It’s no coincidence that Mesut Ozil’s return to the first team dovetailed with Arsenal’s superb form since the turn of the year.
Questioned in some quarters despite helping Germany to World Cup success in Brazil last summer, the playmaker – now noticeably more muscular – has produced arguably his most convincing run of performances for the club since making his comeback from a partial knee ligament tear in January.
Confidence, creativity and charisma have lit up Mesut’s displays - take that eye-of-the- needle assist for Alexis Sanchez in the FA Cup semi-final or the outrageous volleyed backheel to the same player at Hull City as evidence.
"The team are successful and I feel so at home here because of the way in which I was received by the whole squad"
Praise has arrived from a variety of sources, with Gary Neville, Kaka and Arsène Wenger among those to eulogise. “Mesut Ozil is developing fantastically well,” expressed the boss after Arsenal’s No 11 had shone in the victory on Humberside.
His numbers certainly make for handsome reading. Mesut was on the winning team in 16 of his first 20 matches for club and country this calendar year, scoring four times in the process and providing a further seven assists. He captained Germany for the first time too, for the final half an hour of a March friendly against Australia in Kaiserslautern.
Mesut, how would you sum up your season so far?
Of course I’ve had my ups and downs. At the start of the season it was very difficult to go from playing in a long tournament like the World Cup to being back at Arsenal so quickly. Then I got injured and, for the first time in my career, I was out for a long time.
That was a backward step but if you look at it differently, maybe those three months did me good. My body was able to re-energise. Now I’m completely back and I think in general we can be really happy with our work this season.
Looking back to the start of the season, how difficult was it to refocus after your momentous summer?
It’s really tough. A tournament like the World Cup lasts for a long time, and the weather in Brazil was very warm as well. It was intensive. We had to deal with flying across the country and then playing club football after only a short holiday. You could feel that in your body and maybe my injury came from that.
I really missed playing football when I was out, though, and now I’m just enjoying being back. You can see on the pitch that we’ve become more mature as a team and when you assess the season and see some of the successful football we’ve played, I think we can all be very proud.
What did the manager say to Per, Lukas and yourself when you came back?
He’d had the experience of World Cup winners coming back late notably with Arsenal’s French players in 1998. Our training sessions weren’t overly difficult because we came back late and the boss knows exactly how taxing playing in those tournaments can be. But at the end of the day, you know your own body better than anyone else. I felt like I was back but lacking the power inside.
The manager knows how a player is feeling, if they are tired or fatigued, because we talk off the pitch too. From that, he is able to react to situations and help to plan training sessions in the best possible way for every individual player. The training staff are used to that and know how to deal with it.
How frustrating was it to pick up the knee injury after a few exceptional performances, particularly against Aston Villa and Galatasaray?
In general, injuries always feel like a backward step. After a few days and weeks, I really missed playing football. I was watching all the matches and wanted to help the team but I couldn’t because I had to do my therapy and rest in order to get fit as soon as possible.
I worked really hard to come back totally ready in the shortest possible time. I focused only on football, changed my diet and had extra training sessions. Now I feel really good, I feel comfortable and fit, but that injury wasn’t such a good time for me. I had to be careful when I was injured. I wanted to play but had to be responsible. My aim was always to come back stronger and I think I’ve done that.
How did you feel when you returned to the team?
I felt like a little boy when I was able to train again. Just to be able to play alongside my team-mates, to run, to kick the ball, those were all things that I really missed. Getting back ready was tough. I wasn’t training with the ball but I was working to get myself fit enough to be able to compete with the team. When I got to that stage, I was just really pleased to be back and able to kick the ball.
It’s a great feeling to know that you can finally train alongside your team-mates again and they really welcomed me back. They were pleased to see me with them again and I think it showed on the pitch how happy I was to be back too. In hindsight, maybe that injury helped me because it helped my body to recover from the summer. It was a tough time but when I made my return, I was just pleased. It was a great experience for me.
You worked hard in the gym when you were injured. What has been the effect of that?
I feel like I’m more robust now. I’m not going to the gym to get bigger muscles or to become stronger. It’s the opposite – I want to become quicker and more explosive. I can see on the pitch that it helps me and that’s the reason why I’ll carry on with it. I’m continuing to have extra training sessions because I have the feeling that it helps me.
