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29 March 2023

Mesut Özil was a stylist who lost his way in the new era of measurement and numbers

The 34-year-old football player’s retirement feels both premature and long overdue.

By Jonathan Liew

Mesut Özil announced his retirement from football in much the same way that he passed a football: slipping it in between the lines, somehow both a little sooner and a little later than you expected. This was always Özil’s gift as a player: the ability to find the sliver of time and space that nobody else could see. The news came on 22 March, with two months of the Turkish Süper Lig season still to play; for the last time, Özil had wrong-footed us all.

It felt premature because Özil is still only 34, younger than the French striker Karim Benzema or the Croatian midfielder Luka Modrić or the German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, all of whom are still performing at the highest level. It felt long overdue because Özil has been a fading force in the game for some time now. His last game for Arsenal, the club where he spent seven-and-a-half years, was before the pandemic. More recently, he has been at Fenerbahçe and Istanbul Başakşehir, fending off not only a series of back injuries but his own dwindling interest.

It was some career. A World Cup winner with Germany in 2014, a Spanish league champion with Real Madrid in 2012, four FA Cups with Arsenal, countless more squeals of pleasure and appreciation. And yet in England at least, his legacy remains contested. For many he came to represent the crud-encrusted decadence of the late Arsène Wenger years, a period of atrophy and inefficiency, of style over substance. With Arsenal top of the Premier League and on the brink of the title that Özil could never deliver, there is nostalgia there but little affection for him, much less regret.

[See also: Football was never a truly amateur game, but now even the supporting cast are raking it in]

Certainly, for Arsenal fans there is little appetite for revisiting the toxic internecine warfare of the mid-2010s, the Wenger Outs against the Arsène Knows Best brigade, the screaming arguments over net spend. In retrospect it is striking how quickly that period has passed into history. There is a certain poignancy in watching the wild celebrations on the streets of Islington that greeted the signing of Özil from Real Madrid on transfer deadline day 2013.

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How is this already a decade ago?

On the same day that Özil retired, in the same city, another great lost creative talent was evoking similar sensations. Reports from Turkey suggest that Dele Alli has played his last game for Beşiktaş after falling out with its coach Şenol Güneş. An England debutant at 19, a Champions League finalist with Tottenham at 23: for a time Alli was perhaps the most promising English midfielder of his generation. Now neither his loan club Beşiktaş nor his parent club Everton want anything to do with him. The hunger and spark of his white-hot early years have gone. At 26, Alli is probably done at the highest level.

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The temptation here, as with Özil, is to ascribe personal failings. Özil was frequently described as lazy, no matter how much he ran. Alli has always been pursued by accusations of a bad attitude. And yet when the broader picture is examined, something else seems to be going on here. Consider some of the Premier League’s other outstanding attacking midfielders of the 2015-19 era – Özil, Alli, Eden Hazard, Philippe Coutinho, Alexis Sánchez, Paul Pogba, Aaron Ramsey – and there are remarkable consistencies linking them.

[See also: Football remains spectacular, but the trust between clubs and the public is broken]

All are 34 or under, and should still be near their peak. Yet to varying extents all have been left behind. Hazard is wasting away at Real Madrid, Coutinho shuffling in and out of favour at Aston Villa. Pogba is battling long-term injuries at Juventus, Ramsey struggling at Nice. Sánchez is perhaps the only hopeful case, enjoying a fruitful season at Marseille after years of steady deterioration. Nonetheless there is a shared tale of obsolescence in a rapidly advancing sport, perhaps even a parable for the game as a whole.

On one level it’s simply the terms of doing business at the high end of men’s football. Such is the physicality and tactical intricacy of the modern game that most teams will spurn even the most brilliant creative talent if they are unable to supplement their technical skill with relentless high-intensity sprinting and pressing and tackling and tracking. None of the above players could ever be described as indolent or unathletic. But once that initial lightning sharpness was blunted – often through repeated injuries – the game moved on with frightening speed.

But there is also a cultural issue here. Football has become a game of perpetual judgement, whether through the fire-walk of social media or the analyst’s spreadsheet. Every action is measured and assigned a numerical value. Every deed on the pitch is taken as cast-iron evidence of greatness or fraudulence. Inconsistency is less tolerated than it has ever been. And so the biggest losers in this ecosystem are the mercurial players, the occasionally spectacular, the players who try audacious things and often fail.

 The story of the great lost attacking midfielders of the late 2010s is also a story of lost romance. It feels strange to mourn players who for the most part are still active. But the departure of Mesut Özil serves as a reminder that greatness on a pitch is measured not simply in numbers but in feelings. That football’s crock pot of rage and ruthless judgement has as many losers as winners. And that even for the most timeless of players, the clock is always ticking.

[See also: The unstoppable rise of football’s nepo babies]

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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special