Arsene Wenger could hardly keep the smirk from his face. Asked about his transfer deadline day plans in the later summer of 2013, the Arsenal boss hinted at a “surprise” in the offing.
That surprise was the club record signing of Germany international Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid for £42.5m. In the time since, however, Wenger's grin has turned to something of a grimace. The arrival of Ozil wasn’t quite the watershed moment Gooners hoped it might be. Arsenal still haven’t won a Premier League title in the four years since and the malaise around the club has only intensified following their fifth-place finish last season. Not even three FA Cup wins in four years has eased that.
Ozil himself has failed to fully live up to his billing. He remains one of Arsenal’s best players, becoming the Gunners’ assister-in-chief, but far too frequently the midfielder has struggled to impose himself on the big occasion, when it matters most. Big-name players must turn in big-game performances and Ozil hasn’t done that often enough.
Now, the 28-year-old has just one year left to run on his current contract, with the German reportedly looking for a substantial wage increase before extending his stay in north London. But, while he is one of the few world-class stars Arsenal have, this situation presents an opportunity to Wenger.
An ill-defined role
There’s a strong case to be made that Arsenal should sell Ozil this summer. That might seem somewhat counterproductive given his quality, but the Gunners suffered from an imbalance last season and much of that was down to the ill-defined role of Ozil. With Alexandre Lacazette signed for a new club-record fee, this would be the ideal time for Wenger to shuffle his pack in order to get the best from the former Lyon striker.
It’s true that Ozil himself could be energised by the prospect of having a genuine outlet for his creativity, but the flip side of that argument is that by selling the playmaker Arsenal would get the best from their entire team. Ozil’s future at Arsenal is intertwined with that of Alexis Sanchez. They are Arsenal’s two best players and both have just one year left to run on their respective contracts at the club. It seems unlikely, despite Wenger’s insistence to the contrary, that the Gunners will have to hang on to both Ozil and Sanchez, with Manchester City leading the chase for the latter.
If that's accurate, and Arsenal are forced to pick one or the other, they must put everything into keeping Sanchez.
Selling Ozil would free up salary space for Arsenal to offer Sanchez a bumper contract (assuming the Gunners are willing to break their wage structure). There may be no suitors for the German at present, but a quick call to PSG - European football’s richest vultures - would surely change that.
With the money collected from Ozil’s sale, Arsenal could make a move for Riyad Mahrez, filling what has become a problem area for the Gunners of late. Sanchez is at his most effective through the middle and would be given the freedom to strike up a devastating partnership with Lacazette, playing in behind the Frenchman.
While Wenger has a number of other problems to find solutions for, balancing his frontline must be considered a priority. Switching between Sanchez, Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck as the focal point, Wenger seemed unsure of his system last season, with that uncertainty manifesting itself in the Gunners’ performances. This summer brings the chance to address that.
The signing of Lacazette could change everything for Arsenal. Finally, they have a number nine with a proven goalscoring record. They also have someone they can count on to take chances when they fall, with Olivier Giroud no longer weighed down by the burden of unrealistic expectation.
But it’ll be for nothing if the infrastructure around Lacazette isn’t in place. Ozil could be the supply line the Frenchman needs, or he could clog up the support system as a whole.
Positional discipline has never been Ozil’s greatest strength, and that could explain why Wenger has so far been unable to get the very best from the German over the past four years.
With Lacazette at the head of the frontline, positional discipline will be all the more important for Arsenal. If Sanchez is given the freedom to roam around the final third, can Wenger also afford to grand Ozil the luxury to drift?
It must be one or the other and in that case, it must be Sanchez over Ozil. The time might be right to free the Premier League’s great lightning rod from his tedious cycle.
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