Lukas Podolski Paradox Remains a Puzzle for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger

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Lukas Podolski Paradox Remains a Puzzle for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger
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Lukas Podolski is a puzzle. On the one hand, he’s 29 and has already scored 47 goals for Germany, placing him joint-third in the country's all-time list, behind only Gerd Muller and Miroslav Klose.

He’s quick and is probably the most natural finisher at Arsenal. He’s just been part of the squad that won the World Cup.

And yet, last week, when he seemed likely to be on his way to Juventus, as Sami Mokbel of the Daily Mail reported, few at Arsenal were up in arms. Rather, it seemed a logical move.

Michael Regan/Getty Images

Podolski has never quite settled, never made any position his own, and seems to have been superseded by the arrivals of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez.

The move to Juve seems now not to be happening after Arsene Wenger said on Tuesday: "Podolski is in the squad for Wednesday and will stay with us", as BBC Sport noted. But there are clear doubts about his future.

Although Podolski was on the bench for the 1-0 win over Besiktas in the Champions League play-off round, second leg, on Wednesday, he still hasn’t played a minute of football this season.

That is surely telling, even taking into account the fact Wenger has been concerned not to rush back the players who lifted the World Cup with Germany.

His goalscoring record for Arsenal is actually reasonably good: He has scored 19 times in 39 Premier League starts over the past two seasons, but, of course, the bigger question is why he has only started half of Arsenal’s league matches.

Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

There have been injuries, obviously—most notably the muscular problems which kept him out for just over three months last season—but even when he has been in the team, he has rarely looked like a regular.

Part of the issue is that he is a strangely limited footballer. Essentially, Podolski is good at two things: He runs very quickly in straight lines, and he can kick a ball precisely with some power with minimal back lift.

He is not especially technically gifted and unlikely ever to be able to unlock a packed defence with a moment of skill or vision. In the vast majority of their league games, of course, Arsenal face teams who sit men behind the ball.

Gero Breloer/Associated Press

It’s no coincidence that Podolski’s best games came with the Germany national team around 2010. That was a superb counter-attacking team, brilliant at taking advantage when others came at them.

The front four of Podolski, Klose, Ozil and Thomas Muller was supremely drilled. They had almost set moves, practised again and again to be enacted in the appropriate circumstances. None of what they did was especially difficult, but they were precise and quick in their combinations.

Podolski, essentially, ran quickly and played simple passes his brain had been pre-programmed to make. At that, he excelled.

In the looser, more improvisational structure of Arsenal—as at Bayern Munich beforehand—he has found it harder to make an impact, let down by both that lack of guile and his decision-making.

That’s why, from an attacking point of view, some of his better performances have come against better teams, such as at home to Bayern in 2013 and away against Liverpool in 2012.

But there is also the issue of his defending. Whether he cannot or whether he will not is unclear, but Podolski tracks only infrequently, offering little or no support for his full-back.

Jon Super/Associated Press

When Romelu Lukaku, playing on the right, ripped Arsenal apart for Everton at Goodison Park last season, Nacho Monreal was left exposed by Podolski.

When the German was taken off by Wenger midway through the first half of Arsenal’s game at Chelsea last year, they were already 3-0 down and reduced to 10 men.

According to WhoScored.com, last season he averaged only 0.9 tackles and 0.2 interceptions per game. They played different roles, but it’s still revealing that Chelsea's Willian averaged 1.8 tackles and 0.7 interceptions per game. Podolski simply offers no defensive cover. 

That makes him a paradox. He is at his most useful when he plays good sides and can attack the space behind them, but that is also when he is at his most problematic because he doesn’t offer the defensive capacity most needed in those games.

It is little wonder no manager has ever quite worked out a way of regularly involving him.

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