This week, Mesut Ozil's exile at Arsenal has extended to unprecedented levels. The 32-year-old cannot play senior football again until January at the earliest after being left out of the Gunners' Premier League and Europa League squads for what manager Mikel Arteta insisted on Wednesday night were solely footballing reasons.
"My conscience is very calm because I have been really fair," said Arteta. "What I can say from my side is that it is just a football decision. My level of communication with him has been really high and we know what to expect with each other.
- Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
- Predict results in ESPN's English Soccer Pick 'Em!
"My job is to get the best out of every player, to contribute to the team performance. Here I feel at the moment, today, that I have failed."
Ozil arrived at Arsenal from Real Madrid in September 2014 for a then club-record £42 million fee, which became the physical manifestation of what then-chief executive Ivan Gazidis heralded as an "escalation in financial firepower." The Germany international was intended to be the crown jewel of a new era, a club loosened from the constraints of self-funding their move to Emirates Stadium from Highbury, finally ready to challenge for the game's major honours once again.
For a time, Ozil lived up to his billing of the "King of the assists." During the 2015-16 Premier League season, he set up 19 goals -- a tally only ever beaten by Thierry Henry and Kevin De Bruyne. Ozil's £350,000-a-week contract was also hailed as a landmark moment for both player and club when he agreed to stay in north London in January 2018, but instead of cementing his status as Arsenal's star player, he now finds himself fighting for his future.
Questions over his consistency and application have grown and despite starting the first 10 Premier League games under Arteta, he has not played a minute since March 7. He hasn't even been named to a matchday squad since June 25.
These days, Ozil is a lightning rod for criticism and emblematic for some of mismanagement that has undermined Arsenal's pursuit of trophies. Yet, Ozil's agent, Dr. Erkut Sogut, (he holds a doctorate in law) has predictably hit back, believing the club must come clean about the real explanations behind their treatment of the midfielder.
In an exclusive interview with ESPN, Sogut states, among other things, that: Arteta is not telling the truth for claiming Ozil's absence is a football decision; Ozil should be shown the same loyalty Arteta received in his final two years as an Arsenal player; Ozil turned down an offer from another club that included a £30m signing-on fee to stay at Arsenal in 2018.
Ozil, pictured in training on Sept. 21, 2020. The midfielder has not played a minute for Arsenal since early March, and he has not been named in a matchday squad since June. Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images
Arteta has largely attempted to sidestep Ozil questions when asked on an almost-weekly basis about the 32-year-old midfielder in his news conferences at London Colney. Except the topic could no longer be avoided when Arsenal submitted their 25-man squad for the Premier League this week, leaving out one of English football's highest-paid players.
Speaking prior to Thursday night's 2-1 win at Rapid Vienna in the Europa League, Arteta stated that he had "failed" to get the best out of Ozil but that "my conscience is very calm because I have been really fair."
Technical director Edu stated earlier this month that Ozil's selection was determined by performance alone, but sources have told ESPN that other factors were influential.
- Mesut Ozil at Arsenal: The highs and lows of his time at the EmiratesMessi, Alaba, Ozil, Aguero among the top free agents in 2021Wenger's autobiography: No mention of Mourinho in 'My Life in Red and White'
Sogut told ESPN: "Arsenal fans deserve an honest explanation, not [Arteta] saying 'I failed Ozil.' You didn't fail Ozil: you failed to be fair, honest and transparent and treat someone with respect who has a contract and was loyal all the time.
"Every single person outside knows he hasn't treated him fairly. He didn't give him a chance to show himself this season. If he is still under contract, the player should have the option to stay and fight for his place. Mesut hasn't been given that. Why would you put a player on the bench twice for 90 minutes [against Brighton and Crystal Palace in June] if he wasn't fit or committed?
"Everyone says he's training well. Per Mertesacker [Arsenal defender, 2011-18 and now a coach at the club's academy] said this publicly. I spoke with at least five teammates who say he is training great. They say Mesut is one of their best players, and they cannot understand why he is left out. So it can't be the training -- if it is not the pitch, what are the footballing reasons? If you talk, you should tell the truth that the Arsenal fans deserve otherwise don't talk at all."
Arsenal declined to comment when contacted by ESPN, in light of both Arteta and technical director Edu already stating the club's position on the record.
Edu insisted last month Ozil's omission was a "performance issue," and those with longer-term memories would point to a series of peripheral performances in big games as well as his part-time role under Unai Emery, who later claimed in a May interview that "the attitude that he adopted, and the commitment levels, well, they weren't enough."
play1:06Arteta admits he's 'failed' to get the best from Mesut Ozil
Mikel Arteta says Mesut Ozil had "opportunities like everybody else" to make Arsenal's Premier League squad.
Last December, Ozil took to social media to highlight and condemn the treatment of around 10 million Uighurs living in Xinjiang, after reports emerged suggesting over a million people had been held in detention camps, and accused other Muslims of staying quiet on the issue. Arsenal, who have numerous commercial interests in China including owning a chain of restaurants, later took the unusual step of releasing a statement distancing themselves from Ozil's Instagram post, adding "Arsenal have always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics."
