When Lukas Podolski signed for Arsenal, there was a sense of optimism that even if Robin Van Persie left, things would be okay. As did happen, Robin Van Persie left, and things became okay – ish.
‘Poldi’ as the Germans call him has always been a fascination from the moment as a 19 year old he was included in the German squad for Euro 2004. Two years later, he would be an integral part of the German team that finished third at its home World Cup. His performances earned him the FIFA Best Young Player of the Tournament, an achievement that is made even glossier when you consider who else was considered for the award – Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Spain’s Cesc Fabregas.
In the process, he earned himself a move from 1.FC Koln to Bayern Munich. Already having been relegated before with Koln, and performing admirably as he became the Second Division’s top scorer with 24 goals, Poldi wasn’t bound to remain at Koln as in the season leading to the World Cup, Koln got relegated again.
But his much awaited partnership with Roy Makaay failed to spark. A season later, Bayern would bring in Poldi’s international teammate, Miroslav Klose, as well as World Cup winner Luca Toni. Rather than wake Podolski up, these moves seemed to further dent his confidence in front of goal.
Furthermore, with the goal scoring form of Mario Gomez, then at VFB Stuggart, Poldi looked like losing his place on the international scene. Some shrewdness from national team manager Joachim Low saw him shift from center forward to left winger. Initially meant as an experiment for a Germany big tournament Plan B, it led to a reason for accommodating Gomez in the middle with Klose. But at Euro 2008, Gomez failed to replicate his club form, while Podolski was still scoring goals from his new left wing position. Calls were made to re-instate Poldi to a more central role. Low however left Poldi on the left but added another midfielder. That worked well for Germany, as they reached the final of Euro 2008 as well as finishing third again at the FIFA World Cup in 2010.
But where Gomez couldn’t replicate his club form on the international stage, Podolski seemed to do the inverse. His club form dwindled and finally, in 2009, he returned to Koln. Three seasons there saw him slowly rekindle his form. An impressive 18 League goals was however not enough to prevent Koln from getting relegated once more.
This time, Arsene Wenger came calling and Poldi willingly obliged. With now a third of the season gone, Arsenal fans have had both praise for his performances, as well as criticism. He has brought some experience. At 27 years, that is expected at a relatively young Arsenal side. That and his 100 plus international caps for Germany. It has been his job to at times bring sense and sensibility; bringing calm amidst chaos. Never being too erratic to attack. He has replaced part of Arsenal’s naivety with maturity.
Down the left also, he has had his fair share launching attacks, as well as providing cover for his left back. How effectively he has done this however is up for debate. He has at times tracked back to great effect, but at others been pedestrian to do so. As for goals, he threatened to deliver plenty at the start of the season. But then, the goals dried up for a while, leading him to frustratingly request for a central role in attack.
Despite having done so in the season’s Premier League opener against Sunderland, Wenger hasn’t done so again. That performance on the opening day had led reputable football journalist Jonathan Wilson to observe,
“They too suffered from a center forward in Podolski who is at his best with the ball in front of him. Although Olivier Giroud drew most of the attention with his late miss, the bigger concern was Podolski’s ineffectiveness. He’s not good enough in the air to make a defence wary of sitting deep, and he’s neither physically nor technically gifted enough to hold the ball up effectively. It may be that, a little like Theo Walcott, he is at his best against better teams who won’t just sit deep and look to stifle Arsenal (or once Arsenal already have a lead and the opposition is forced to attack).”
Analysing that statement reveals certain truths. Not that Podolski isn’t good in the air – he has added a bit of height both in attack and defending set-pieces. Not that he can’t hold up the ball well – he does that well when Arsenal don’t have to erratically attack. Not that he can’t do all this, it’s that he doesn’t do them with ultimate perfection. Just not enough times.
And also for Germany. It is difficult to remember now, but prior to the World Cups in 2006 and 2010, as well as Euro 2008, Germany were written off due to their youth and inexperience. As such, teams had the confidence to attack them. That meant that more often than not, there was space in front of Podolski for the German midfielders to play the ball into. Thus the famed lethal German counter-attacks.
But surprisingly, at Euro 2012, Germany came in as favourites. Therefore, teams looked to sit deep and allow Germany onto them. That meant no space in front of them. It should then be taken as more than coincidence that it is at this tournament that Podolski lost his starting berth in the national team.
It should also be noted that Podolski really came to life for the first time for Arsenal this season in the game at Anfield against Liverpool, where Liverpool looked to attack and Arsenal could exploit on the counter attack. It is also strikingly strange that most of Podolski’s goals have come from counter attacks.
It is not that Podolski only performs when on the counter, but the evidence seems to suggest so. However, it is simplistic to examine him only on the goals he delivers, for Podolski delivers much more. The thinking though is that whereas he was ahead of Messi, Ronaldo and Fabreags at the 2006 World Cup, he has failed to kick on and could even be digressing.
That award may also in hindsight be explained away. At that tournament, Ronaldo was probably the best player. FIFA were however not going to give it to him, probably due to his reputation as a diver and his antics that led to Wayne Rooney being sent off. Messi and Fabregas on the other hand never had as much playing time at that tournament as Podolski and Ronaldo had. All this however does not take away from the fact that at a young age, he was something special.
And he still is. It is just that now, he has to re-invent his playing style in order to remain relevant. Moving to Bayern Munich may have been the early indications. Now at Arsenal, it is time for him to realise that he has to slightly adapt.
Poldi has been relegated three times in his career with Koln. He has also reached the semi finals of four consecutive major tournaments with Germany therein. Those disparities in his career have led some to believe that he is just a ‘big fish in a little pond’ guy. That may be true depending on what you believe. What is certain however is that whereas Arsenal is no small pond, Poldi is a big fish who with a bit of re-invention can become an even greater one.This post was made by guest blogger Mr Mike Njoroge follow him on Twitter at @Mikenjoro