A little more than two years ago, when Lukas Podolski came to Arsenal in a transfer deal with FC Köln, it struck me as odd that a player commonly regarded as a quality, explosive goal scorer would have come from a team that had been relegated from the Bundesliga.
I shrugged it off. I knew even less about the Bundesliga then than I do now, and I took solace in the idea that Arsene Wenger knew talent when he saw it. The nearly 100 caps that Podolski had at that time racked up for Die Mannschaft were further evidence to me of his quality.
I, too, shrugged off the three-year diversion from Koln to Bayern Munich before he returned to Köln. Though I didn't quite understand it in these terms then, such a move was tantamount to moving from Norwich City to Manchester United in the height of it's pomp, and then back to Norwich City. It was easier for me to interpret this as further evidence of the dramas that commonly accompany league royalty on the Continent, especially among world renowned clubs.
Today, as Podolski is apparently on the way out of the door from Arsenal, I wonder no longer why he played for Köln, why he failed to impress Bayern, and why someone with such an impressive international record with a major national team could hold so little interest in the transfer market.
Before I go any further, this is not one of those vapid blog posts that blithely bash a (soon-to-be-)former Arsenal player after years spent cheering for him. I'm a great fan of Podolski. On the pitch he has a no-nonsense directness about his play that's appealing, and he's scored his share of significant goals for the Arsenal. And there's that golden left foot of his, and the shots in the form of streaking missiles it produces.
Off the pitch I love and will miss his goofy sense of humor. He's the clown prince on a team that all-too-often seems neurotic and overwrought with earnestness. Podolski, it seems, doesn't let much worry him, and the only time he's ever seemed unhappy as a Gunner has been when he's not been able to play, hardly the greatest of sins.
The truth is, however, that Podolski is a specialist who Arsenal simply cannot afford to accommodate. Indeed, for reasons I'll explain, Podolski practically defines the term "specialist" in the footballing context.
What Podolski does well, few others can equal. There is literally no player in the Premier League who I'd rather have in the following situation: either a pass or a loose ball comes to his left foot in the left half or at the top of the 18-yard box, with enough space for him to put his laces through it on either his first or second touch. I mean every word of that- there's no one you can name I'd rather have in that situation; even a first class left-footed finisher like Robin Van Persie doesn't do it any better in that situation than Podolski does.
This clip from the Fulham away game early last season shows Podolski at his best in two of those sorts of moments:
The compilation of all of his goals from the 2012-2013 season shows a more complete pattern:
Such moments are the moments that Podolski lives for. That's what, in a footballing sense, he was born to do, with a kind nod also towards his good skills as a (direct) free kick taker. But that's it. If not for such moments, Podolski would not be playing in any football league of any significance. The reason for that comes down to what Podolski does not do. Let's look at what we can't define him as:
Striker - The tendency when filling out one's lineup would be to put someone like Podolski, possessing such murderous finishing skills, up at the top of the attack at striker. On the face of it, Podolski would seem like a wonderful poacher, which he is to a degree. The problem is that a proper poacher does most of his work before the ball ever reaches him. To poach the right game, the hunter needs to be where the animals are. In football, a poaching striker is constantly in motion, hustling around into space and looking for the pass, the loose ball, the deflection, that might give him the chance to hammer home.
A good example of someone with such skills is United's Chicharito Hernandez, who possesses the uncanny ability to be where the ball is in the 18-yard box and the relentless work rate to get him there. While possessed of many of the limitations that Podolski has, much is forgiven due to Hernandez's ability to get in the right place at the right time and to finish.
Podolski, even when he's been tried centrally, has typically been a non-factor there. The problem is that Podolski is not a dogged runner off the ball. At times he will make breaks or play one-twos with teammates, but he's as often seen walking or merely jogging. Worse, Podolski seems unable to cross the penalty spot and operate on the right side of the pitch with the same confidence as the left. As strong as his left foot is, his right foot is relatively weak. Any striker, even a poacher, must be able to operate over the entire front of the goal. And Podolski also doesn't have aerial skills that might mitigate some of this one-sidedness, like the equally left-footed Giroud has for example.
