Lukas Podolski has made a fairly good start to his Arsenal career this season. We take a look at his report card so far and point out the good and the not so good aspect of his game.
Such is the exalted position occupied by footballing media in today’s sporting landscape that they effortlessly drive season-long narratives for football clubs. For Arsenal this season, it’s all been about the departure of Robin van Persie and how Wenger’s hastily accrued band of ragamuffins have failed to deal with said departure. Every decent chance missed is accompanied by ‘van Persie would have scored that’ and other nuggets of wisdom-y wisdom; every Man United win with van Persie’s name on the score sheet elicits an ‘oh how Arsenal could do with this man in their ranks!’; and any particularly impressive piece of skill by Arsenal’s current forwards results in ‘that was a Persiesque first touch’ and similar encomiums. Yes, we get it.
Not that the media are wrong, per se. The Gunners definitely miss having the silky-toed Dutchman lead the line for them; any team would feel the pinch when one of the best strikers in Europe leaves in his prime. Where the media are wrong is in measuring Arsenal’s replacement strikers, namely Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud, by the same yardstick as they do van Persie. As players adapting to a new club and a new country, it would be nigh-on unrealistic to expect from them the footballing pyrotechnics that van Persie performed in his final season at the Emirates. Viewed in isolation, both of Arsenal’s newly-unwrapped frontmen have had decent starts to their careers in red-and-white. We focus here on Lukas Podolski, who was purchased from Cologne for roughly 10 million euros and has played both as a lone striker and wide left forward for the Gunners so far.
The Good: Bavarian Brevity
When word of Podolski signing for Arsenal reached their eclectic fan-base, there was virtually an equal split between expectation and apprehension: expectation that FC Cologne’s hero and one of the cornerstones of the German national team would rise to the next level and prove to be a success, and apprehension that Prince Poldi would turn out to be an indolent damp squib as he had at Bayern Munich. Seven months down the line, there has been appreciable evidence to lend credence to both of the aforementioned theories, as Podolski has intermittently delighted and disappointed.
Podolski’s skill-set is well publicized: a humdinger of a left foot, bloody-minded directness, quick transitions on the counter-attack, and accurate delivery from the wings. There’s a wonderful conciseness in the way he plays when on song – every pass is crisp, every give-and-go is no showier than it needs to be, every tackle put in is sans frills, tracking back is done with a minimum of fuss… a confident and happy Podolski is unbeeindruckt in the face of all dangers. Such laconicism flourishes best when it’s surrounded by expressiveness, and Arsenal’s unperturbed German has expectedly had his best games when the entire midfield and strike-force have fired on all cylinders. Podolski will never run rings around the entire opposition team and score with a bodacious pelvic thrust; he will be the one fizzing a simple but dangerous cross into the box, or kneeing the ball into the net after a corner-time scramble, or busting a gut to provide a supporting run on the counter.
Podolski’s best game in an Arsenal shirt so far came against West Ham at home, and his performance that day showcased the trademark terseness of expression perfectly. After the visitors had taken a shock lead, Podolski brought the Gunners back into the match with a tracer-bullet of a shot from thirty yards out. Then, in the second half, he played an understated but effective one-two with Giroud before slipping in Cazorla for 3-1. Barely a minute later, he had the ball on the left wing again, and sprayed an unerring cross-field ball for Walcott to score. Again, the replays were barely over when he charged down the side like a methodical rhino and hit a rapier-like low cross for Giroud to prod home. Net-buster of a goal in the first half aside, there was no ‘Oh snap!’ moment of genius from Podolski in that game, no transcendental piece of skill that made one rub one’s eyes. It was simple things done simply, it was moving from point A to Z without taking a myriad stops in needless alphabets along the way.
The Bad: Deutsche Disappearing Act
As Podolski is economical in his virtues, so is he indifferent in his deficiencies. Rarely will you see Podolski having an abjectly horrible game, misplacing passes like billy-o, or tanking shots left, right, and centre. Podolski’s bad games are his invisible games: games where the sum of his contributions will be to pass the ball back to his full-back, put a sporadic foot or two out for tackling, and generally shy away from any significant contribution. While Gervinho hilariously fails (but tries) and draws all manner of invective in his direction, Podolski will lounge on a hammock and sip pina colada on the left wing.
A player occasionally switching off for games is not unheard of, but this current Arsenal team doesn’t have the required quality to successfully carry passengers. On a bad day, Podolski has all the end product of a rigor-mortis stricken cadaver. This was never more evident than against Bradford. Podolski was almost a microcosm of Arsenal that rainy night: technically superior to the opposition, but hemmed down and forced into impotence by drive, passion, and hard work. He unfailingly had two players snapping at his heels, haranguing him into making mistakes, and he couldn’t handle it.
It’s said about great players that they can produce a moment of brilliance even on a bad day, but Podolski seems more suited to moments of efficiency than moments of brilliance. Granted that he has a well-honed poacher’s instinct, something that’s in short supply at Ashburton Grove, but one only needs to look at how Podolski gets substituted around the 70 minute mark as a rule to know that he’s not really your ‘moment of magic’ type of player. Not in Arsene Wenger’s eyes so far, anyway.
To conclude, Podolski’s report card so far would read something to the tune of ‘Good start, but can do better’. His playing style is rife with a common sense that’s not-so-common, and one can see him taking charge as one of the leaders of this team in the years to come. However, there are a fair few crooked arrows in his quiver that he needs to straighten out if he wants to make the leap up from Prince to King.
Abhishek Iyer is a freelance football writer and spends most of his time wallowing in the seedy marshes of BigFourZa with a tear-stained Arsenal scarf. Apart from that, he is an occasional contributor to 90 Minutes, Arsenal Vision and, of course, The Hard Tackle. Follow him on twitter – @Nickspinkboots