Exclusive: Ozil, The New Bergkamp?

Arsenal Football Club

Have you ever bought a new gadget, but for whatever reason, been unable to use it for a couple of weeks? It sits there, all pristine and new, but you can’t get at it for a couple of weeks because you’ve been away or you haven’t yet got around to dismantling or removing whatever it is you’re replacing. It’s starting to feel that way with Mezut Ozil. He’s now been an Arsenal player for just over a week, but at the time of writing, it’s still 4 days until we see him playing football in an Arsenal shirt for the first time.

The international break has meant that he’s become the Premier League’s most talked about footballer, without having actually kicked  a ball for his new club. There’s been plenty of time for sound bites from his team mates, past and future. Real skipper Sergio Ramos has expressed his astonishment that the Spanish club released him, and Cristiano Ronaldo admitted that of all his team mates, Ozil “knows me best on the pitch.” Despite the appearance of new signing Gareth Bale last week, the Real Madrid supporters sung his name. Arsenal players, including Kieran Gibbs have claimed that Ozil’s signature will lift the club to the next level. The hype is growing by the day, but time will tell whether the capture of this “marquee” signing will genuinely push Arsenal to a higher level.

The statistics are certainly impressive from his time in Spain. Only Lionel Messi comes close to Ozil in the number of assists he provided for his colleagues. Statistics can be interpreted in a number of different ways of course. It helped Ozil that Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, to name but two, were lurking to finish off the opportunities he put on a plate for them at the Bernebeau. The fact that Barca and Real now have such a stranglehold over the Spanish game means that many games are uncompetitive, a luxury which won’t be afforded to Ozil in the hustle and bustle of the Premier League. But Cesc Fabregas’s belief that “Ozil will nail it. Give him any space and he’ll kill you,” is revealing. The former Gunners skipper has an intimate knowledge of the Spanish and Premier League and has proved a shrewd judge of a player’s ability in the past. It’s an enticing prospect.

He’ll wear the number 11 shirt, but his given his classic “Number 10” playmaker qualities, and the headlines his transfer has garnered, there are obvious similarities with the capture of Dennis Bergkamp in the summer of 1995 by Bruce Rioch. The Dutchman’s arrival for a club record fee of £7.5 million at Highbury 18 years ago was a clear statement of intent by a board which had been reticent to invest in new talent for a number of years. Arsenal’s (relative) decline was down to a combination of factors; George Graham’s parsimony, and the impact of turning Highbury all seater, but Arsenal were an entirely different proposition after he arrived. The club had made a statement of intent, and shown they meant business. Bergkamp oozed class and immediately added a shimmering of quality to the team.

The modern Arsenal have been hamstrung to a degree by stadium repayments and (relatively) modest sponsorship deals, and Wenger’s reluctance to part with the board’s millions. Arsenal’s budget signings (Squillaci, Gervinho, Chamakh) simply weren’t good enough to cut the mustard, much like McGoldrick, Helder and Kiwomya didn’t add a great deal to the squad under George Graham. But now, the age of austerity appears to be over. Ozil will enjoy playing alongside Walcott, Cazorla and Wilshere, and though it might take time, should have little trouble firing on all cylinders in a league whose teams are regularly guilty of some fairly porous defending.

However, as with the case of Bergkamp, the capture of Ozil must be just the start. David Platt arrived at Highbury at the same time as the Dutchman, and although Platt was never in any danger of becoming an Arsenal legend, his presence was also a galvanising one, helping to attract players like Vieira, Petit and Overmars to the club over the next couple of seasons. It wasn’t until the end of Bergkamp’s 3rd season that he won any silverware, as Wenger pieced together his squad. The same is likely to be true of Ozil. He won’t be an immediate fix. In the piece which I wrote shortly before the transfer window slammed shut, I reiterated the fact that Arsenal still needed a top class striker, central defender, and holding midfielder to become genuine title contenders. I stand by that judgement.

It won’t be easy for Arsenal to add the missing pieces to the jigsaw. A top striker will cost in the region of £40 million or more, and with Chelsea, Manchester City, Real Madrid, and now PSG and Monaco willing to buy big and refuse to sell in order to prevent their domestic / European rivals from strengthening their team, landing the right man won’t be an easy task for the Gunners. Over the last few years, rivals have also copied Arsenal’s tried and trusted methods of exploiting loopholes in the market (Example: when Arsenal signed 17 year old Nicolas Anelka for just £750,000 from PSG) and scouting young talent around the world. It’s now largely a question of simply paying the going rate and getting the utmost out of players. Yet Arsenal now have the structure and the finances to do precisely that. Hopefully they now also have the ambition.

Ozil’s signing is the first stage of Arsenal becoming genuinely big game players once more. They’re not there yet. Potential signings will now look at the club as one which means business. But it’s treacherous out there amongst the sharks and the spivs, in a loudly moneyed world. It was a different world when Dennis arrived at Highbury. Ivan Gazidis likened the modern transfer market to “the Wild West.” Arsenal need to cut through the gun smoke and add talent quickly over the next eighteen months. Otherwise, rather than becoming a catalyst for success and the lynchpin of a resurgent Arsenal team, like Bergkamp, Ozil could simply become a bauble on a “Christmas tree” team; one that glitters and shimmers but as they have done for 9 seasons, flatters to deceive.