In an extensive, exclusive interview with France Football, Arsenal’s attacking midfielder Mesut Özil discussed the 2015/16 campaign, his hopes for EURO 2016 and much more.
After a rather laborious journey to qualify for EURO 2016, notably with two defeats, should people be worried for Germany ahead of these championships?
It is true that we were unable to exploit our potential. I am not looking for excuses, but we have to highlight the long absences because of injuries for several of our key players like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira, Mario Götze or even myself for the months that followed the World Cup.
For some of us, it was difficult to get back at it after that triumph. We were exhausted and we had to immediately come back at it again. As a result, some of us picked up physical problems and fell into a black hole.
We needed some time to be motivated again. We cannot always crush everything in our way.
Are you worried?
On the contrary, I am optimistic. In a very relaxed manner, we still managed to qualify at the top of our group in the qualifiers. And then, slowly, we will recover our strength as the Euros come upon us. The closer our first match comes, the more confident I am.
Before each Euro and World Cup since Joachim Löw became the manager, we have prepared ourselves excellently which has allowed us each time to reach at least the semi-finals. We are going to get all our players back and we are going to be sufficiently competitive to fight for the title.
In which areas does the German national team have to improve?
In the final qualifying games, we dominated our opponents and we created an incredible amount of chances. The problem was that we lacked efficacy in front of goal. It is our finishing that we will have to persist with during training.
Following the World Cup, the retirements of Miroslav Klose, Philipp Lahm and Per Mertesacker, who had 350 caps between them, did that not have a destabilising effect?
We needed some time for a new hierarchy to form. We lost three key pillars of our national team in one swoop. It was like a slap across the face. The replacements needed to find their footing.
Is Germany as strong as it was at the 2014 World Cup?
Absolutely. We have extraordinary potential with world class individuals. Every one of us breathes confidence and serenity. I am convinced that we will play a major role in France and that we will go very far.
Is the team not a little worn after the 2014 World Cup?
Not at all. Every single one of us wants to continue to add to our trophy cabinets. Now that we have the title as World champions, we want that of European champions stamped on our visitors cards. At the Euros, only the final victory will make us happy.
You have worked with Joachim Löw for seven years in the national team. How would you sum up your relationship with him?
It is based on reciprocated confidence. Joachim Löw plays a crucial role in my career. He is the one who gave me my Germany debut in 2009, and he has always had confidence in me even when I was performing less well with my club. He has supported me through winds and tides. I am very aware of that, and I endeavour to give him what he wants on the pitch.
Has he changed in recent years?
I think in the eyes of the players, he has improved, he has amassed a lot of experience. That is a unanimous view. The World Cup was a just recompense for his long, drawn out work. He has a real philosophy that he implements no matter what the cost is.
The idea is to quickly bring danger to the opposition in their half and to play attractive football. He has also placed his confidence in a lot of upcoming players.
Listening to you, he sounds like he is close to perfection…
He is the ideal manager for Germany. Thanks to him, the way that people view us across the globe has changed. In the past, people were scared of Germany because of their physicality, their rough side, now we are appreciated for our spectacular style of play.
Which sides are the most dangerous at EURO 2016?
With 24 teams, I can certainly see a team come out of nowhere, creating an enormous surprise and going very far. As time passes, the difference between the level of the teams decreases. France are one of the principal contenders, like Spain, England and Italy.
The English rarely manage to distinguish themselves in the final stages…
Having played in England nearly for three years, I can see a team that is in the process of putting itself together. In the qualifiers, they put together a flawless campaign, which was not by accident. Young talents like Sterling, Kane or Alli have shone. We will have to watch out for England.
What inspires you concerning your comment about France?
I feel like they are becoming more powerful. They also have some extraordinary individual talents. I am a big fan of Karim Benzema. He is a marvellous player, so gifted technically. Olivier Giroud is a formidable attacker, Laurent Koscielny is a rock. I am happy to have them with me at the club. Altogether, France has a complete team, well armed in all sectors.
What did you take away from that World Cup Quarter Final at the Maracana?
Looking back, France were the opponent that gave us the hardest time. Thankfully, Manuel Neuer came up with a great performance. At the final whistle, we were relieved.
In Brazil, despite your triumph, you were one of the rare German internationals to consistently suffer criticism during the tournament. Was that difficult?
Not at all. I have nothing to prove to anyone. At the World Cup, I put myself at the service of the team. I played in a position that was not my own. As a playmaker I am more at ease in the centre behind the attackers.
Did you speak to the manager about that?
