The assistant king has left the building: Mesut Özil is returning to his boyhood club Fenerbahce after ending his contract with Arsenal six months after it expired.

In fact, Arsenal fans once hoped it would last forever. The £42.4m transfer from Real Madrid in September 2013 and the £350,000-a-week contract signed five years later were defining moments for the Gunners on their path back to former glory.

Initially, Özil had a unifying effect on the fanbase, whose discontent had only just begun under Arsene Wenger. But over time, the midfielder became the most polarizing figure at the club and changed radically behind the scenes as football’s elite clubs disappeared on the horizon.

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Eventually Özil, presented as the new Denis Bergkamp, turned out to be a secondary figure when Barcelona received a loan from Denis Suarez. His revolutionary new contract goes from a statement of intent for a club close to the top to a crippling liability for a team in need of a major overhaul. Özil has become a diamond-studded pariah, a big piece of black forest whore at the club’s regime.

Özil continues to receive fierce support on social media. One of the reasons Arsenal offered him such a high salary in the first place was his marketing and online prowess. At the time of writing, Arsenal have 16.9 million followers on Twitter, while Özil has 25.8 million. The Gunners are 18.8m on Instagram, Özil is 23.5m, but instead of a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship, Özil has increasingly turned to social media to communicate his outcast status. Arsenal were trying to say goodbye to a player who was once considered a mascot of the new era, but who has now become a relic of past mistakes.

Each side blames the other, but how did it come to this?

Mesut Özil has not been in the Premier League or Europa League team this season. Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Since his arrival at Arsenal seven and a half years ago, Özil has become an emotional subject and it is hard to underestimate the excitement surrounding his arrival.

It wasn’t just billed as a transfer. A year earlier, in 2012, Arsenal sold Robin van Persie to Manchester United, the latest in a long line of talents on the brink or at the peak of their careers to fulfill that promise elsewhere. Van Persie won the Golden Shoe with 26 goals and sent United to Sir Alex Ferguson’s Premier League final. Once a fierce rival, Wenger gave his old rival Ferguson the missing piece of the puzzle.

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Years of austerity resulting from the self-financed move from Highbury Stadium to Emirates Stadium have left Arsenal unable to compete in the transfer market, particularly with the Manchester City billionaires who have followed Chelsea FC and accelerated their success at the expense of lavish spending. Arsenal’s trophy drought dates back to 2005 and weighs heavily on Wenger’s shoulders every year. But when we landed on Earth, on the second… September 2013, Arsenal finally expanded. Moreover, they have signed a real star for Real Madrid and Germany, a playmaker who will soon be 25 years old and whose pedigree supports Wenger’s aesthetic approach.

In a near-perfect execution of the move, the Gunners previously loaned Palermo goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano for a season, a deal more in line with the transfer window in which they also agreed terms with 20-year-old French striker Yaya Sanogo and re-hired midfielder Mathieu Flamini. But time was running out, and Arsenal nearly tripled their transfer record, paying £42.4 million for Özil. It is now the third most expensive in British football.

Earlier this summer, CEO Ivan Gazidis told an Arsenal fan forum that we were starting to see an escalation in our financial firepower and the arrival of Özil was proof that rhetoric can pay off.

Except that Gazidis went to Madrid first to inquire about Angel Di Maria’s signature. A deal for Özil was only called into question when manager Carlo Ancelotti told German international Carlo Ancelotti that he would not be a guaranteed regular. Along with old fan Wenger, Arsenal struck, much to the chagrin of Cristiano Ronaldo, it seems.

Özil’s move in 2013 was welcomed as a significant statement of intent. Stuart McFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Özil settles in but the Arsenal are badly positioned around him.

Ronaldo’s frustration with Özil’s departure from Madrid was caused by the loss of ammunition provided by the man nicknamed King of Relief. Özil scored Olivier Giroud’s first goal 11 minutes after his Arsenal debut. He finished his first season with a silver medal, the 2014 AFC Cup. They would have signed Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona this summer, another big coup of around £35m, and would have held the trophy a year later.

In 2015-16. With a total of 19 attendances, Özil has set a new record, held by Arsenal legend Thierry Henry (2002-03) and Man City player Kevin De Bruyne (2019-20). According to Opta, Özil has created 146 chances this season, 10 more than any other player since the company began keeping records nearly 20 years ago. The stunning result – the winner of the Champions League group game against Ludogorets in early November – remains the club’s best goal to date.

But a lot could have gone wrong this season. In the summer of 2015, Wenger said his team was good enough without new recruits, except Chelsea FC’s experienced goalkeeper Petr Cech. Arsenal would be the only team in the first five European Championships not to sign a winger (although they added Mohamed Elneny in January), but the Gunners finished their second season ten points behind surprise champions Leicester City. Many of the established teams considered Leicester’s incredible victory a fairy tale and a missed opportunity, but perhaps no more so than Arsenal. Wenger later admitted his regret and guilt.

A series of missteps in the market followed.

The Gunners signed Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi, Lucas Perez in the summer of 2016 for around £86 million. The 2016-17 season ended with nine goals and eight assists in the Premier League, but the Gunners finished outside the top four for the first time in Wenger’s history since 1996.

Dan Thomas is joined by Craig Burley, Shaka Hislop and others to bring you the latest developments and discuss the biggest stories. Streaming on ESPN+ (United States only).

Against this backdrop, Özil and Sánchez, the team’s two best players, entered the final year of their contracts at the start of the 2017-18 season, and their relationship with the rest of the team became more complicated as negotiations dragged on. Sources told ESPN that Özil and Sanchez have repeatedly missed club days – once a month the players have had to sacrifice their time to meet various advertising, media and marketing contracts for the club. It is clear that the duo stayed on top of contract negotiations, knowing that their bargaining power was even more concentrated.

