05 July 2014

What'll Özil have to do to silence his critics?

And then there were three. Gunners, that is, still vying for World Cup glory. They all play for Germany—Podolski, Mertesacker, Özil. "Ich bin ein berliner" and all that. Whereas the first two have been in and out of the line-up, it's the third who's featured in all five of Germany's five World Cup matches and who has, as a result, suffered the most scrutiny. Having moved from Real Madrid to Arsenal last summer for £42m, Özil has found himself under the klieg-lights and has, at times, withered under their glare rather than blossomed. As a result, the critics and nay-sayers have come out, calling him over-rated and worse. It's enough to make your correspondent wonder who the American is—those who slag him for failing to score or yours truly who defends him for offering more sublime, subtle pleasures.

Over here in America, after all, we seem to want everything bigger, faster, louder. Football as a result has suffered. "One-Nil to the Arsenal" just wouldn't cut it over here. This is the land of the Big Gulp and the Hummer. If it ain't loud and repetitive, it just ain't American. Apparently. By those standards, a player like Özil is indeed overrated. He doesn't score often enough. When he or a teammate does score, he doesn't celebrate like a mad-man. With these 'short-comings' in mind, it's easy to see why his performance suffers the slings and arrows of those who prefer who prefer their beer cold, their t.v. loud, and their athletes fuh-laming. To them, Özil is just another nancy who prances around on a Saturday, pirouetting and poofting along but not doing anything. Where are the goals? Where are the chest-thumping theatrics?

Perhaps sensing that he has to deliver a little more of the aforementioned, Özil did score against Algeria while delivering the kind of masterful, beneath-the-radar kind of performance that has made him who he is. His goal, celebrated in the picture above, offered a firm rejoinder to those who just don't get football. Just a minute or so before the end of extra time, Özil found himself with the ball and the keeper to beat. However, M'Bolhi had delivered a masterful performance to that point and closed down on Özil. His clipped pass back across the box to Schürrle was the right play, even for how it might disappoint the "bigger, faster, louder" crowd, but to call Schürrle's shot tame is a bit of a stretcher. That shot would have had more pace had my grandmother kicked it. And she's been dead nearly 20 years. With Schürrle's "shot" cleared off the line, Özil seized the game by the scruff and put the rebound past M'Bolhi and two defenders on the line to claim victory for Germany. With scorers like Schürrle, Müller, and Götze on the pitch, it fell to the apparently overrated Özil to save the day. Will that finish be enough to silence the naysayers? Probably not.

Fast-forward to Germany's match against France. While he didn't score, Özil was back to what he does best: creating chances for others. In the 82nd minute, for example, he made 50-yard sprint forward to collect a pass on the edge of France's box in order to cut a pass back against the defense to find Müller—scorer of nine World Cup goals already—wide-open in the box with only Lloris to beat. He fluffed it. Whiffed entirely. Well, okay, he got a bit of touch on it, enough to claim credit had Schürrle, with Lloris off his line, done any better. His shot this time was at least hot enough to force Lloris to make a save but not enough to get the goal, and Özil is again left empty-handed, nevermind the blame that should fall to his teammates. Had either one of them showed the finishing touch, we'd be lauding Özil as one of the most-lethal creative forces in football. Instead, he's jilted at the altar.

Well, the altar is perhaps not the best idiom for the moment. He's more like the chef who conjures up delicious, succulent dishes behind the scenes. He does so much that even the trained eye will fail to notice.Those who don't know what to look for or what to notice fail to appreciate the process. All they know is that food somehow arrived in front of them, and it tastes good. Everything about it is just right. The spices. The temperature. It's less a meal than a work of art. However, the oeuvre is only as good as the waiter who brings it to table. Should he take too long in delivering, or, worse, drop it entirely, all of the chef's work is for naught. So it is with Özil. Even his best moments, his most-finely crafted passes, may suffer at the feet of lesser players, even at the feet of the world's best, if they fumble the chance he's spun for them.

At one level, the fault may be his. Perhaps he should keep the ball at his own feet more often, seeking to score for himself rather than serving up gilt-edged chances to those who will only flub it more often than finish it. Perhaps he should deliver wicked, thunderous shots, wherever they may go, if only to turn the conversation away from assists, key passes, and chances created and towards goals, shots-on-target, and conversion rates. Failing that, he might consider getting a little more histrionic when one of his passes does get flubbed. Maybe a few tantrums directed at Müller or Giroud (admitting a certain gap in class) would at least prove that he cares or draw a little more attention to himself.

After all, if we the fans and pundits didn't notice it, it didn't happen. Right? Right?

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