I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that my old injury doesn’t come back. I feel fresher on the pitch now. Maybe before, I would sometimes feel slightly more tired or have cramps but now I feel that changing my diet, doing extra sessions and having plenty of massages has really limited that.
On the subject of fitness, you know Shad Forsythe from his time with the German national team. How have you enjoyed working with him at club level this season?
I’m really pleased to have him here because I’ve known him for many years and he does a very good job both with the national team and at Arsenal. But all our physios and fitness coaches here have helped me a lot, especially during my injury. They worked hard to get me fit again and I’m thankful for the support they gave me.
Those improvements to your wellbeing really seem to be showing on the pitch…
And that’s thanks to the training staff and the team. They really help me. I think it shows now that I have fun on the pitch. What’s most important for me is that I keep myself fit. I feel at my happiest when I’m on the pitch with a ball at my feet and I’m really enjoying that now.
Do you feel more comfortable with the nature of the Premier League now?
I always felt comfortable here. Yes, there were times when it was really difficult for me but now everything is going very well. The team are successful and I feel so at home here because of the way in which I was received by the whole squad. The boss helps me a lot too because he gives me his trust and that helps me to feel happy at Arsenal as well.
A lot of players that have come to England from abroad have said that it’s taken them until their second season to become fully adapted to the Premier League. Was that the case for you as well?
When you come to England and watch the games, you can feel how tough it is. In other leagues, you have some matches that are really difficult and others that aren’t. Here, the season is very long and with many games. You play in midweek too and without a winter break. As a player, that’s something you have to get used to.
In my first season, not having a winter break meant that I could notice my body becoming tired. I had the World Cup after my first season here. It was such a great time but when I came back, the fitness coach said that even though I felt fit, the freshness was missing. I continued to give everything to help the team and that’s how I got my injury. That was a really bitter time because I missed football but it’s an experience you have to go through as a player. My aim was always to come back stronger and thanks to God, everything worked out.
What would you identify as your highlight of last season?
There have been several. Of course I remember my comeback, where the fans supported me so well. There have been matches where we have been outstanding as a team and I’ve contributed to that by playing well. That pleases you as a player, but the main thing is that we continue to be successful as a team.
We saw you score a fine free kick against Liverpool. How do you decide who takes set pieces when there is so much competition?
Because I’m left footed, I tend to take the free kicks from the right side. On the other side, Santi and Alexis decide between themselves. The goal against Liverpool was really nice and I was delighted to score it. What made it even better was our overall performance on that day. We played some beautiful football against Liverpool – they didn’t have a chance to beat us on the day. For us it was a great game.
You celebrated that goal, as you have a few others this season, by making your hand into the shape of the letter m. Can you explain that?
That’s for my niece. She’s called Mira and when I score now, the goals are for her. She’s too young to notice but she has come to London a few times and has watched some games in which I’ve scored and then made that hand gesture. I just enjoy spending time with her because she’s so cute. She’s at the age where she’s a lot of fun to be around. We’re just delighted as a family to have her. She actually has an Arsenal shirt and a Germany one too, and both have her name on the back.
Going back to football, we’ve seen your understanding with Alexis grow in recent weeks. In which language do you communicate on the pitch?
To be honest, you don’t really need to know each other’s mother tongues when you’re on the pitch. In general, you know what you need to do. There are some words, like ‘pass’ or ‘come on’ that everyone understands though. I’m really pleased to have Alexis here. He’s scored many goals and has played an outstanding season.
Could you tell us a bit about your first assist for him in the FA Cup semi-final…
That comes from the instinct I have. There was a picture on Instagram after that goal where some fans created a graphic with an arrow between Alexis and I, just as I played the pass. I found that quite funny. When I receive the ball, I’ve already thought about what my next step is.
I think about things like what happens if a certain player moves into a specific place – will that then create space for someone else? To play a pass like the one for Alexis against Reading often requires instinct.
I’m pleased that I found Alexis and I thought he finished the move superbly. It was a crucial goal and the run he made to get behind the defence made life easier for me. I just had to spot the run and the gap and then find him.
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