The deal to sell Sanchez to Manchester City fell through in the summer and things started to get toxic. Sanchez’s field form fell off a cliff, and sources told ESPN he stopped answering internal emails. The relationship has never deteriorated as it did with Özil, and when Sánchez was allowed to join Manchester United in January 2018 – and Henrikh Mkhitaryan took a different route in a rare exchange deal between the two big clubs – Arsenal realised it needed to make another statement of intent.

The pressure to prevent the departure of another top player – a past they thought they had put behind them – had reached a critical level. And now, on the day they broke their transfer record by signing Borussia Dortmund for around £56m, it has been announced that Özil has signed for £350,000 a week – a contract extension that will turn the club’s current wage structure on its head.

Sources told ESPN that Aubameyang wanted to know if he would stay before agreeing to join the club, and similarly Özil asked for indications that the club would invest quickly in the team to return to the Champions League, having already acquired striker Alexandre Lasazet from Lyon for £46.5m.

Speculation over Wenger’s future has reached a peak. In the end, Gazidis decided that Özil would be the central part of the team regardless of who led it, but things turned out a little differently.

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ESPN FC’s Ian Dark to the Arsenal ceiling after a goalless draw with Crystal Palace.

Attempt to develop Arsenal, Özil fails to reach level.

Three key figures involved in Özil’s contract negotiations – Wenger, Gazidis and chief negotiator Dick Law – left the club at the end of 2018. The Gazidis quietly began stripping Wenger of his autonomy by appointing nine new departmental heads and hiring Borussia Dortmund’s Sven Mislintat to lead the club’s recruitment campaign. The appointment of manager Unai Emery should breathe new energy into a tired back line, restore a strong work ethic and restore the culture of comfort that pervaded the dressing room under Wenger, who, despite being a staunch supporter of Özil, still had reservations about the high salaries he was paid.

The slowness of Özil’s game and his fluctuating form made him an obvious target. Emery acknowledges his talent, but questions his motivation. New influential middlemen, including former Barcelona boss Raul Sanlleihi as head of football, saw Özil and his contract as a symbol of past generosity, and the strength of Emery’s relationship with Özil was eroded.

There were memorable moments, including when he was killed on the 22nd. October 2018 against Leicester wore the captain’s armband – a goal and an assist were enough for a great result. It was used sparingly during the season, however, as Emery was concerned about his fitness and commitment. Criticism that Özil was unconvincing in the big games has been denied, especially after the 2019 Europa League final, where he was replaced by teenager Joe Willock and the Gunners lost 4-1 to Chelsea.

Arsenal tried to transfer Özil this summer, but could not find a club willing to take over his salary. Özil’s behaviour has been questioned again in some quarters, although there is conflicting information on whether he acted out of misconduct or arrogance. Sources told ESPN that Colney Özil once went to the club’s London training ground to be treated for an injury, but was sent home after being told there were no tables to treat him.

Reasons for Özil’s dismissal or not?

Emery’s tenure did not end – several top players, not just Özil, were disappointed – and he was sacked in November 2019. Interim boss Freddie Ljungberg brought Özil back into the team but soon lost his temper, referring to the moment he kicked his gloves in the air to face his replacement against Manchester City, because that’s not how we behave at Arsenal.

Mikel Arzeta then joined Özil for his first ten games in the Premier League as Gunners boss, with a modest return. China’s public criticism of the Uyghur Muslim population has landed the club in diplomatic trouble, but the significance of this situation for his exclusion is overstated, as he was still part of the team. It wasn’t until March 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockout, when he refused to accept a pay cut like most of his teammates, that Özil finally lost favor with Arteta.

The Spaniard cited footballing reasons for Özil’s departure, but regardless of the change in playing style, there have been many games where Özil’s 20 minutes would not have made things worse. Arteta played a pivotal role in convincing the team to cut salaries at a time when their Premier League counterparts were discussing a postponement. He personally intervened to negotiate with the players on behalf of the owner, but Özil wanted more guarantees about where the money would go. This position exacerbated internal divisions, for while Özil’s signing was a symbol of further reflection, COVID-19 accelerated Arsenal’s return to greater financial conservatism by sacking 55 non-playing staff, downsizing the scouting network and even losing Sanllehi.

Sources told ESPN that Arteta personally believes Özil will ignore his call for unity and that there is no chance of reconciliation between them. They didn’t talk much after that, exchanging simple jokes as their paths crossed on the practice field. Özil continued to train with the first team, distributing tips and sportswear from his M10 brand to several young team members.

As a result, Arteta was ruled out of the Premier League and Europa League, while the club was looking for an exit strategy. Özil made 254 appearances in which he scored 44 goals and registered 77 assists. After it became clear that his situation at the Emirates Stadium would not change this month, Özil’s side began to explore the long-standing interests of Fenerbahce and MLS D.C. United. A live tweet about Arsenal’s matches and an offer of payment to the club’s mascot, the Gunnersaurus, couldn’t hold him up for long.

In the end, Özil’s Turkish roots (his grandparents emigrated from Turkey to Germany) and his genuine affinity for Fenerbahçe prevailed. The main financial hurdle was cleared when Arsenal agreed to pay most of the £7m it was owed for the remainder of his contract.

Few players in this game have the technical abilities of Özil. He gave many moments of pure joy in an Arsenal jersey, memories that should not be diminished by his troubles on the final day. But on all sides, one cannot escape the sense of regret that Özil is leaving Arsenal with a mixed legacy. In the case of a player who is known to help, the important thing is that neither party has done enough to help the other.

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