Mesut Özil was supposed to be the star of this Germany team. He lit up the 2010 World Cup, helping the supposedly too-young, too-inexperienced Die Mannschaft to third place and ushering in what many thought would be a decade of German world dominance.
But now, four years later, Özil shouldn't even be starting for Germany.
Germany are in the 2014 World Cup semifinals, right where everyone expected them to be, but it hasn't been because of Özil. It's been in spite of him.
Joachim Löw's team was ravaged by injuries, but has tapped into the country's incredible depth to get by. They've been tidy on the ball, physical at the back and organized, but they have also been slow. They have been painfully slow.
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Part of Germany's meandering pace is a matter of those injuries and the absence of speedy players, Marco Reus in particular, but part has just been a matter of dawdling on the ball. That's especially true as they get closer to goal, when they seem to be completely out of ideas at times. They're slow to pass and slow to run, with no one more at fault for that than their playmaker.
Özil shone for Germany in 2010 because of his quick play. He rarely took more than two or three touches, looking up the pitch the whole time. Within seconds of taking possession he'd force the opposition into retreat with a forward pass. The German was the ultimate example for the saying "the ball moves faster than the man," as his vision and passing left opposing defenders scrambling to play catch up. Just Özil's presence signaled an uneasy match for defenders, one in which they would always be a step behind and hoping that Özil's teammates would let him down.
In Germany's round of 16 win over Algeria, Özil was too slow to spot runners and most of his best work came 40, 50 and even 80 yards away from goal. He was, at best, an asset in keeping possession and a near non-factor in the final third until his extra time goal, when he preyed on an Algeria team that was stretched out in pursuit of an equalizer.
Things didn't get much better against France, as Özil failed to make any imprint going forward again. He completed just one pass that found its target within 15 yards of the goal, but as concerning, he attempted just three. Of the seven times Özil got the ball within 30 yards of goal, he passed it backwards five times and missed on a cross another. At times, Germany would have been better off with an invisible Özil than the one they got.
All the while, Germany have limited André Schürrle to substitute appearances, or chances to save Germany after a dismal start. The Chelsea man has been fantastic, putting himself in front of goal, looking to push the defense back and even scoring the first goal against Algeria. Schürrle has been the polar opposite of the passive Özil, putting pressure on opposing defenses and creating space for others.
With Schürrle playing so well, and giving Germany a more direct option that they so desperately need, the defense of Özil is growing weaker. At this point, the best case for Özil is that he can find his once brilliant form, but to do so is to go into a World Cup semifinal clinging to nothing more than hope.
Özil parlayed his brilliant 2010 World Cup into a move to Real Madrid. His path to becoming one of the world's best was well underway and he had some great moments for the Merengues. He teamed with Cristiano Ronaldo to make for one of Europe's most feared attacks and while the Portuguese was racking up the goals, the German was feeding him. Özil totaled an amazing 61 assists in three season with the Meregues and helped them win the league and the Copa del Rey.
Everything was going according to plan. He came through the revamped German youth system, was schooled in the Bundesliga and was starring for country, as well as one of the world's best teams. But it all fell apart.
Gareth Bale made him expendable at the Bernabeu, his much lauded move to Arsenal proved underwhelming, if at times unfair for the expectations laid upon him. But regardless of the circumstances that surrounded Özil, there is no doubting that he is not the transcendent player he was pegged to be. That is for both club and country.
Özil may have a goal at this World Cup, but he doesn't have an assist. He can't even claim that the team is better with him than without him.
Germany may be trudging along, showing off their incredible stockpile of talent by churning out wins while scores of greats sit home due to injury, but it hasn't been with Özil at the forefront. It hasn't even been with Özil as a key cog. And if Germany want to give themselves the best chance at the final and a fourth World Cup title, he shouldn't even be on the field.