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Prince Poldi Was Never Fit To Be King

“His first name is Lukas, Lukas, Lukas, his second name’s Podolski, Podolski, Podolski, and that is why we like him, we like him, we like him, in fact we f*****n love him, we love him, we love him.”

As for as reasons for loving somebody go, their birth name is a notably curious one. A song that was first aired at Fulham last August- a game in which Podolski netted twice on his first start of the season- has exponentially grown in popularity this season. It has become something of a protest song, a paean to the popular German’s increasing isolation as he jogs forlornly up and down the touchline in his tracksuit. All three of Podolski’s Arsenal goals this season have been greeted with a slightly more dissenting intonation. “Lukas Podolski, he scores when he plays.”

It’s easy to see why Podolski is popular with Arsenal fans. He has an arresting smile, a grade A social media presence and, it must be said, he does score with some regularity. He seems very engaged with the supporters, leaping into the crowd after our away win at Spurs in March and following our F.A. Cup triumph at Wembley in May, which he also marked by pouring champagne over his manager’s head. I attended the pre F.A. Cup Final media day at London Colney. Podolski was one of the players chosen to give a Q & A conference. A Sky journalist began, “You were unhappy Lukas, about being substituted in the semi final against Wigan,” before he could finish his question, Podolski cut the journalist off. “No, no. I am always happy!” Before flashing his trademark grin.

Absence has made the heart grow fonder for Podolski, who has been relegated to the “Eboue role” this season, the squad jester. Arsenal have endured an inconsistent start to the campaign and, for many, the equation becomes simpler. Arsenal aren’t playing well and Lukas Podolski isn’t playing. So if he plays, perhaps we’ll play well more consistently again. For a small section, I also think there’s an element of foraging for any stick available with which to beat the manager. For a small section of Arsenal fans, the manager and his perceived incompetence has become an obsessive focus. Podolski’s isolation offers a cause celebre for the dissatisfied. Another string to the Wenger Out bow.

The convenient thing about this kind of exasperation is that it is difficult to disprove. If a player is not playing, there is simply no way of proving whether affording him an increased role would have a positive influence or not. So the disaffection can grow roots and branches. Those factors I think partially explain his folk hero like popularity. But it doesn’t entirely explain it. Yaya Sanogo isn’t playing very much either and nobody is prepared to take up arms in the advancement of his cause. Podolski is popular because people perceive, not incorrectly, that he has something to offer the team. In a season where Arsenal have been less than efficient in the final third, Podolski (along with Walcott) is possibly the most clinical player at the club.

I struggle to think of anybody in the Premier League who strikes a ball as cleanly and as hard as Podolski does. His delivery from the left is pretty good too. Basically, if you give him the ball on his left foot in a bit of space anywhere in the final third, the chances are he can make something happen. So why doesn’t he play more often? Well, for a start, I think there is a contractual issue here, so the politics of his remoteness cannot be ignored. When a player under 30 has two years remaining on his contract, a club is forced into a corner. If you are not convinced you want to renew terms, then you’re probably going to be open to a good offer. Gervinho was a classic example of this. I’m not convinced Wenger really wanted to part with the Ivorian, but after two inconsistent seasons, he was not persuaded to renew his terms (along with the requisite pay rise a renewal demands). At the beginning of the 2012-13 season, with 12 months left on his contract and negotiations at an impasse, Walcott was likewise benched.

Lukas Podolski

With Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck procured over the summer and with Joel Campbell’s return from innumerable loan spells, Wenger has vastly increased forward options at his disposal. Indeed, had Giroud not have been injured late in August, it is unlikely that Podolski would still be an Arsenal player at this point. He just does not figure in the manager’s future plans so with other options available, it doesn’t make sense to include the German at this stage. Wenger already has a juggling act fusing together a rather unfamiliar attack. Özil, Alexis and Welbeck have all been at the club for less than 18 months, Giroud and Cazorla only a year longer than they. All need time to build chemistry and understanding, so throwing somebody that doesn’t have a long term future into that equation doesn’t make sense in the long term.

