In a world where football did not cause perspectives to warp beyond all reason, and where sport was not fair game for those seeking to achieve malicious ends, Arsenal would be bouncing to St James’ Park for Sunday afternoon’s match. They are used to entering seasons racked with doubt but the summer’s dealings have been as fruitful as any in memory: a record signing for the attack; the kind of personality they have long lacked at centre-back; one of Europe’s most exciting attacking left-backs for the flank. Perhaps last season’s talk of a new era was more false start than false dawn; almost 15 months into his tenure, this feels like Unai Emery’s squad now.
Yet they arrive in Newcastle severely depleted, and for deplorable reasons. Any substantive analysis of their prospects was put on the backburner when, at around 5.20pm on Friday evening, Arsenal announced Mesut Özil and Sead Kolasinac would not be part of the travelling squad following “further security incidents which are being investigated by the police”. These followed the carjacking ordeal the pair underwent on 25 July, when Kolasinac fought off two men wielding knives after they were attacked in north London.
While details regarding the nature of the latest incidents are scarce, it has emerged two men were arrested outside Özil’s house on Thursday and charged under the section of the 1986 Public Order Act that covers intentional harassment, alarm or distress. The arrested pair are due to appear in court next month
One certainty is that similar headaches have become depressingly familiar to Emery. The week before Arsenal’s last competitive game, the Europa League final against Chelsea in Baku, he learned he would have to do without the Armenia international Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who pulled out due to fears for his safety amid the conflict with Azerbaijan.
No manager can plan for force majeure like this and it is miserable fortune for Arsenal, that, at a time when they must hit the ground running, another situation of such gravity now takes precedence.
But the wellbeing of both footballers and their families, whose homes were being guarded by security personnel on Saturday, is the priority. Emery had not given anything away about their absences during his standard team news updates on Friday afternoon but later, in a separate briefing for Sunday’s newspapers, he touched on Özil’s problems when asked how the player was feeling in the buildup to facing Newcastle.
“I don’t want to speak about different situations,” Emery said. “Can he start for us, for our matches or our way? The focus is on Sunday and with the players involved there. His pre-season is like another player [Kolasinac] with some circumstances which, OK, we didn’t want. But it’s normality with him.
“[It is] a key season for us, for me, for everybody. For every player. Mesut is the same. I want to speak about Mesut when he is playing. Sometimes he can play, sometimes he cannot play. Really, really I want the best performance from him to us.”
He was at least partly referring to the continuing debate about the mercurial Özil’s role in the team but, in hindsight, there may have been a clue about his non-involvement on Sunday. While Özil’s performances are among the main causes of frustration among Arsenal’s fans, in the past 15 months off-pitch matters have dominated much of the conversation around him. In May 2018 he caused anger in Germany by posing for a photograph – alongside the Manchester City midfielder Ilkay Gündogan – with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the authoritarian president of Turkey. Two months later, after Germany’s disastrous World Cup campaign, he quit the national team and cited “racism and disrespect” in light of the criticism he received after meeting Erdogan.
Özil has Turkish heritage and claimed he was simply “respecting the highest office of my family’s country”. In June this year, the discussion was reignited when Erdogan attended as best man at Özil’s wedding to Amine Gülse.
There is no suggestion that any of these incidents are connected to Özil’s current security concerns, or those of Kolasinac. But they highlight the turbulent atmosphere in which he has been working and this season, for which there have been high hopes of a return to his best form after some promising friendly performances, has now got off to a start nobody would have wished upon him.
Watching their teammates gain three points at Newcastle would presumably raise a smile or two for Özil and Kolasinac. But the concern is that a gang of criminals have already achieved one victory by denying two professionals the chance to do their jobs. The main line of intrigue before this fixture was supposed to be how Emery, who had spoken with enthusiasm and clarity about the incision £72m forward Nicolas Pépé will bring to his side, might line up a vibrant-looking attack. Now the only question of any real importance is that of when things might get back to normal.