This story first appeared in the April 2016 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
“When I went to Schalke, our training pitch was right next to where the first team would train. There were always hundreds if not thousands of fans watching training matches and when I saw that, it made me realise just how much I wanted to have them watching me on that same pitch.”
It didn’t take long before those supporters at Schalke’s training ground were doing just that. It was 2005, Mesut Ozil was 16 and had just made the first move of his career, joining Bundesliga runners-up Schalke 04 from nearby Rot-Weiss Essen, who had been relegated to Germany’s third tier.
Mesut was a self-confessed “football freak”, often spending 10 hours a day honing his skills at school, in training sessions with Essen, and on the rough, stony surface of the monkey cage near his house. Family, friends and coaches were sure Mesut would make it but he himself didn’t really think about a professional career before joining Schalke.
That move changed everything. Mesut met Norbert Elgert, a youth coach who, according to Arsenal’s No 11, shaped his career and “made me believe that I could achieve a lot as a footballer”. He would watch the likes of Mladen Krstajic, Hamit Altintop and Kevin Kuranyi in training and after one convincing season with the under-19s, joined them in the first team, replacing Altintop when making his Bundesliga debut as a late substitute at home to Eintracht Frankfurt in August 2006.
Nowadays Mesut is the senior figure, acting as a role model to the likes of Alex Iwobi, Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Serge Gnabry. Arsène Wenger referred to Mesut as a “silent leader” earlier this year but the World Cup winner’s excellent displays this season have spoken volumes.
Mesut says he has found his voice in the dressing room too and, speaking exclusively to the Arsenal Magazine recently, explained how he is planning to use his experience to help the club's next generation maximise their potential, just as Elgart enabled him a decade ago.
Mesut, from a personal perspective, how would you rate this season?
I’m really pleased. When you look at the goals I’ve scored and especially the assists I’ve given, particularly in important games, it makes me satisfied. My goal is always to develop further and I’m on a good path to achieve that. This season has been a really good one for me personally and I hope that I can continue to perform at this level for a long time.
Why do you think everything has gone so well this season?
Because the team help me and always look for me. I think the way we set up really helps me too. I’m at the centre of our attacking play and often receive the ball in good areas. That helps me to move the attack on, to give the decisive passes.
Last year I was injured for a long time but in this season I’ve stayed fit and feel really healthy. You can’t forget that I had my first full pre-season with the club too. I spoke at the time about how important that could be and now I feel really comfortable physically and on the pitch, because the team often play through me. I’m pleased that things have worked so well.
How do you analyse your own game? Do you speak to the analytics team much?
To be honest, I don’t really watch my games back that often. I’ve been in professional football for 11 years and I think it’s important to look forward rather than back. Otherwise it’s hard to move on. If I don’t have a good game, if I come out of one having not created any chances, of course I’m annoyed with myself.
But I honestly don’t pay that much attention to the numbers. You become aware of some things, like being close to breaking the assist record, but I don’t play the game to smash records. I know what I can do and I know that I’m one of the best assist makers in the world. But it’s all about titles for me. If I have a great season but we don’t win anything, what does it bring me?
I just try to realise my potential in every game. Of course sometimes that doesn’t happen but in general, this season I’ve done that. There’s still a long way to go this season and I hope that through my contribution, I can help us to finish it as successfully as possible.
Arsène Wenger has called you a ‘silent leader’ in the past. What do you think he means by that?
I think everyone respects me on and off the pitch here. I don’t have to be loud, I don’t have to slate people in the dressing room. That’s never been my way. Everyone knows that when I say something, I will stand behind it 100 per cent.
Maybe that’s what the manager means. But I’ve spoken a lot in front of the team this season, especially in situations where we’ve been behind at half-time and I’ve encouraged the team. It’s the same on the pitch.
Is becoming more vocal in those situations something that you have developed more this season?
Well, my first year was a tough one for me and in my second one, I was injured for a few months. This season I’ve stayed fit and played regularly. When you’re always there for the team, when you’re playing every week, you become a leader. Like I mentioned, I don’t shout at my team-mates, I don’t have a go a them when they do something wrong.
I prefer to talk to them and help where I can. I want to be there for the team but I think that’s a normal way to look at things.
We’ve seen the likes of Alex Iwobi, Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Chris Willock become more involved with the first team this season. How do you try to help the younger players in the squad?