But why doesn’t Podolski have an Arsenal future? Well, I think there are numerous reasons. For a start, even the president of the Poldi fan club could not argue that he has performed consistently for Arsenal, even if his highlights reel looks quite good. In short, his overall contribution just isn’t quite rounded enough. The German is something of an outmoded player at the top level. He doesn’t offer enough technical quality for a winger and he isn’t convincing or physical enough to be a centre forward. In the first half of the 20th century, you’ve the impression he’d have been tailor made for the inside forward position. In the second half, maybe a second striker in a 4-4-2. The trouble is, neither of those positions is available in a top side in 2014.

Podolski resides in the corridor between the flank and the central striker position and essentially lives for those very rare moments when a full back or centre half falls asleep just along enough for him to receive the ball on the inside left, with time and space, so he can pull back that hammer of a left foot. Those opportunities simply don’t arise often enough for Podolski to be a consistently influential presence on a game. So he lies dormant for large spells. It is true that if you put him in a good position in the final third, he will likely produce. But the trouble is that he doesn’t do enough to ensure that he is available in the final third. He is not the most kinetic player, his movement isn’t particularly clever. He also doesn’t really have the ability to beat a player.

In short, his skillset just is not rounded enough. If I asked you to list his qualities, besides “hitting a ball really, really well” (and it’s a practical skill to possess, in fairness), what else could one list? With Podolski in the side, Podolski is more likely to score, but Arsenal aren’t. He doesn’t contribute enough in manoeuvring the team closer to the goal. So at this point, you’re left asking, “Why did Arsene Wenger sign him in the first place?” Lukas was a 27 year old German international, his style and his attributes would have been reasonably obvious. The transfer of Podolski was sealed very quickly after it became apparent that Robin van Persie was going to leave the club. In fact, Arsenal wanted to do the deal in January 2012, with Gervinho at the African Nations and Marouane Chamakh’s ailing form slipping further into a coma.

However, with F.C. Koln in a relegation battle in the Bundesliga, they were unwilling to release their talisman early. So Wenger made do with a short term loan deal for Thierry Henry. Podolski made his Arsenal debut against Sunderland in August 2012 as a centre forward, with Olivier Giroud on the bench. Circumstantial evidence suggests that Wenger signed Podolski principally as a centre forward, before quickly realising that he just wasn’t suited to the role within Arsenal’s system. Having played wide left in a front 3 for Germany, the manager restored him there with Giroud at the tip of the front 3. I think Giroud was originally signed as a kind of Plan B option. An envelope to rip open in case of emergency.

At this stage, the future of Theo Walcott also looked unclear with the England man refusing to commit to a new contract. Because it ought to have been pretty obvious that a front 3 of Giroud, Podolski and Walcott was simply not varied or creative enough to work. A 4-3-3 can accommodate one wide striker that relies almost entirely on service from others, but two of that ilk makes the forward line lopsided and one dimensional. Reading between the lines, Podolski was purchased as a kind of make weight for the departure of Robin van Persie- a role he subsequently could not fulfil- and as an insurance policy against the possible departure of Theo Walcott- which never materialised. Lukas looks as though he will ultimately slip between the cracks as a result.

For the player himself, it is a shame. You get the impression there is a top class footballer in Lukas Podolski but he just doesn’t seem to do quite enough to eke it out. At 29, with indifferent spells at Arsenal and Bayern Munich behind him, it is unlikely that he ever will at club level. Questions will remain over his temperament for a big club. Lukas is not as lazy defensively as some would have it. I think he does actually track back. The problem is, he doesn’t really know what to do once he gets there and therefore, doesn’t offer any impact. Witness his rather lazy, dangled leg against Anderlecht in November as the cross that birthed their equaliser arced in from Podolski’s flank. He is a good player, but perhaps for another team or in another time. Be it in the January window or in the summer, Arsenal and Lukas Podolski will part ways. Neither will be entirely satisfied that they brought the best from one another during their brief marriage. LD.  

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