It is not in my character to do that. It was the World Cup, not the Mesut Özil Cup. I accepted the decision and did not regret it for one second.
With 72 selections and the new hierarchy now settled, do you have extra weight in the dressing room?
We have enough players who take responsibility. I prefer to leave that to the others. It is not in my nature to smack the table with my fist. I am someone who is generally calm and that will never change.
Sami Khedira, Manuel Neuer or Thomas Müller know perfectly well how to re-engage the squad if necessary. I prefer to express myself on the pitch.
After the World Cup, you were out for 4 months with a bad knee injury. Looking back, it appears as if this difficult moment made you stronger…
Never have I ever been on the injury table that long before. I realised just how much I love this sport. But I also learnt to be patient and to not rush back in order to avoid a setback.
Have you modified any other aspects in terms of your approach to your job?
Yes, certain details, like the hygiene of life for example. Before I drank fizzy drinks and I was not drinking enough water. Now, I drink enormous amounts of water and green tea. In terms of nutrition, I have stopped eating bread.
As a result, I feel much better in terms of my body and muscle injuries are much rarer. I will continue to be disciplined and rigorous. There is no secret.
Was it a wake up call then?
I understood that talent alone was not enough for me to achieve my aims. Today, I am often the first at training and the last to leave. Several years ago, that would have been unimaginable!
Looking back, how do you explain the grave difficulties you had during your first season at Arsenal?
In August 2013, I left Real Madrid where the style of play was very different. I needed several months to find my feet. I also had to get used to a new environment. I think that these problems were justified. In the second season, I started with a bang before getting injured.
The key to my success this season was the pre-season preparation. For the first time since my arrival, I was able to train normally. And I reaped the fruits of my labour with my most complete season, without physical problems and with a certain consistency.
When things weren’t going your way, did you ever regret choosing Arsenal?
No. I never doubted my ability to succeed in the Premier League. The critics and the difficult moments pushed me to work harder. I think that I have shown the world. I have learnt to accept that sometimes you have low points.
When I play less well, I remain calm, whilst working two times harder in training. Through perseverance, I became better.
In the Premier League, have you modified aspects of your game?
I have modified certain important details, For example, I changed my body language. Before, after each missed opportunity or imprecise pass, I let my shoulders drop and I would moan.
Now, I keep my head up and I try to make up for my error as soon as possible. The game goes so quickly that there is not time to lament. One error must not withdraw me from the match. I am aware of that.
Have you also worked on your physicality?
It was essential to be stronger in the duels. After training, I go to the gym. I also go into the freezing baths in order to have a better blood circulation.
You have now found your feet in the English league then?
On the pitch, I am always enjoying myself. I am lucky to play in the best league in the world and to be a certain starter at one of the best English clubs. In the Premier League, my enjoyment is very high. As long as I am in perfect physical condition.
This season, you finished at the top of the assists chart, equalling Thierry Henry’s record. Do you prefer to score or set up goals?
It is true that I provide more assists than I score goals. That is my job. Where people opt to shoot, I opt for the pass, that is what makes me happiest. I am not egotistical.
Each season, there seems to be the same thing happening: Arsenal play well, but they never win the league nor do the make the Quarter Finals of the Champions League. What is your explanation for this?
In the Champions League apart from the previous season against Monaco, we have been each time up against either Barcelona or Bayern Munich in the first knockout round. In the league, we can only be angry at ourselves.
We have lost a load of points this season due to a lack of concentration. We were not at 100% and we did not develop our play as we wanted to.
What was the key to Leicester’s success?
By playing with a lot of heart and desire, you can move mountains. It is a team that never gives up and gives everything without thinking about it. They bathe in euphoria. That is the proof that in the Premier League you have to give 120% in each match to hope to win. It is for this reason that this league is in my eyes the best in the world.
Is your relationship with Arsène Wenger comparable to your relationship with Joachim Löw?
Both men are part of a list of rare managers who have remained in their positions for several years. At Arsenal, Arsène Wenger has shown that he is one of the best managers in history. He has revolutionised the club and created magnificent success. I am proud and aware of the luxury I have of working for such a coach.
His simple discourse immediately seduced me when I was asking questions about my future in the summer of 2013. He chose the perfect words to convince me. The great strength that Wenger has is he knows how to talk to his players.
Now that Zidane has become the manager of Real, do you regret no longer being at the club when you consider the fact that he was your idol growing up?
Zidane is doing very good work at Real. I know him well and was able to speak to him on a daily basis when he was the Sporting Director. The way that he talked to us, you could tell that he was waiting for just one thing: to become a manager. I wish him good luck.