Arsenal: Lukas Podolski, Robin Van Persie and the New Era, Part 4
Six things come to mind when I contemplate the idea of the new in the same breath with Arsenal. The first already figures in the title of the article—Podolski.
A sense, though, of pessimism, like a cold, ominous shadow, tints this particular branch of the idea.
For although Podolski willingly chose Arsenal (perhaps, inevitably so), what is to stop him from eventually going the way of Arsenal wantaways when he'd had deemed the time ripe for new and "better" adventures?
The reader, I believe, will allow that this is a legitimate question, and the answer—if we should hazard one—lies, I believe, in the history of the player himself.
How will Podolski fare, loyalty-wise, at Arsenal?
This question is predicated upon the assumption that Podolski will have a breakthrough at Arsenal. As a person who has followed Podolski, I have little doubt that he will.
I tip Podolski to succeed at Arsenal. Getty Images.
For example, he brings with him that enigmatic, but avowed, characteristic native in Germans (he is more German than he is Polish; his family having moved from Poland to Bergheim, Germany, when he was two)—that recalcitrant element that some swear Arsenal players lack: mental strength.
(As an aside, some claim it was the want of this quality that prevented the famous Invincibles from retaining their title the following season. The notion is founded upon the assumption that were this a Ferguson team, they'd have done so.
To which I say, nonsense.
A team that can go an entire season—and more—unbeaten can't have lacked mental strength. Plus, last season's team can't have lacked this quality, either, when it surmounted the difficult hurdles it faced throughout the season.)
Podolski, I project, will succeed at Arsenal.
In saying this, I am taking a different stance from that of his critics who sneer him away with a dismissive "he couldn't make it at a big club." Their supposed justification, they claim, lies in his Bayern Munich escapade.
But what the Bayern Munich experience admits is the warning that young players should heed.
A Star Rises
Podolski moved to Bayern Munich after the 2006 World Cup where he was voted the most promising young player in the world ahead of the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. (Some insinuated a conspiracy, but that Podolski did deserve this—with due respect to this illustrious pair—is without question.)
As a young, hot prospect, there wasn't any reason why Podolski couldn't succeed at Bayern Munich, but two things stood in his way, none of which had anything to do with not being talented enough.
Anyone who reads the game with a pragmatic eye (that eye that asks the question: What would I do were I the manager, and who would I use?) would see that Podolski is in the same category as Abou Diaby—a player any manager would pick instantly in lieu of any militating factor.
What I mean is summed up in Arsene Wenger's recent commentary on the man and his situation. Via ESPN Soccernet:
He is the first player who would be on the France team-sheet in midfield when he is fit. Laurent Blanc said that before the European Championship and he waited a very long time to know if he could play or not. But he couldn't. You can't imagine how happy I am firstly to have him in the squad, because he is an exceptional player. I am cautious but confident because he had two hard weeks and came through it well.
According to Arsenal.com, Raphael Honigstein, a German journalist, states one of these reasons that hampered Podolski's progress at Bayern in the following:
At Bayern Munich I think two things happened. When he came to them on the back of the 2006 World Cup, he was the next big thing in German football and was expected to be a superstar. But there he found a squad full of other genuine superstars - big names, big players. So that meant he often found himself as second or third choice behind the likes of Miroslav Klose, Luca Toni and Franck Ribery on the left.
Also, personality-wise I think he was still very young and found it difficult to get on outside of his home town of Cologne. He just got a little bit lost at Munich. But he is a lot more mature now, he is a very different player and is much more developed off the pitch. He will still have to adapt but I don't think the footballing change will be too difficult for him.
Here, Honigstein identifies the problem to lie in the fact that, as a young player at Bayern, Podolski had hot and established prospects ahead of him in the likes of Luca Toni, Miroslav Klose and Franck Ribery.
In this very fact lies my meaning when I say Podolski's Bayern Munich experience is a warning young players should heed. This is made more apparent by way of analogies.
Romelu Lukaku, by a legitimate enough an account, has lost a year of his young career through what might be called a premature move to Chelsea.
Here, a young rising prospect in Europe has wallowed in the lower echelon of Chelsea and may yet do so in the coming season. It is the reason he is keen on a loan move to a smaller club where he can be assured of first-team games.
