January 2018 signalled a very alarming time for Arsenal with the futures of their two star players firmly up in the air.
Both Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil’s contracts at the Emirates were set to expire that summer and as the days drew on, it appeared their time at the club was coming to an end – especially for the former.
Sanchez continued to be heavily linked with a move to either Manchester United or City as the Chile international seeked a fresh challenge and wages that Arsenal simply couldn’t compete with.
His departure seemed inevitable and it was sealed when United came calling for him – signing an eye-watering four-and-a-half-year deal worth £14m a year after tax with Henrikh Mkhitaryan moving the other way.
Sanchez’s exit, however, was brushed quickly under the carpet as Arsenal smashed their transfer record for the £56million arrival of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund.
But while the Gunners had sealed their marquee signing, fears were still looming over what next for German World Cup winner Ozil, who was brought to the Emirates from Real Madrid in a £42.5m deal in 2013.
How Arsenal fans were relishing the prospect of speed merchant Aubameyang linking up with creative maestro Ozil at the Emirates.
And the Arsenal faithful didn’t have to wait long at all to get their wish. Just hours later, Ozil had signed fresh terms on a new three-and-a-half year deal worth £350,000-per-week – becoming the club’s highest-paid player in history.
All the noise coming out of the Emirates was immensely positive but after splashing the cash on him, deep down the club knew it was finally time for Ozil to deliver the goods on a consistent basis after years of dividing the Arsenal fanbase.
Many argued Ozil was too weak and too lazy on the pitch, especially in the biggest games against their rivals, while many others thought his creative genius more than made up for his work rate.
But the fact is, if you are dividing the fans, your performances simply haven’t matched up to the levels expected of you.
He was signed by Arsene Wenger to help lead the club back to the glory days but that hadn’t come to fruition and Arsenal had in fact fallen further away from both the summit of English and European football.
This new deal offered Ozil the perfect chance to prove his doubters wrong, a second opportunity to right his wrongs and guide Arsenal back to the Champions League.
However, more than two years on and the Gunners simply haven’t moved forward, while Ozil continues to be a divisive name among the club’s supporters.
Instead now the arguments revolve around whether they should cut their losses – getting a huge chunk of their wage bill back to let Mikel Arteta continue his rebuild – or keep him.
Arsenal and Ozil’s dream has soured over the last two years, and arguably the German playmaker’s time in north London has become even more turbulent.
Following Germany’s shock group stage exit at the 2018 World Cup, the midfielder immediately announced his retirement from international football after coming in for heavy criticism from fans and media back home.
Ozil claimed to have been the subject of ‘racism and disrespect’ following his high-profile and controversial meeting with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan prior to the World Cup.
He simply had enough: ‘The treatment I have received from the DFB and many others makes me no longer want to wear the German national team shirt. I feel unwanted and think that what I have achieved since my international debut in 2009 has been forgotten.’
Many Arsenal fans were hoping he could now put all his focus on his club duties but things would soon unravel for the German in north London.
After legendary manager Wenger emotionally departed the club in the summer of 2018, Ozil would become the victim of Unai Emery trying to stamp his authority on his new team.
While Ozil had been made one of Emery’s ‘five captains’, the German didn’t last long in the Spaniard’s good books.
On many occasions, Ozil wasn’t even included in Emery’s matchday squads as he didn’t meet the Spaniard’s criteria.
There was no secret of Emery’s turbulent relationship with Ozil, and following his dismissal in November 2019, the Spanish manager hit out at the player by insisting he did not fit the style of the club.
‘There are games in which you see Mesut’s brilliance, linking with the attack,’ Emery told BBC Sport. ‘But also I had to find players around him so he felt comfortable.
‘Also the team needed to feel solid. And when you, little by little, have to build a team that is aggressive, intense, as well as structured for good pressure, we also had to find a space for Mesut.
‘Ozil is a very important player if you can find a way to make it work with other players. He has talent that allows other players to be better, but when you want a bit more aggressive pressure he does not have the best qualities for that.’
Emery’s words on one of the world’s most marketable players echoed the continuous arguments among Arsenal supporters. They have such a gifted player at their disposal, but his lack of physicality and work rate was going to prove his downfall in England.
And unfortunately this sums up Ozil’s time at Arsenal – underwhelming. He was meant to come in and change the club’s fortunes but he simply hasn’t performed at the level required.
For a while he has been linked with moves abroad amid criticism of his playing style. And sooner rather than later, the club might just decide his time is up as they seek a fresh start under Mikel Arteta, especially following news of his resistance to Arsenal’s efforts to implement a squad-wide 12.5 per cent pay-cut.
Arsenal on Monday announced ‘a voluntary agreement with our first-team players, head coach and core coaching staff’ to cut salaries for a 12 month period in their bid to tackle the financial fall-out of the coronavirus pandemic.
However, there are as many as three players who are still to be totally convinced of the necessity to take total pay deductions, rather than deferrals, with Ozil understood to be one of those.
And herein lies the problem of potentially offloading the German.
Ozil’s £350,000-per-week contract has hampered the Gunners in the long run from a financial point of view, paying well over the odds in a desperate measure to keep him at the club in 2018.
Arsenal are paying Champions League wages and more for Ozil on a Europa League budget, and the longer they stay away from Europe’s elite, the harder they will be hit financially. Can they keep justifying paying Ozil his chunky weekly wage?
But the Gunners will find it extremely hard to find a suitor willing to pay anywhere near that price for a player whose powers are dwindling. And will Ozil leave if he has to take a reduction in wage?
More than two years on from his bumper pay rise, and both Arsenal and Ozil seem to be back to square one again.
This time will the Gunners cut their losses, if they can, or will they stick by him to see if Arteta can finally unlock his genius at the Emirates?