Explaining the Enigma That Is Mesut Ozil

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Explaining the Enigma That Is Mesut Ozil
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Mesut Ozil may be the most polarizing name in world football right now. To his fans, he is a magician, a wizard with near-flawless technique and playmaking instincts that border on the prophetic. To his detractors, the Germany international is physically weak, one-dimensional and a defensive liability.

The truth is, Ozil is all the above.

He is an enigmatic player, one who has legendary quality in the right setting but who can also be utterly useless in the wrong conditions. And following widespread criticism of the playmaker and Arsene Wenger's vehement defense of his star in the Daily Mail, it's time to set the record straight on the nature of Ozil's game, what he needs to show his best qualities and what can and cannot be expected of him.

When Ozil first emerged as a potential star at Schalke, he was barely post-pubescent; his body was typical of a 17-year-old athlete. The trouble is, he never developed the muscle—and with it, the strength and explosive turn of pace—that typifies professional athletes.

He gained some weight under Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid, but still had the look of a footballing Oliver Twist: almost malnourished. In three full seasons in Spain he completed the full 90 minutes in just 25 Primera games, a testament to his lack of fitness.

As he approaches his 26th birthday and the athletic prime of his career, Ozil remains physically deficient.

It's no longer a question of when he'll mature; in his defense of the player, Wenger revealed Ozil had been spending a lot of time in the gym working on his strength, which nonetheless remains very limited. It may be that Ozil's body is not cut out for all the demands that come with being a modern professional football player.

Looking away from his shortcomings, the fact that Ozil is able to play football at the highest level despite glaring physical inadequacies is a glowing endorsement of his other attributes—which, it should be added, he may not have developed so exquisitely if he were faster or stronger.

The positives Ozil possesses are few and can be summarized simply as his brain and his left foot. But these two features are so refined that he has made himself into one of the world's best-regarded players.

Ozil's soft touch, control and precision in playing the ball are rivaled by few. The trouble is, he lacks the leg power to turn his ball-playing ability into an asset when shooting on goal. He can only pass and cross—and brilliantly, at that—which both need less of the force he struggles to generate and more of the precision he has in such abundance.

Similarly, Ozil has the touch and control to dribble past opponents like Franck Ribery and Lionel Messi. But, although he can trick a defender initially, the 25-year-old lacks the explosive turn of pace to burst past an off-balance opponent. He also is easily nudged off the ball. Instead of beating opponents on the dribble, he can use his touch to control unwieldy passes and avoid challenges.

The aforementioned abilities are useful, but Ozil would not be a special player without other redeeming features.

His brain perhaps is his greatest asset. Watching him closely, one will notice that Ozil rarely makes the wrong decision with and without the ball. He knows where and when to run to best suit his attacking teammates. When in possession, he always makes the right pass or dribble. Where many are quick to make a rash decision, he is patient; his calmness perhaps contributes to his ability to pick out passes that few could imagine.

Ozil's assist to Thomas Mueller against England at the 2010 World Cup is a classic example of the ex-Schalke man's intelligence. While most would have stampeded toward goal and given Joe Hart or Ashley Cole a chance to stop him, Ozil calmly jogged to draw the England goalkeeper and defender toward him, then played an inch-perfect pass to Mueller.

The few tangible abilities that Ozil possesses have one common theme: They require very specific conditions for him to be effective. If an attacking player can only pass, not shoot or dribble past defenders, he needs plenty of touches on the ball and for his teammates to make the right runs.

In Ozil's case, he has service, but as of late has struggled to make an incisive pass. To this end, the absence of Aaron Ramsey, Lukas Podolski and especially Theo Walcott has been a detriment. Before Walcott's injury, Ozil had assisted eight goals in 15 Premier League appearances; since then, he's set up just one in six matches.

Even without Walcott, Ozil looked a new man on Wednesday and extra motivated to make his impression felt against Manchester United. The trouble was none of his teammates in midfield were the type to make darting runs into the box. And striker Olivier Giroud is not the lightning-quick type to latch onto one of the German's patented through passes.

Another problem with the Giroud-Ozil combination is that the latter requires a more technical striker in order to be incisive. Ozil is easily dispossessed when surrounded by large defenders near the edge of the box, but if he can exchange passes with a striker faster than the defense can react (for example, this goal in a 2011 friendly with the Netherlands), he can be a substantial threat in the box.

Although scoring is not Ozil's strong point, his threat to score is key to any attack in which he plays. Joachim Low was so adamant on this point that he benched the rather clumsy Mario Gomez, who had scored three goals in the group stage, during the knockout rounds of Euro 2012. Ozil had struggled in the group stage, but came to life following the introduction of the aging Miroslav Klose in Low's starting lineup.

Great expectations came with Ozil's €50 million price tag—perhaps some that were unrealistic.

In a Premier League that emphasizes pace and power, he is a different breed. Fans of English football and players themselves have come to expect certain superstars to win games on their own. Tottenham at times last season simply had the strategy of playing the ball to Gareth Bale and seeing if he could pull a rabbit out of a hat. The same could be said of Luis Suarez at Liverpool.

Although he would fit perfectly into Andres Iniesta's role in Barcelona's 2008-09 team, Ozil could never, ever be the individual match-winner that Robin van Persie was for Arsenal. In fact, the German could never be expected even to play the full 90 minutes on a regular basis. And he was always going to be a defensive liability. These realities were well-established long before his move to the Emirates.

Any expectations that Ozil would be a reliable provider of brilliant, precise through passes were absolutely fair. And when he's had players to latch onto them, he's delivered reliably: to date, only Wayne Rooney has assisted more goals in the 2013-14 Premier League. When he leads the attack, as happened several times against United, there truly is little he can do.

To describe Ozil as a flop would not only be premature at this point, but a gross simplification that would have required unrealistic expectations in the first place.

The fact is that Wenger spent €50 million on a very specific, limited player who can be worth every penny but only under the right circumstances. Frustrating though it may be, whether Ozil in the long term is a hero or a flop rests as much in Wenger's hands as it does in those of the player himself.

Follow Clark Whitney on Twitter

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