One wonders whether the story wouldn't be different had he persevered with Anderlecht a season or two longer. I have wondered the same about John Mikel Obi whose stellar prospects drained away after his controversial move to Chelsea in 2006.
Jan Vertonghen, seen here shadowing Theo Walcott, is a player to be admired for putting first things first. Getty Images.
The moral here is that for young players, not everything should be about money or the immediate big move. A big move can kill a career where a more moderate one might not, and where one finds such level-headedness prevailing, there one might send a word or two of praise.
Podolski's meteoric rise in German football in 2003 was akin to Mario Götze's in 2010. That year, Podolski signed his first professional contract with his home town club—Cologne.
His impact was immediate.
He scored 10 goals in 19 appearances, making history in the process. For this was the highest single-season tally by an 18-year-old in the Bundesliga history.
He stayed with the relegated club the next season (although that, perhaps, might have been due to limited opportunities for the rising youngster) and helped them regain their Bundesliga status the following season, having scored a clutch of goals (24 goals in Bundesliga 2).
It was after this next season in the Bundesliga that he moved to Bayern Munich, when Cologne failed to stay up in the German Premier League.
The move to Bayern wasn't in lieu of vying options, but the lure of a big club proved the difference. This, though, wasn't the appropriate move for the youngster for the above-stated reason by Honigstein.
Honigstein adds to this a second reason, one I have examined in my article on January transfer—the real problem of adjustment for players—a strong factor in whether or not a player succeeds in a new league.
The fact that January transfer offers a very narrow window for proper adjustment admits a higher risk of failure. The pair of Fernando Torres and Andy Carroll could be a case in point.
Homesickness, Honigstein implies, was part of the reasons why Podolski couldn't readily succeed at Munich—a big factor in his eventual desire to return to his home club. Naturally, this isn’t a militating factor any longer as Honigstein states.
(If the reader doubts that homesickness is a big factor in a player's success or lack thereof at a new club, he or she needs only refer to the case of Jesús Navas, and his isn't the only case where this is a real factor.)
Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski identify this as the reason managers of English clubs tend to avoid buying Brazilians who often have a difficult time adjusting to the English culture. (See p. 62 of their Soccernomics) Proper adjustment to the environment can enhance or hinder a player's career at a new club.
Beside these two reasons, though, is a third (my second): injury.
Despite the top competition against established prospect at Bayern, Podolski did make 71 appearances for Germany's foremost club. However, his effectiveness as a striker wasn't in evidence. He scored just 15 goals in all of these appearances.
His injury problem at Bayern isn't unlike that of Robin van Persie at Arsenal—a fact that hampered this similarly talented youngster from making an appropriate impact at the London club.
Tomas Rosicky would face the same problem after his move to Arsenal from Borussia Dortmund in 2006—a club where he had established a reputation as an influential creative midfielder.
Injury can kill a career.
Those readers who know Daniel Amokachi would find in him a very good example of this fact. The readers, I'm sure, can come up with other examples.
Daniel Amokachi, the avowed "engine room" of Nigeria's scintillating 1994 squad, had his career cut short by injury. Getty Images.
When, therefore, Podolski's distractors sneer away his prospects at Arsenal—even before the ball is kicked—on the ground of the Bayern Munich experience, they've tended to do so outside the measured reasoning that behooves the situation.
The fact that it was Podolski who asked to transfer back to Cologne should be a testimony to his character.
For in this, he chose football over money, in the sense that he could have stayed on at Bayern, despite limited playing opportunities, and continued to earn more money than he could have at Cologne .
One would think that this would be a clever decision were money the only reason people play football. The return to Cologne was to his roots, where fans of the club adore him.
The Bundesliga website says the following about Podolski's return to Cologne:
The reaction in the cathedral city to Podolski's return was nothing short of incredible. More than 21,000 fans came to watch his first official training session back with the club, who were forced to move the event from their training ground into the RheinEnergieStadion. Furthermore half of all personalised 1. FC Köln kits sold since the start of that season had the name Podolski imprinted on the back. It still took time for the forward to rediscover his devastating form in front of goal. However after two seasons returned just 15 goals the German international has been back to his best this year scoring 16 times in just 22 appearances.
A further testimony to Podolski's character lies in the fact that despite being stripped of his captaincy by then new manager, Ståle Solbakken, ahead of the 2011-12 season, he went on to contribute immensely to Cologne's cause.
