Neil Humphreys: Oezil falls, Ox rises, Wenger fails
Tale of two players highlights Arsenal boss’ decline
|(Diego Costa 45+2)|
*Atletico win 2-1 on aggregate
For Arsenal, it’s another broken dream and another broken record.
Blame Mesut Oezil.
Blame the little man snoozing his way through the Europa League semi-final defeat at Atletico Madrid this morning (May 4, Singapore time), another peripheral effort to hang in the rogue’s gallery of woeful performances.
It’s the default position for the perpetually apoplectic. Arsenal were rubbish because Oezil was rubbish.
Once again, the fancy dandy played bit-part artist, happy to take the odd walk-on part but not willing to take the semi-final and any passing Atletico defender by the scruff of the neck.
And that’s true, to a point. Oezil was almost comically inept against Atletico, unable to penetrate the armour of one of Europe’s most impenetrable defences.
He was the £42.5 million (S$76.8m) superstar who got star-struck on the biggest stage. Again.
In the glassy cocoon of the TV pundit’s studio, Martin Keown’s veins danced along the side of his face as he ripped into Oezil’s alleged inertia. The German didn’t “put a shift in”, an unforgivable crime for any British pundit at the best of times, but even more so when the culprit earns an obscene salary.
Keown compared Oezil to Patrick Vieira, the formidable Frenchman who built an Arsenal career on putting in lots of shifts, demanding lots of balls and kicking lots of passing opponents.
But Oezil and Vieira are entirely different midfielders. Expecting one to mimic the other simply because they occupy a similar area is like asking a poodle to play like a pit-bull because they both happen to be dogs.
Keown was right to acknowledge Oezil’s apparent lack of appetite, but his comparison was off. He picked the wrong former Gunner.
Recently, another former Gunner said: “The manager has been… shouting at me for not taking the game by the scruff of the neck at times, providing those kinds of moments, being the one shooting and making the difference.”
In other words, this former Gunner was encouraged to nurture his physical attributes, pump up the mental fortitude and do all the gritty stuff not typically associated with Wenger’s fondant fancies.
It was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain speaking about his current Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp.
He was speaking after his wonder strike against Manchester City in the Champions League last month. And what he didn’t say spoke volumes of his former manager.
While at Arsenal, Oxlade-Chamberlain endured the common criticisms associated with most Wenger players in the last decade because Wenger has essentially picked the same kind of player for a decade.
Gunners fans could tick off the familiar qualities and defects on a checklist: mercurial talent, pace but little power, easy on the eye, even easier for opposing midfielders, lovely but lightweight, silky but soft.
The list goes on because the failure went on, with Wenger signing one dainty virtuoso after another.
At Liverpool, Klopp looked beyond the initial scepticism to see the Ox’s raw material and then promptly whipped him into shape.
He ordered Oxlade-Chamberlain to get physical, to do things that one simply cannot imagine Wenger shouting at Oezil from the touchline.
With his ego massaged, Oxlade-Chamberlain reciprocated with 41 appearances, five goals and a number of stellar performances in the Champions League before injury robbed him of a place in the final.
In recent months, the difference between Oxlade-Chamberlain and Oezil has been night and day. Both midfielders morphed into mirror images of their managers; one upbeat, dynamic and inspirational, the other ponderous, quiet and mostly ineffectual.
So it’s easy to blame Oezil for doing another disappearing act in Madrid, but the real culpability resides in the dugout – where it’s been all season.
Oezil didn’t actually vanish in the semi-final, second-leg. In the final third, he completed 42 passes, more than than any other player on the pitch.
He tried, but he was largely surrounded by too many triers and not enough genuine pedigree, muscle and leadership.
When Oezil looked up against Atletico, he saw inferior versions of himself.
Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are the same delicate, erratic midfielder that Wenger has inexplicably favoured for too long.
Men like Keown are the real problem. Wenger hasn’t signed any.
Nor he has come anywhere close to establishing a Keown-like mindset within his squad, as Klopp did so successfully with Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Oezil’s stagnating form cannot be ignored, but it shouldn’t be studied in isolation either. He’s a disillusioned conductor trying to get a tune out of a second-rate orchestra.
His decline certainly damages Wenger’s reputation.
But Oezil’s fall alongside Oxlade-Chamberlain’s rise underlines why the Frenchman’s departure cannot come soon enough.