MANCHESTER, England — Nobody moved quicker at the end of Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat against Manchester City than Mesut Ozil, although the German’s turn of pace was only to take him down the players’ tunnel as quickly as possible.
Seconds earlier, the Arsenal midfielder had engaged in a farcical free kick with goalkeeper Petr Cech. Four minutes of stoppage time were up and Arsenal had one last chance to launch the ball into the City penalty area, yet Ozil was so slow in placing the ball in its correct position that Cech rushed forward and played a hurried, short pass to his teammate, whereupon referee Martin Atkinson blew for full-time, with the ball travelling towards the City penalty area.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger reacted furiously at the wasted opportunity — “I was upset because, with 20 seconds to go, why take a short free kick when the ball can go into the box?” — but Ozil had already skulked off by then, following his latest disappearing act away from home in the Premier League.
Few footballers divide opinion quite like the former Real Madrid playmaker, and there will be many who will continue to defend the 28-year-old, despite Ozil producing back-to-back away performances in the last week that have done absolutely nothing to justify his attempts to secure a new, £250,000-a-week contract at Arsenal.
Big players deliver when it matters, and Ozil, for all the hype, fades when the going gets tough.
In contrast, with City trailing 1-0 at half-time following Theo Walcott’s fourth-minute opener, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne absolutely came to the party when their team needed them most.
With Ozil melting into the background, De Bruyne and Silva grew in stature, both producing magnificent performances in the second half to inspire Pep Guardiola’s team to the victory that lifts them to second in the Premier League table, seven points behind runaway leaders Chelsea.
De Bruyne and Silva wanted the ball; they chased it down when Arsenal had possession and, when they had it, created key chances for Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling to score the home side’s goals.
Walcott continued his habit of scoring against City but was another Arsenal player who drifted out of the picture when a commanding performance was required. That said, the England winger’s disappearance after the break was not in the same league as that of Ozil, whose presence in the team on away days is becoming a glaring weakness in Arsenal’s armoury.
Despite stats which show Ozil’s goals and assists rate to have been consistent both home and away throughout his time at Arsenal, the numbers mask the contribution — or lack thereof — that he makes when enduring one of his bad days.
At Everton on Tuesday, when Arsenal also surrendered a 1-0 lead to lose 2-1, Ozil went missing after finding some physical but fair challenges by Ronald Koeman’s players a bit too robust for his liking and was culpable in allowing Ashley Williams to head in the home side’s winner.
But then perhaps Ozil embodies the problems that Arsenal have had for too long under Wenger — failings that will almost certainly end any hopes of the Gunners winning the title this season, with Chelsea now nine points ahead of them at the top.
Arsenal, quite simply, are too brittle and fragile when put under pressure.
At Everton, it was a physical challenge that they failed to match, but against City, the intensity of the home side’s second-half display, as well as the desire shown by Guardiola’s players, ultimately raised the bar too high for Wenger’s team.
Arsenal have shown resilience this season, winning at Burnley with a stoppage-time goal and also claiming a last-minute equaliser against Manchester United at Old Trafford, but once every now and then is not enough to challenge for trophies.
And the danger now is that, after successive defeats, the confidence built by a 14-game unbeaten league run stretching back to the opening day of the season may now be dismantled by the manner of their losses at Goodison Park and the Etihad Stadium.
Wenger’s side have also become predictable and too reliant on the goals of Alexis Sanchez. When he suffers an off day, Ozil needs to step up, but he failed to do so against City. Meanwhile, the tactic of throwing on Olivier Giroud as a battering ram for the final 20 minutes is now being anticipated by opponents, who have found a way to nullify his threat; the Frenchman has scored just once in the league since the end of October.
At least Arsenal now have two home games over the festive period, against West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace, to steady the ship and reboot Ozil.
But rather than chase the title, they must now look in the rearview mirror at Tottenham and a resurgent Man United in the race for the fourth and final Champions League qualification position.
“It has been a horrible week, absolutely horrible,” Wenger said after Sunday’s game. “Out of two leading positions, we lost two games, and that is very disappointing. We were in control against City and it didn’t look like we could lose because every time we stopped them creating chances, they looked short of ideas. But we dropped physically in the second half, gave them hope at 1-1, and we were a bit short, mentally as well.”
Dropping short physically is one thing at this time of year, when fixtures mount up for every team, but mental exhaustion would be a worrying development. Chelsea, City and Liverpool are showing few signs of physical and mental strain, while United are beginning to grow in both areas. Why should Arsenal be any different?
A swift glance at Ozil suggests that Wenger may well be right, but it is the manager’s job to change that and save Arsenal’s season.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_