He scored 18 goals in 31 appearances. His contribution, however, couldn't keep the club from being relegated from the Bundesliga.
How, then, is this personal biography an indication of Podolski's prospective faithfulness (or loyalty) to Arsenal—an element Arsenal desperately needs to be present in for her players in the immediate future?
Two factors emerge, the first of which is the fact that the player made the appropriate move when his career was on the brink of becoming stale at Bayern.
Failure to make a swift change in a situation like this can destroy a player's career.
Think of Eljero Elia, whose career went downhill at Hamburg and has only become worse following his move to Juventus where he hardly kicked the ball for the whole of last season.
Eljero Elia has seen his career go downhill at two unfortunate clubs. Getty Images.
Few players (with the exception of those at the twilight of their career) would move from a bigger club to a smaller one (outside the convenient or not-so-convenient loan arrangement) merely to save their own career.
Here, again, Vertonghen should be lauded for shunning a bigger club for a more moderate one in order to enhance his actual playing career. Enough young players, who have lacked this wisdom, have paid for it.
Nuri Şahin comes to mind—a player who had a brilliant season with Borussia Dortmund in the 2010-11 season then quickly switched to Real Madrid, where he has failed to establish himself.
Perhaps, it is the same problem that is confronting our own Park Chu-Young. Might things have been different had he opted for Lille instead of Arsenal?
The second reason is the professionalism by which Podolski conducted himself in the face of losing his leadership position at Cologne.
Captaincy was guaranteed him on his return to his home club.
The rash manner by which Ståle Solbakken stripped this away is reminiscent of Andre Villas-Boas' rash handling of veteran players at Chelsea. Both managers ended the same way: sacked.
Podolski kept playing, and,in fact, had his best season after his return home. In this, we could be assured of the player's professionalism in the face of similar difficult circumstances at Arsenal.
The Right Age
There is, though, a third reason that makes me very optimistic about Podolski's loyalty to Arsenal in the coming years: his age.
Unlike Robin van Persie who joined Arsenal at 21 (giving him a possibility of three cycles of 4-year contracts at Arsenal), Podolski is joining at 27. The standard four-year contract will take him to 31—the virtual twilight of his playing days.
In insisting for a move away from Arsenal, Robin van Persie, here crowded by fellow players, seems oblivious to the love the club has for him. Getty Images.
In this case, then, we will unlikely face the van Persie-kind of situation in the future. In other words, Podolski is for keeps.
If he wants to win any medals, it'd behoove him to give his all to Arsenal. Any move from Arsenal will be for scraps—the kinds older players pick to enable them maximize their earnings before they finally call it quits.
In four years, the Financial Fair Play rule will be in gear. This, hopefully, would have leveled the playing field a little, such that when Olivier Giroud is 29, we would not face the same situation we now are in with Robin van Persie.
The New Era
What, then, is my idea of a New Era for Arsenal?
It is one in which—among other factors—we are able to keep our players, much like Barcelona are able to keep theirs.
For all their deliberate poaching habit, Manchester City are yet to steal away any of Barcelona's players (even if albeit they'd pay for them)—or any of the Chelsea's for that matter.
Although in this last one, Roberto Mancini does have some designs.
Recall how he went about last season telling Daniel Sturridge—when early in the season the player displayed some decent form—that had he been the manager at City when Sturridge was there as a young player, he would not have let him go.
How about Adebayor, whom he demoted as soon as he became manager at City? How about Carlos Tevez, whom he relegated to the bench "merely" because the player had expressed a wish to move away from City? How about Edin Džeko, once Mancini's darling now apparently his dung?
How many young players is Mancini promoting?
Were he promoting any, he'd, perhaps, not be going about poaching other clubs' players.
From this rant the reader can surmise that, as far as I'm concerned, Roberto Mancini and Manchester City (insofar as their current habit is concerned) are the evil empire.
The New Era, for me, is a situation where we are able to consolidate the strength of our squad instead of the one right now that constrains us to do patch work to the same as a result of players' unrest. In the New Era, our major players will retire at the club.
The New Era presupposes trophies naturally.
The Podolski-like situation (where players retire at Arsenal) is just one of the factors that need to be the status quo at the club. The others are the remaining five of the six I mentioned at the beginning of the article.
Let's continue the conversation in the next part of the series. Meanwhile, here are the links to the other parts of the series:
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