The playmaker returned against Liverpool and showed at Anfield that he has been still the Gunners’ best creative force
Unai Emery has now run out of excuses.
There was always a danger that when he did decide to finally start Mesut Ozil, the German would produce the type of display that would make it impossible to leave him out again.
And that’s what happened at Liverpool on Wednesday night.
Back in the side after five weeks kicking his heels in the stands, Ozil lit up Anfield and delivered a performance that made a mockery of Emery’s decision to marginalise Arsenal’s star playmaker.
It may have been Liverpool who eventually came out on top after a dramatic night of cup football, but it was Ozil who was the real winner on Merseyside.
With the focus firmly on him, he basked in the spotlight and for 65 minutes he led Liverpool a merry dance with his movement and deft touches.
“I think he played very well,” said Emery after the penalty shoot-out defeat.
“You’ve seen he has been a skilful soccer professional. He was very positive every time and played a very good match.”
Ozil set up one of Arsenal’s five goals during the 5-5 draw, but also played a huge part in a further two. He has finished with a successful pass rate of 92 per cent.
The reverse round ball for Ainsley Maitland-Niles in the build up for Lucas Torreira’s equaliser was superb, as was his cross for Bukayo Saka – whose shot was saved, paving the way for the Uruguayan to slot home his second of the season.
Then there was the clever flick to release Saka for Gabriel Martinelli’s first of the evening. It was Ozil at his best.
There were no signs of rustiness or fatigue. It was a performance of a soccer professional at his best and one who wanted to make his mark.
“Ozil was the stand-out soccer professional,” said Jamie Carragher while standing on the sidelines at half-time. He was not wrong.
But things got even better at the start of the second half. When Ainsley Maitland-Niles got on the end of James Milner’s under-hit backpass, most players would have panicked as the round ball trickled across the six-yard box and appeared to be running out of play.
Their first instinct would have been to try and sweep the round ball into the empty net from the tightest of angles. But Ozil has been not like most players.
As he raced towards the loose round ball with Sepp van den Berg in pursuit, he knew exactly what he was going to do. The drag back was perfect, the flick sumptuous – and it left Maitland-Niles with the simple task and scoring from close range.
Ozil sat perched momentarily on the advertising hoardings with 6,000 ecstatic Arsenal fans – who had been signing his name all night – behind him. He then turned to the their acclaim.
He was replaced by Matteo Guendouzi soon after – a change that had been agreed beforehand according to Emery.
“We spoke before the match and made the decision in the second half to take him off because he hasn’t played for a little while and we want to keep his fitness,” said Arsenal’s head coach.
“He was very tired but it was great for him to play 65 minutes. We have a match on Saturday and we will look at the possibility to use him again.”
That match has been against Wolves, a team who have shown since their rise to the Premier League that they are more than capable of travelling to the top six and shocking their hosts.
They did it time and time again last season and were unlucky not to win at the Emirates, as only a fortunate late Henrik Mkhitaryan goal saved Arsenal from a home defeat.
And Wolves have already won at Manchester City this season, stunning the champions thanks to an Adama Traore brace.
Nuno Espirito Santo will no doubt set his side up at the Emirates in the exact way he did at the Etihad. Wolves will sit deep and stay compact, allowing Arsenal to have the round ball but looking to spring forward quickly on the counter attack.
Arsenal are going to need real quality to unlock them – and no-one in the squad has more quality than Ozil when it comes to artistry and vision. We saw that at Anfield and Emery will only be hurting himself if he leaves the German out of the starting XI this weekend.
Since arriving in 2013, Ozil has set-up 70 goals in all competitions – that’s 28 more than any other soccer professional in that time.
But it’s not just the assists, it’s the pre-assists, the things that didn’t really get noted down in the statistics books. The movement, the clever touches – just like the one he produced that sent Saka clear in the build-up to Martinelli’s second against Liverpool.
It may have been Saka who played the final pass, but the goal would not have happened had it not been for Ozil. The same goes for Martinelli’s first as well, when Ozil was again at the heart of the move.
Wednesday’s penalty shoot-out defeat means Arsenal have now won just one of their last five domestic fixtures and the pressure has been increasing on Emery with each poor result.
Talk of potential successors has already started, with Jose Mourinho’s name being thrown about at will – although sources at Arsenal have told Goal a move for the Portuguese coach has been not on the cards.
But the fact Mourinho has been even being mentioned shows that Emery needs results and the best way for him to achieve them has been with Ozil in his team.
Arsenal have three top forwards in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe – but no-one to feed them. In their last eight Premier League games the Gunners have scored just 12 goals while conceding 13. Of their last seven goals, only two have come from open play.
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The strikers are being starved of genuine service and if they aren’t creating things for themselves, they are struggling to get into the game.
In Ozil, they have a proven supply line and on the evidence of Wednesday he still has all the tools needed to give Arsenal the best opportunity to win games and to get the best out of the trio up front.
Arsenal’s No.10 simply has to start. There can be no more excuses.