Wing - While always left-sided, Podolski isn't really a wing. He's neither particularly fleet of foot nor is he adept breaking down defensive players with the ball at his feet. In partial contrast, while Theo Walcott likewise isn't known as a great dribbler his blazing speed allows him to streak in behind defenders. Because of that speed, Walcott plays on the last defender's shoulder and often finds himself the farthest man forward.
Podolski rarely makes runs well beyond the last teammate. His runs off the ball are based more upon quickness in closer spaces, usually inside the 18-yard box, than upon out-and-out speed in the open field, farther away from goal. And now that the team has added Alexis Sanchez, Joel Campbell, and embraced a returning, healthy Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (all three of whom are players who can play all across the formation), Podolski's deficiencies on the dribble and his distinct left-sidedness mean that he's even farther behind in the competition for playing time.
Poldi's relatively weak dribbling skills also mean that he's a lot less comfortable when pressed in possession up against the touchline, a classic problem on the wing - he just doesn't have much in the way of moves to extricate himself from there.
Attacking midfield - Arsenal's attacking midfield players can often seem interchangeable (smaller, quicker, technically outstanding), and have even been ridiculed as a group for this seeming fungibility. Podolski doesn't fit this mold either. He lacks the ambidextrous technical skills possessed by Cazorla, the man with whom he's most often been replaced on the left of the attacking formation, and he consequently cannot rotate across the formation as Wenger likes for all of his attacking midfielders to do, no matter where in the formation they start. Even the relatively one-footed Wilshere is far better in the midfield because of his work rate, passing and ability to drive forward with the ball at his feet.
Podolski contributes little to build-up in the middle third of the pitch. His passing skills are at best adequate, enabling him to play simple passes or perhaps quick one-twos with teammates. Podolski's also not very creative and his vision seems mostly limited to either moves that he, himself might make or to obvious key passes like near-post crosses to Giroud, with whom he's linked up fairly successfully. The inability to generate killer balls forward into the prime scoring areas in front of goal is a particularly glaring problem for someone who favors playing in a withdrawn position in the left channel.
Finally, Podolski simply does not track back. While this is not necessarily unique to him (Cazorla, Ozil and Walcott are not exactly known for being relentless defenders), the last thing Arsenal needs is one more attacking player who fails to contribute in defense, particularly when he lacks the work rate and the technical ability to fully contribute to the attack.
So what exactly is he? Podolski is essentially a strictly left-sided second striker who specializes in either crosses to the near post, or powerful shots from the left channel or poacher's goals from right in front of goal. In a sense, he's a throwback to decades ago when inside left forwards were a common part of formations. At times, needing a goal late in a match, he might be just the substitution that could level a tough game where nothing else has worked, but Podolski isn't satisfied occupying such a limited role - he was already unhappy with his limited playing time last year, before Alexis and Campbell arrived. Regardless, outside of desperate late game situations, Arsenal just doesn't play a second striker anymore.
At 29-years old he still attracts attention from prominent clubs like Juventus despite there now being so much evidence of the deficiencies in his game. This might be unlucky for him as it allows him to avoid having to confront and accept his limitations, and put himself in the best situation to experience success. He's good enough to get the job at top clubs like Bayern, Arsenal or Juventus, but not good enough to keep it.
Ideally he'd either be a super sub for top clubs, or be a regular starter for mid-table clubs that simply don't possess enough overall attacking talent to grumble about accommodating his extremely specialized skills. Such a club need not necessarily be as humble as Köln, but it most certainly is not Bayern. To pick a Premier League example, a club like West Ham, in desperate need of more scoring punch, would do well to land a player like Podolski, and one could see a happy Podolski, for his part, reveling the the bubble-blowing hero worship, if he'd only allow that to happen.
Podolski's departure signals good things for Gooners though. While Arsenal wasn't too good for Podolski when he arrived in 2012, it is in 2014. If you like, Podoski's expendability has been a loose but accurate barometer for the advances the club has made in the quality of its squad in just the last two years. There simply isn't more than a limited squad role for Podolski in the red part of North London anymore.
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