Lukas Podolski: Has He Been a First-Season Flop at Arsenal?
Lukas Podolski has been an interesting case study during his first season in English football.
From the beginning, his role was not clearly defined. Could he play as a central striker, as against Sunderland on the first day of the season? Should Arsenal switch around their formation to play him on the left wing? Does his seeming lack of stamina relegate him to super-sub status?
All three have been tried this season, with varying degrees of success.
Some forget that Podolski began his career in English football as a striker, starting up front against Sunderland in the absence of Olivier Giroud on the first day of the season. It's not a Theo Walcott situation either: He proved his effectiveness up front during his years as the main man at Cologne.
Yet the role just does not appear to suit him.
At least he had an excuse on opening day; the transition to the English game can be a long and difficult one, as such greats as Robert Pires can attest.
But in recent displays against Manchester United and QPR, Podolski has been utterly anonymous, failing to register any threatening shots on goal or link up with the midfield like Giroud does.
We have not seen anything this season to back up Arsene Wenger's assertion that Podolski is most suited to a central role, whether goals, assists or general activeness when played as a striker.
Unless he somehow learns how to be an effective Premier League striker in training this week, Wenger should strongly consider starting Theo Walcott up front for the last game that Giroud is suspended.
(This underlines the Gunners' desperate need of a striker ahead of the summer transfer window. A player who can legitimately compete with Giroud for a starting place should be at the top of Wenger's shopping list.)
Equally worrying, if not more so, has been Podolski's inability to complete the full 90 minutes when he starts.
He has played in a hefty 31 of Arsenal's 36 Premier League games. Yet he has lasted the entire match only twice. Even taking into account all other competitions, Podolski has only completed a full match four times for Arsenal.
This is simply unacceptable for an £11 million player who was touted as a replacement for Robin van Persie when he arrived early last summer.
His extraordinary record of substitutions and pronounced ineffectiveness at striker leads one to believe that he is nursing some injury which is adversely affecting his performance.
Wayne Veysey of Goal.com is reporting that Podolski is set to have an ankle operation during the summer. This would go a long way toward explaining why a player with over 100 international caps is having so much trouble staying on the pitch for a sustained period of time.
Yet, even with his reported injury and poor play in the middle, he has been a damn good player during his first season at Arsenal.
From a purely tactical standpoint, he provides the Gunners with what no one else can on the wing: a physical presence, someone who is not afraid to track back and do his defensive bit and a very aggressive player going forward.
No one, with the possible exception of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, is as direct on the wing as Podolski is.
And certainly nobody can match the incredible velocity with which he can hit a football, sometimes making it seem as if the crossbar was struck by Thor's hammer itself.
Directness is perhaps possible to teach, but having a thunderbolt of a shot is simply natural talent.
Podolski's dynamic wing play has amounted to a more than respectable statistical line thus far, despite not getting the maximum amount of time on the pitch: 14 goals and 11 assists in all competitions is quite a healthy return.
Certainly, nobody can call that a disappointing first season in English football.
Perhaps Cristiano Ronaldo would feel that he had not earned his pay if he put up those numbers if he were to return to Manchester United, but Podolski was not expected to be anywhere near Ronaldo's level, or that of the man he has partially replaced.
The German's first campaign with Arsenal has absolutely been a successful one. All the areas in which he has not excelled are plum opportunities for massive improvement next season.
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