With the World Cup qualifiers over for now, Arsenal's early-season reprieve on Premier League action ends Saturday when star signing Mesut Ozil makes his debut in the critical clash against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.
The Gunners righted their ship before the international break, claiming wins over Fulham and Tottenham to sit with six points through three matches. Their 3-1 drubbing at the hands of Aston Villa remains the black mark over their season, one that might end up being significant come May.
But for now, the prevailing story heading into Saturday's match is the man Arsene Wenger signed to make sure no more of those embarrassing upsets happen this season.
In a last-minute flash of transfer ingenuity, the Gunners manager landed perhaps the biggest coup in club history—former Real Madrid midfielder Ozil. Real were looking to bring back some capital after finally locking in their world-record fee for former Tottenham standout Gareth Bale, who finally moved on on Sept. 1 after a long saga.
A day later Ozil was wearing an Arsenal polo at his introductory press conference. Wenger stepped out on a limb to sign the German national, shattering Arsenal's transfer record with a £42.5 million fee. It's also the highest ever paid for a German international.
The impact for both sides is quite obvious. Madrid are simply banking on Bale being their next transcendent superstar, and Ozil's attacking ways became redundant on a side that already boasted Cristiano Ronaldo. With the £42.5 million being sent back to the La Liga giant, they're essentially getting Bale for half price.
These things usually work out in such a fashion; don't think that Ozil's fee was exactly half of Bale's by accident.
The motivation for Arsenal was that opening loss to Aston Villa. Wenger went the entire 2012/13 season chasing the ghost of former Gunners star Robin van Persie. He watched on as his former star striker led Premier League in goals while wearing a Manchester United shirt, all as his club struggled to find a go-to scorer.
Arsenal found ways to make it work, ultimately finishing behind only United and Chelsea with 75 goals. But the era of having four double-digit scorers was always going to be short-lived, and everyone at Emirates Stadium knew it.
The fact of the matter was Madrid caught Wenger at the perfect time. The desperation was reaching never-before-seen heights with the Arsenal brain trust. I imagine the average meeting between all involved went something like this:
Everyone involved from the ownership to the fans to Wenger himself knew that the club couldn't walk back on the pitch Saturday without having made a major move.
For more than one reason.
Throughout the summer transfer window, the prevailing sentiment from Arsenal supporters was one of disappointment and increasing distrust—and that's putting it mildly.
Majority shareholder Stan Kroenke set out this summer to allow Wenger to do the unthinkable—match the big boys with a spending spree. Arsenal have long been a club designed around a tight-budgeted board and the youth development of Wenger. But with a whopping £70 million to play with this summer, no longer would Arsenal act as a feeder system for other clubs.
One problem: Wenger's reaction was yet another state of inertia. Wenger spent less money before Sept. 1 on transfers this summer than you did to read this column, considering the $0.01 in bandwidth it cost you to click here and assuming you stopped stealing your neighbor's Wi-Fi (their password is Babylon5).
Arsenal had gone into this summer transfer period with the aim of improving at three positions—goalkeeper, midfielder and striker. Each were supposed to come at a star-caliber level. As Tottenham and Chelsea have spent their whole summer proving, there is much you can do with some roster shuffling and a bevy of cash in the bank.
Wenger seemed unwilling and, frankly, borderline unable. Every player linked to Arsenal turned out to be a whole heaping of bluster for no action (Luis Suarez) or simply went somewhere else.
There is this prevailing thought that since Wenger has been with Arsenal since 1996 that he has a Sir Alex Ferguson lifetime pact. That he'll walk away whenever he damn well pleases. Based on the reaction from supporters, however, you could almost feel the countdown clock starting for June, when Wenger's contract ends.
Even now, after the Ozil signing, Wenger himself seems to realize how much the 2013/14 season means for his future. As Wenger said (h/t Goal.com):
My own situation? We are not in a hurry. We are in September and my contract ends in June. There’s a long way to go. There are no talks planned. I want to do well for this club, at the end I will sit down and decide how I have done for this club. Then I will say yes or no.
Unfairly, this hoists a ton of pressure on Ozil's shoulders. The 24-year-old midfielder has never been in such a limelight. He had the benefit of playing alongside Ronaldo and bevy of the world's best at Real Madrid. By comparison, his surrounding cast at the Emirates is a notable step down.
More responsibilities with worse teammates. Exactly what a young kid who enjoys being under the radar likes. But at least he's not playing back in Germany; that's a plus. The reality of Ozil's career is that he's always been an extremely talented background player—not someone in the white-hot spotlight.
Can Mesut Ozil live up to massive expectations?
That changes come Saturday. He'll make his Premier League debut with expectations coming from all angles. Wenger will be expecting Ozil's presence alone to keep Arsenal supporters and the board off his back. Those same supporters and the board will be expecting Ozil to make good on the massive weekly paycheck and the huge transfer fee.
And it has to happen now.
Otherwise, the Arsenal attack will still need a point man. Otherwise, that ugly loss to Aston Villa will continue shrouding the Gunners with a black flag. Otherwise, everyone will wonder what in the hell Wenger was doing all summer sitting on his hands instead of improving the club.
For that latter question, there may never come an answer.
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