We all try to help them. I think when a new player comes into our squad, they feel comfortable pretty much straight away. We’re a team who are willing to help one another. For myself as an experienced player, it’s part of my duty to help the young guys coming through and the new players who have just joined the club, both on and off the pitch.
When I played with Mohamed Elneny for the first time, I tried to help him as much as possible. In training, he often looks for me because he’s more of a defensive midfielder and I play in front of him. You can see that he thinks about where he’s going to play the ball before he receives it.
I remember playing with him at Tottenham. When someone is getting used to the team, it’s important to guide them in some situations. So I tried to help by letting him know where to be in some situations, when to pass the ball, encouraging him to play his game. I know that feeling, when you come to a new club, a new country. It’s normal to help. It takes time to settle in, to get to know your team-mates. I think as a senior player, you need to help guys in those situations.
Have you always had that approach?
I’m still the same person I always was, but I’m very hungry for success. When I see that we have a chance to achieve something, I won’t rest until we’ve done it. I’ve always had that approach and always will. But I would never become arrogant because of my experience or because I’ve had a good season. I’m still the same determined person who just wants to do things the right way.
Just how good can the young players coming through at Arsenal become?
When I consider their age and that they’ve come through at a club like Arsenal, I think they are on a good path. They prove themselves in training, they are good on the ball. Alex Iwobi has amazed me with the way he’s performed for the first team recently.
Then there’s Serge Gnabry, who I like a lot as a player. He’s really robust, very determined and with a real will to win. I think they can really achieve a lot.
At Hull, you were on the bench with Reine-Adelaide and Willock. Do you try to guide young players on a matchday?
It’s important to give those young players belief. I know how it feels to be in their position because it was the same for me when I was coming through. You tell them “come on, you can do it, you’re here for a reason so just play your normal game”.
"I didn’t know you had to build up your body, or pay much attention to it. I was a football freak. I loved it. I would go to school, play football and then play for a club afterwards. I’d finish school at 1pm and go to my club at 5pm. I filled that time by playing football with my friends. Then I’d go to training for another two hours or so"
But they still have to find their own path. What’s important is to believe in yourself. No matter how much time I spend trying to help a young player, it won’t mean anything if they don’t believe that they can make it through.
They need to feel as though they can make it. But you want to give them a good feeling and relax them. I can remember when I was young and senior pros would come and say things like “just play your game, we’re right behind you if things don’t go right”.
That gave me much more freedom on the pitch. I would never be scared to do something wrong because I knew I had the support of my team-mates. I would go onto the pitch feeling full of confidence because I felt as though they trusted me and wanted me to do well.
Do you remember who particularly helped you when you were coming through?
Yeah, there were plenty of established players at Schalke who helped me. Guys like Lincoln, the Altintop twins, Kevin Kuranyi and Mladen Krstajic were all established pros and were always there for me. For myself as a young player, to have leaders like that, guys who have lots of Bundesliga experience praise me and give me their full support, it gives you confidence.
You’re not scared anymore, you feel as though you can play your natural game. I still have contact with Lincoln now and I met up with him during the World Cup. He was such a good playmaker, a guy who had great ideas on the pitch and was always available to pass to.
Looking back, I had a lot of luck to be able to learn from the likes of him at Schalke and Claudio Pizarro and Diego when I was at Werder Bremen. I learnt a lot from them and I’m really thankful to them. What I picked up from them helped me when I went to Real Madrid and I continued to learn from some of the best players in the world there.
As a young player, what’s it like when you start to train with and play in the first team?
You look forward to it. When I went to Schalke, our training pitch was right next to where the first team would train. There were always hundreds if not thousands of fans watching training matches and when I saw that, it made me realise just how much I wanted to have them watching me on that same pitch.
It gave me so much determination to realise my aims. When I first started to train with the first team, Schalke were one of the best teams in the Bundesliga. I felt comfortable there and I really relished those times.
Which coaches would you identify as having played key roles in your development? A
t Schalke it was definitely Norbert Elgert. He was the man who made me believe that I could achieve a lot as a footballer. I always knew that I had potential because people that watched my games would occasionally tell me that I was definitely going to make it professionally.
But you don’t really take that in, even when your family and friends and other people tell you about your potential. But when I joined Schalke from Rot-Weiss Essen - a club I also have really nice memories from - Norbert was the person who took my game on. He taught me about tactics, he told me never to give up, always to carry on and never to be satisfied.
