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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Arsenal's Mesut Ozil an enigma: Style allied with substance, but question remains over level of impact

German may have broken record for most Premier League assists, but men he has passed - Eric Cantona and Dennis Bergkamp - won division seven times between them and scored more goals

Arsenal's Mesut Ozil has broken Eric Cantona's Premier League assists record. Eddie Keogh / Reuters
Arsenal's Mesut Ozil has broken Eric Cantona's Premier League assists record. Eddie Keogh / Reuters

Longevity often brings landmarks. Arsene Wenger’s problem of late is that too many have been unwanted.

Arsenal embarked on their worst run for 16 years recently. Having recorded their lowest league finish under the Frenchman last season, they are on course to lower that again, with the fewest points and the most goals conceded.

So Sunday’s win over Watford represented an antidote. The milestones were evidence of achievement, not signs of decline.

Petr Cech delivered his long-awaited 200th Premier League clean sheet. Mesut Ozil brought up 50 assists in the division. The goalkeeper was the first to a double century, the playmaker the quickest to a half-century.

Cech can seem a metaphor for Wenger, a Premier League hero who is in evident decline but who offers occasional reminders of his successful past. Ozil can appear an embodiment of his brand of football over the past decade, bringing beauty but not enough physicality, decorating many a minor game but deciding too few major ones.

If that is a simplistic analysis, which was partially rebutted when the German set up both goals in the Europa League victory over AC Milan. Ozil can defy categorisation, sometimes the elegant architect of goals, sometimes an exercise in ineffectualness.

He can polarise opinion and split defences. His new contract may have made the best-paid player in the Premier League, but he has only sporadically resembled the best.

Numbers can often offer clarity, or at least a concrete case for recognition. Ozil’s 50 assists took 141 games. Eric Cantona, the previous record holder, needed 143. Dennis Bergkamp, now in third, 146. Only 11 players have mustered 50 in their first 200 Premier League matches, only 21 in 300. Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes, to name but three, took over 300 to bring up their half-centuries.

The figures are remarkable.

Of course, they only tell part of the tale. Cantona and Bergkamp were not just bona fide Premier League heroes. They won the division seven times between them. By committing to Arsenal, it is unlikely Ozil ever will win it once.

The Frenchman also scored 61 goals in his first 141 Premier League matches. The Dutchman struck 59 times. The German, in contrast, has mustered a mere 27 goals.

Like David Silva, another on the assists leaderboard, he is more prolific for country than club. Ozil is far from the most productive player over those 141 games – coincidentally, the time Harry Kane took to record a century of top-flight goals – but as a pure creator, he stands alone.

None of which may convince the doubters that Ozil is not an unreliable wastrel. He can set the wrong tone in the games when Arsenal lack application off the ball. Some 43 of those 50 assists have come in wins, which could imply he prospers when the odds are tilted in his favour.

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The alternative argument is that, by clinically dissecting defences, Ozil makes those games winnable. Sunday’s assist came for Shkodran Mustafi’s opener. It was an action replay of Arsenal’s first goal in November’s North London derby victory.

And amid the questions about Wenger’s future, Ozil’s is assured. Arsenal’s financial commitment to him is so sizeable he will have to be a cornerstone of any manager’s side.

The reshaping of the Arsenal squad - with Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang but without Alexis Sanchez, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott - suggests Ozil will increasingly be charged with springing the offside trap for the speedy Gabonese or supplying the passes for Aaron Ramsey’s Lampard-esque runs.

But with Ozil signed up until 2021, the quest to be quickest to 100 assumes intriguing proportions. For the purists, it could provide statistical proof that style is allied with substance. For the critics who made up their minds about Ozil long ago, it may make it harder to deny he exerts an impact.

And yet Arsenal’s misunderstood creator might forever appear elusively enigmatic.

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