Ozil was deleted from a computer game in China for his actions, while the Gunners' game against Manchester City in mid-December was dropped by state TV.
In April, he refused to join his teammates in taking an initial 12.5% pay cut because of a perceived lack of clarity in how the money would be spent, along with the manner of the conversations between the first-team squad and senior club officials.
"You have to understand the bigger picture," said Sogut. "The [Uighur situation] created problems for the whole Premier League, not just Arsenal. He expected to get more support from the club. It is not talking about politics, it is about human rights, putting people in detention centres. Imagine a football player comes out and says 'this is inhumane.' Is that politics or empathy?"
Ozil remains on cordial terms with Arteta, but Sogut contrasted his treatment with that of Arteta, whom he feels is responsible for the midfielder's exile.
Ozil and his representatives believe Arteta is not being forthcoming about the reasons for the 32-year-old's absence from Arsenal's first-team plans. IAN KINGTON/IKIMAGES/AFP via Getty Images
Arteta joined the Gunners from Everton in 2011, becoming club captain in 2014. However, he made just 11 appearances in the 2014-15 season due to injury but signed a one-year extension, only to suffer further fitness problems, making just one league appearance in his final six months, on the last day of the season as an 88th-minute substitute against Aston Villa.
"He started zero games in the Premier League in his last season," said Sogut. "He wasn't there in the last six months at all, busy doing his coaching badges and meeting coaches for his future. Mesut plays for one English team and that's it because he feels he can only play for that team. He is a Gunner in the end.
"Mesut is not a player who is yesterday a Toffee and today a Gunner. Arteta didn't play at all in the final two years, but they still registered him because he was given a contract. [Then-manager] Arsene Wenger put him on the field for the final two minutes of his last game just to give him a nice moment, even though he wasn't fit for months. Look at how [Arteta] was treated in his final two years, and how Mesut is getting treated in his final year."
STREAM ESPN FC DAILY ON ESPN+
Dan Thomas is joined by Craig Burley, Shaka Hislop and others to bring you the latest highlights and debate the biggest storylines. Stream on ESPN+ (U.S. only).
Sogut insisted Ozil would remain committed to fighting to regain his place in January, when Premier League sides can resubmit their squads for the second half of the campaign, pointing to the revival he enjoyed in the latter part of Emery's tenure. Ozil played just 71 minutes in the first 10 league games of 2019-20, a consequence in part of persistent back problems and a delayed start to the season following a horrific carjacking incident in which he was approached by an armed gang while travelling through London with teammate Sead Kolasinac.
"Maybe [Arsenal's] goal was to wait until the end and Mesut would say 'I want to leave,'" said Sogut.
"If Mesut would have done that, the club can say he wants to go and if they can't find him a club, they have an excuse and can say 'we can't register you because you wanted to leave.' But they knew for a long time that Mesut wanted to stay. He made it very clear. Maybe they wanted him to feel unwanted and unwelcome, but he wants to play for the badge.
"Mesut is 32 years old. He has a few more years in his career, but it is more about the way of treatment. Mesut is someone who fights for his rights. The contract was a big commitment for him. He could have left for another club like Alexis Sanchez [who left Arsenal to join Manchester United in 2018] did. He could have left [Arsenal] and got a £30m signing-on fee [somewhere else] as a free agent at the peak of his career. But he stayed loyal.
"Maybe the club will change their position in January and register him. You never know what will happen."
play0:36Robson: Ozil should dress up as Arsenal mascot Gunnersaurus
Stewart Robson jokes that Mesut Ozil would be better served playing Gunnersaurus than sitting on Arsenal's bench.
Sogut finished our conversation by revealing the German Football Federation have sent Ozil an official apology for a lack of protection he cited when retiring from international duty amid criticism of pictures taken meeting controversial Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Ozil grew up in Germany but has Turkish ancestry and released a statement at the time claiming "I am German when we win but I am an immigrant when we lose."
He said: "Three weeks ago, the German Football Federation apologised for the treatment of Mesut."
The financial impact of COVID-19 has been felt sharply across the Premier League, with several clubs announcing pay freezes or cutbacks as a result of the loss of revenue from being denied fans in stadiums on matchdays. The Gunners cut members of their scouting team from across Europe and a variety of staff (reportedly 55 non-playing jobs) across various departments including hospitality and commercial. Arsenal subsequently announced that Jerry Quy, the man who has played the role of club mascot Gunnersaurus since its introduction in 1993, would be made redundant. Ozil offered to pay his salary for as long as he remained a player at the club.
"You wouldn't expect a club with class to make 55 people redundant just after winning the FA Cup or sacking a mascot after 27 years of service, just before making a £45m signing [of Thomas Partey]. And it doesn't help if people from outside the club speak on their behalf. It unfortunately gives a very bad picture of the club which we are not used to having at a team like Arsenal.
"I would be very concerned for any club if someone repeatedly spoke on their behalf and clearly had a significant influence on and off the pitch.
"Mesut cannot speak now because of confidentiality, but one day he will, and we'll see what people think."