Officially signed in April 2012, Lukas Podolski – or ‘Prince Poldi’ – was initially thought to have been signed in an attempt to help convince top-scorer Robin van Persie to stay. With over 100 caps for Germany, and still only aged 26 upon signing, Podolski was had the kind of international experience and quality that Arsenal wanted. Although it wouldn’t convince Van Persie to stay, after scoring 18 Bundesliga goals in his final season for relegated FC Cologne, Podolski was seen as a good signing for Arsenal. A player who could help replace Van Persie’s goals.
However, two years later and Poldi seems to have fallen from grace, with the initial expectations a distant memory, followed by two years of inconsistency.
Podolski does have some qualities, of course. His end product is among the best Arsenal have at their disposal. Despite, overall, being underwhelming last season, Podolski did deliver in terms of end product. In 25 league starts the German international managed 11 goals and 9 assists.
However, it’s not necessarily the number of goals or assists he scored that’s impressive. It’s how efficient he was with the chances he got. In 2012/2013 he only had 33 shots in the league, but converted a third of them, whilst managing to get 61% of these 33 on target. A shot accuracy that can only be bettered by Mikel Arteta and Theo Walcott and Carl Jenkinson (who only had three shots).
Despite having limited playing time this season, due to injuries and the signing of fellow countryman Mesut Ozil, Podolski has still managed to be efficient in his return. In just 5 premier league starts he’s still managed to score 3 goals, whilst putting 70% of his shots on target.
His end product is the best part of his game, without a shadow of a doubt. If he receives the ball in an area where he can cross or shoot with his left foot, something will come from it. Whether that something is the ‘keeper being tested or a teammate getting a good chance, with the ball on his left foot he’s dangerous.
A recent example of how useful he can be with the ball at his left foot is his substitute appearance off the bench vs West Ham. He came off the bench to put a cross in that was nodded on by a defender for Walcott to score from, and wrapped up the game with a great finish from the edge of the area. His left foot may be one of the best and most accurate around, however, his problem is creating the space to get good opportunities on his left foot.
Onto the negative side of Podolski’s game.
Podolski’s movement off the ball may be some of the worst I’ve seen by a top level footballer. On the left he rarely ventures beyond the full-back and hardly ever makes darting runs into the channels. Instead, he seems to prefer to come inside and stand just above the centre-circle, allowing Gibbs to overlap, but ultimately not offering a lot. Even when space is in-front of him, he doesn’t seem to recognise it, as he doesn’t make any kind of attempt to run into and occupy the space.
It’s noticeable even more this season, when you see the contrast to an Arsenal team with Podolski, or an Arsenal team with Ozil, Santi Cazorla and either Walcott or Alex Oxlade Chamberlain in the three behind the striker. With the latter combination, Arsenal are fluid and the three constantly interchange. Despite starting on the left, Cazorla always drifts and drops in search of the ball, which allows Ozil to drift into the space created and play his game, whilst the pace of Walcott/Chamberlain can run into any pockets of space created by the two drifting – and then be found with a pinpoint pass from one of Cazorla or Ozil.
However, with Podolski in the team, they appear a lot more flat and narrow. Although no one particularly had a good performance, the Stoke game showed this more than any other. As Cazorla and Rosicky changed and looked for space, Podolski occupied the space ahead of the centre-circle all game, happy to just recycle possession to either side of him.
Arsenal are a team who – more than most – rely on clever movement to play the way they want to play. To play a short fluid passing game the movement off the ball is often more important than the player with the ball. A look at Arsenal at the start of the season would show this. A team with Ozil drifting, allowing Ramsey to run from deep, with the two ‘wide’ players coming into pockets of space created by Ozil, whilst Sagna and Gibbs overlap and deliver crosses. When players don’t take advantage of the space created by Ozil and Cazorla drifting – like Walcott and Ramsey do – Arsenal aren’t as threatening at all.
This lack of movement on the wing doesn’t help his case if he sees his future up-front for Arsenal either. Again, Arsenal need a striker who not only scores goals, but moves into channels and drops off to create space for other players to take advantage of. Although Giroud should have a better end product, his movement off the ball, hold-up play and ability to play other players in is a big part of how Arsenal play – and something that is often underappreciated. Podolski has the ability to pick a pass, but when given the chance up-front doesn’t make the right movements into the flanks, and at 28, is it too late in his career for that to become part of his game?
Despite being frustrating, I do quite like watching Podolski, as he is capable of some great goals. However, it seems at the minute the best he offers Arsenal is a decent impact sub when they need to turn games around – like the West Ham game – and a positive influence to have the dressing room. Podolski is a fan favourite to many because of how he is off the pitch or on social networks. It’s rare to see a picture of Arsenal training where Podolski isn’t laughing/joking, usually with fellow German players Per Mertesacker, Mesut Ozil or Serge Gnabry.
As much as you need players who are good for morale, I doubt Wenger would want a of Podolski’s reputation and pay-check to be used as an impact sub and positive influence. In January papers were saying he could be part of an exchange deal to try and land Schalke star Julian Draxler and although that didn’t happen, would it be surprising to see him leave in the summer? With Wenger recently saying he wants Joel Campbell to feature in the first team next season, could that be the replacement of Podolski? Able to play both on the wing and up-front, but a lot more mobile and with better runs.
After so much promise when he first signed, Prince Poldi has definitely fell down the pecking order. More than anything, the most frustrating thing about Podolski is the fact he could be a great player for Arsenal – if he had the movement and runs of someone like Theo Walcott. He could probably score 20 goals a season with the accuracy he possess. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case and it’s increasingly likely he may already be on the way out from Arsenal, after just two seasons.