When Mesut Ozil walked off the pitch in his last World Cup semi-final, it was clear, despite the narrow, painful defeat to Spain, that he had the footballing world at his feet.
Just 21 at the time and having only completed two full seasons at Werder Bremen, Ozil was the brightest creative talent in the brilliantly expansive Germany side that eventually finished third in South Africa and consequently the most sought-after player on the summer transfer market.
In a situation that James Rodriguez is beginning to get some familiarity with, Ozil was linked with almost every big club going—Manchester United, Arsenal, Barcelona and Real Madrid were all linked in one newspaper or another, among a fistful of others.
In the end it was Real Madrid who made the most compelling offer, tempting away a player who had previously been happy to continue his development in the Bundesliga.
"Let's be honest—you don't refuse this club," Ozil said at the time, per ESPN FC. "I was in no rush to leave Werder Bremen. ... [But] the prospect of performing at the Bernabeu is so awesome you jump straight in."
Four years on, Ozil enters his second World Cup in completely different circumstances. Having been painfully discarded by Real—despite leading La Liga's assist charts for the previous three seasons—as they sold him to Arsenal for £42.5 million last summer, Ozil now finds his place in the national team under serious debate.
This week former World Cup winner Paul Breitner, a legend for Germany and Bayern Munich, even urged coach Joachim Low to drop Ozil for the game against Brazil.
"If [Low] is bold, he'll say: 'I will not play with only 10 people' and drop Mesut Ozil," Breitner told TZ (via Goal.com). "That would be the next step for world titles and above all a big step for the good of the team."
In his assertion, Breitner cut to the core of the debate surrounding Ozil, one that has dogged him almost ever since his move to Arsenal last summer.
After a bright start at the club, one that saw him providing sublime assists for Olivier Giroud at practically a one-per-game rate, Ozil's performances notably dropped off. Suddenly, his idiosyncratic playing style—well, he carries himself with the same laid-back style of a certain Dimitar Berbatov—was a cause for criticism: Not only was Ozil not playing well, but he was seemingly not trying hard for the team, either.
Now that is the charge also being brought against him for Die Nationalmannschaft.
"Nine men are torturing themselves for 90 minutes and he's going for a walk," as Breitner added, slightly cruelly. "That's not what you do at a World Cup."
Many observers share the same opinion of Ozil. Others, however, believe he is committing himself as best he can to a position and role that do not necessarily play to his biggest strengths.
Ozil, who has long preferred to play centrally, behind a main striker, has been asked to play on the flanks for Germany, contributing to a fluid front line that is nominally led by Thomas Mueller—a forward whose movement, comportment and finishing record attract plenty of positive attention but can make it difficult for a player like Ozil to use as a point of reference.
Ozil would prefer to play behind a more conventional striker (as he often did with Giroud at Arsenal) or, failing that, in behind Mueller. But Low's preferred 4-3-3 does not allow for either of those options (even if Toni Kroos' role is not too dissimilar), meaning Ozil has to cut his cloth accordingly.
In the opener against Portugal, he played on the right. In the next two group games, he roamed all across the front line. Against Algeria and France, he actually played predominantly on the left.
In all the games, he covered a lot of ground—per FIFA records, his distance-covered statistics fared adequately against most of his team-mates.
"His body language isn't right and he doesn't seem as happy as usual," Lothar Matthaus, another former World Cup winner, told FIFA.com. "But he has to play there to get a game and he's giving his all."
As the criticism, or concern, surrounding Ozil has grown, the defence of him from within the German camp has been unwavering.
"I think it has got to the point where if he does not do something absolutely amazing in a game he is criticised," as Dietmar Hamann, who played for Germany in the 2002 World Cup final, wrote for Bleacher Report last week.
"He has shown in this tournament that where he plays he has quality and he undoubtedly has the qualities to be decisive," Kroos told the Evening Standard.
"We're very satisfied with Mesut," Germany assistant Hansi Flick told reporters (per Reuters) last week. "He brings a lot of confidence with the ball into our game and is always ready for a pass."
Indeed, perhaps this is how Ozil should be judged, in relation to the role he is asked to fulfil by his coaches. Coming from out wide, Ozil is expected to be an outlet for his side, holding up the ball and finding a pass that maintains and improves the attacking situation. In this way he is often the furthest German player upfield when the opposition has the ball—with Mueller doing more of the pressing and tracking back for his side.
Observers, particularly English ones, often want to see obvious effort from players and are able to forgive other sins as long as the individual is clearly giving his all. But it is perhaps unfair to judge a player merely by his natural mannerisms. Similarly, it is worth remembering that Ozil has technical gifts that wowed even the most star-studded squad in the world.
As Spanish journalist Diego Torres wrote in his book The Special One: The Dark Side of Jose Mourinho:
The overriding feeling in the squad was that no Madrid player was more skilful than Ozil. Ozil, who hardly spoke any Spanish but understood everything that was said to him, was admired by his team-mates. In every training session they saw him do things that other players could not do.
To the perplexity felt by the players on the demotion of Casillas was added the astonishment at the sale of Ozil, a player who was considered the most brilliant of the squad, a good team-mate and a fine professional.
It is this unrivalled technical ability that Germany will be hoping to tap into against Brazil, a side that, without Neymar, arguably lacks a player of similar guile.
They care not whether it looks like he is exerting himself or not (per FIFA stats, his "high intensity" efforts have been above average), just that he can make a decisive intervention—just as he did with his winner in the World Cup last-16 match against Algeria, which, ironically, came after perhaps his worst display of the competition.
Ozil walked off the pitch after his last World Cup semi-final a loser with the world at his feet.
Four years on, he has a chance to remind his many doubters that remains firmly the case.
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