and appeared in five different competitions. During his ten-year career, he won nine major honors (two league titles, four FA Cups, and three Charity Shields) and a host of individual awards. Chief among these were the Football Writers' Association and Professional Footballers' Association Player of the Year Award in 2015.

His arrival signaled a daring change in manager Arsène Wenger's approach to the transfer-window. Previously known for excessive caution in signing new players, Wenger's signing of Özil for a sum of some £42.5m nearly tripled the manager's previous transfer-fee record paid out for Andrei Arshavin. After a series of seasons marked by high-profile departures and a mixture of mid-level signings, Özil heralded the arrival, not just of a new financial approach, but of a more incisive, aggressive style.

Of course, the early days seemed to stumble from the early moments of promise. After registering three goals and four assists in his first seven appearances for the club, Özil added a solitary assist over his next eight appearances. Another flurry of two goals and four assists in six appearances assuaged fears within the club but did nothing to dissaude tabloid-media from branding the player "Ö-verrated", a label that stuck and stung all the more when Özil could only add two assists to his total over the next thirteen matches. His inaugural season may have hit its nadir in an 0-2 loss to Bayern Munich in the first round of the Champions League knockout-round when his tame penalty-kick was saved, denying the club a chance to seize an early lead. How wrong they were. After resting the following match, Özil chastened his critics with two assists in a 4-0 demolition of Stoke in which he assisted two goals. He never looked back, assisting in five of Arsenal's last ten games of the season while adding three more goals.

Numbers, of course, can only tell the story, especially for a player who was just as good at unlocking a defense with an intelligent run to pull defenders out of position as he was at placing a pass where only a teammate could get to it. His languid, almost effortless style took some time to grow on Prem fans, who had grown accustomed to higher-energy, frenetic players such as Jack Wilshere, Tomáš Rosický, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Floating through games—"ghosting", it was sometimes called—frequently led to intemperate charges of disappearing from games. Later scrutiny would frequently reveal a broader view, that Özil, seeing that he was man-marked and drawing attention from a more zonal-defender, would drift away from the action to test the defenders' reactions. In many cases, both defenders would follow him in a "pied-piper" routine that invited Özil's teammates to pour forward. Over time, this tactic became just as much a trademark as Özil's well-placed passes, but so good was he at both that it mattered little how much managers yelled to their players to stay in position.

Between the deft touch of his left foot, his ethereal running style, and his all-seeing vision, Özil was the creative hub of Arsenal's attack for a decade, thrilling fans to each sublime pass, each vital run, each chance created. By the time that he decided that his time with the club was up, he had all but redefined the assist as a statistic. His average of an assist every 3.09 games sets a new benchmark; although only Ryan Giggs tallied more assists in the Prem, he did so by playing more than 250 games more than Özil.

It may have been to tell in those early days that Özil would emerge at the other end of his time with Arsenal in such rare form. Even his defenders wondered if he was overrated, if he was worth the transfer-fee, if he could adjust to rigors of life in the Prem. Ten years later, it seems, Özil answered their doubts well enough to join the pantheon of club legends.