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Farewell, Mesut

Mesut Özil’s Arsenal career finally came to an end. His legacy at the club is complicated and will likely remain as elusive as the player himself.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

And so the saga ends. On Sunday night, after months of speculation, Mesut Özil posted a picture of himself with his wife and daughter bound for Istanbul on a private jet with a Fenerbahçe flag behind them. He was smiling, about to embark on a new chapter with the club he supported as a boy, but the moment was still tinged with sadness. He departed London in the cover of night, leaving a country where he played and fiercely divided opinion for seven and a half years.

There’s a sense of relief that Özil’s time at Arsenal has finally ended. His relationship with the club had deteriorated beyond repair. The 32-year-old midfielder agreed with Arsenal to terminate his contract, having not played for them since last March. However you feel about the five-time German Player of the Year, the polarizing discourse about him had become unbearable, especially as he’s been made a scapegoat for problems at the club that extend far beyond his influence.

Any relief, however, is followed by sadness. It shouldn’t have come to this: not seeing Özil play in almost a year and not giving him a proper send-off. The emotions accompanying his departure are in stark contrast to those that greeted his arrival on transfer deadline day in 2013 when Arsenal blew away their previous transfer record to sign him from Real Madrid. Arsenal fans joyously swarmed Sky Sports News presenters reporting on his transfer as they awaited the arrival of the club’s most seismic signing since Dennis Bergkamp. They donned Özil shirts before his home debut against Stoke City. Özil united Arsenal supporters when he arrived; his signing signified the end of the post-Highbury financial restrictions and offered the promise of a return to the glory days. His departure unites them again, though in a very different way: Everyone is relieved the long-running saga is over.

If someone had told me, in early 2013, that Özil would sign for Arsenal and make more appearances for them than any other club he played for, I would not have believed them. It’s far too easy, amid all the talk of how his performances have dropped off and the criticism over his work rate, to forget the times when Özil delivered breathtakingly beautiful moments while wearing that famous red shirt with white sleeves.

I remember the first of such moments. It came 11 minutes into his debut against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. Kieran Gibbs drove a ball out to the left flank, where Özil had drifted. As the ball came over his shoulder, he killed the ball dead with his first touch, looked up, and squared a perfectly weighted pass for Olivier Giroud to score. Eleven minutes, his first assist. It wasn’t necessarily his control of the ball that was most impressive—it was that he didn’t need to break stride, catching the ball with the softness one might need to handle the most fragile of objects. The other striking thing was that it seemed to be easy. Like, really easy.

His first Arsenal goal came in his first Champions League game at the Emirates Stadium in a 2-0 win over Napoli. Seven minutes into the game, Aaron Ramsey cut back for Özil, who suddenly appeared in the frame. He casually—and exquisitely—side-footed his shot from the edge of the box into the goal, a finish rarely executed by even the most elite strikers. It was a move that required an obscenely high technical level, but Özil made it seem effortless.

This was arguably Özil’s biggest problem. How hard can he be working if he doesn’t look like he’s working hard at all? It didn’t take long before public opinion on his game began to split, with criticisms of his work rate emerging at greater frequency and intensity. The split would become a chasm and then a canyon: Debates about Özil’s style of play turned into a footballing culture war, adopting some of the worst characteristics of internet discourse. It wasn’t about who was right or wrong—both sides missed the point because turning a player into a footballing referendum makes it difficult to enjoy watching them play.

“Rather than talking about him I would rather watch him again,” said Arsène Wenger, Özil’s manager at Arsenal for five years, who brought him to London and was one of his biggest admirers and defenders. “If you love to watch football, you love to watch Özil.”

Özil arrived at Arsenal at a strange inflection point in the club’s history. The club had recently moved into the Emirates Stadium and many fans expected it to move past its frugal period and reclaim its place among England’s elite. To them, Özil’s signing was a statement of that ambition, and while Arsenal ended its nine-year trophy drought by winning the FA Cup in Özil’s first season—and won three more FA Cups in his seven-plus seasons—he could not reverse their steady decline. Özil became an easy target for the anger fans felt about the club’s trajectory. Maybe it was hard to love Özil because so many seemed to not love watching Arsenal.

Was he the best playmaker in Arsenal’s history? Probably not, but that’s not really the point. Much like a good wine with a fine meal, Özil elevated a team that paired well with his ability. He never wanted to be the showpiece, only to deliver what was needed at the best possible moment. Some of his best moments at Arsenal were the simplest: a pass to recirculate possession while waiting for a better attacking opportunity later in a move, or a calm touch to get out of tight space and open a passing lane. Many players who do these things don’t possess Özil’s ability to make them look effortless—in this way, he could be a hard player to understand. He perfected the subtle moments, and understood that restraint was often the best course of action.

That does not mean he was incapable of eliciting “oohs and ahs.” There was widespread appreciation of Özil’s qualities, despite what you might find on Twitter. Perhaps he was so misunderstood because he so often operated in the space that people don’t always see, ghosting through the opposition so that others could get the glory. The very best coaches knew this about him, but most of us were too busy arguing about his stats, body language, or contract negotiations to notice.

Not that it matters much now—the saga is over and balance is restored until the next time it’s thrown askew. As for Özil, he was elusive to the very end, slipping away from London like he did so many defenders—which is probably how he would’ve wanted it.