I’m so thankful to him because he was very important in my development. I still have a lot of contact with him. When you look at Schalke’s youth system at the time, it’s amazing to see the players that came through. You have the likes of Julian Draxler, Manuel Neuer, myself, Benedikt Howedes, Ralf Fahrmann and more.
Now they have young players coming through too and that’s definitely thanks to Norbert Elgert. In terms of first-team managers, I’m really thankful to Thomas Schaaf too. When I was at Werder Bremen, he gave me a chance. He was one of the best coaches in Germany at the time and he believed in me. I have to give thanks to a lot of managers really - Jogi Low brought me into the national team and has trusted me to this day.
Before that, Horst Hrubesch helped me a lot when I was playing for the under-21 national team. Then there’s Jose Mourinho and the boss here, who have had positive influences on my career too.
Did you ever have to change your game to be noticed, or did your coaches always have faith?
My coaches generally had faith in me. My favourite position was always the No 10 because it meant I could play in an area where I was able to show my best qualities. But there were times as a youth player and as a professional, where I had to play on the left on the right, or sometimes even in a slightly more withdrawn midfield role.But I always wanted to play in the No 10 to fulfil my potential.
On the flip side, can you remember any particular early disappointments you had during your career?
It’s normal to have disappointing times both in football and in general life. But as a person you can’t let them destroy you because you have to get over bad situations to get on with your life.
I’ve always had my family and friends, who have always been there for me. I’m so thankful to them. Maybe their influence meant that things were always pretty simple for me. When you have personal problems or things aren’t going well on the pitch, having family and friends next to you helps you to switch off and forget about everything else. I think you need that as a person.
When did you first really feel established as a professional?
I had a nice time at Schalke and made my professional debut there. Then I went to Bremen and I think that was the step that really started everything and where I really started to develop and become who I am today.
Bremen made me more mature. I moved away from my hometown, from my family and friends, and came to a city where I didn’t know anyone. That’s a big step to take as a footballer, those off-the-pitch factors are ones that people maybe sometimes don’t see.Bremen was my first real step into the world of a professional footballer.
Were there ever moments when you doubted that you could make it professionally?
I didn’t really have to think about it. I just had fun playing football. I’m the sort of person who puts a lot of effort in anyway. I didn’t really have extra sessions or work on my physique. In fact, I didn’t really work on that until I made it professionally.
I didn’t know you had to build up your body, or pay much attention to it. I was a football freak. I loved it. I would go to school, play football and then play for a club afterwards. I’d finish school at 1pm and go to my club at 5pm. I filled that time by playing football with my friends. Then I’d go to training for another two hours or so.
I’d be playing for five hours a day. In summer it would get dark a lot later. I’d look out, see my friends playing in the monkey cage and join them. I just played football almost all day. It got to the stage where my dad spoke to my coach at Rot-Weiss Essen and said “he can’t play, he’s tired and you can see that on the pitch because yesterday he spent 10 hours playing football with his mates”.
That’s just how it was for me. Football was all there was for me. Maybe on the day before a game, I would try not to play until 11pm but I just wanted to do what I enjoyed. Football was, and still is my life.
We’ve often seen you performing tricks with chewing gum before games or even in adverts. How did you develop that skill?
I’ve tried it a lot of times. It’s a lot of fun and I enjoyed shooting it on an advert recently.
Have you always played football with different objects?
Yeah, not only with chewing gum or tennis balls, sometimes with basketballs or medicine balls too - even ones that are 5kg, though that is very difficult. Sometimes on the pitch if the game has finished and I see some tape on the floor, I’ll take it and play with that too.
Has that always been the case?
Always. Even when I was younger, if I saw something lying around, I would try to juggle with it. I would always go on vacation with my friends and we would always play games like two touch using a tennis ball, or play with a basketball, which is heavier than a normal ball. We played with different objects and I had a lot of fun.
How much has that helped your technique and touch?
I don’t think it has really. What helped me before was playing against older people. I would play against my brother and his friends and they were always five or six years older than me. When I was 11, they were already 17 or 18.
It was tough to play against them and the pitch I grew up playing on wasn’t that nice, it always had stones on it. You had to be really concentrated when you got the ball. I think that kind of stuff helped me more. Juggling with tennis balls is good but I think what helped my technique was the pitch I grew up on in Gelsenkirchen.