Lukas Podolski’s transfer from his hometown club FC Cologne to Arsenal FC was finally publicly confirmed this week to little surprise after numerous media outlets had long reported that the move had already been rubber-stamped months ago. The German striker has been red-hot form this season: at time of writing with one more Bundesliga game to go, Podolski has scored 18 goals and provided 6 assists in 28 apperances. His outstanding performances have earned him 4 man-of-the-match awards, and his goals have fired him to becoming the 4th-highest goalscorer in the Bundesliga this season.
Podolski’s performances have been even more impressive considering that he’s been playing for Cologne, a team that has been battling relegation throughout the season, and who often spend most of their time defending deep. Podolski has undoubtedly been Cologne’s player of the season by a mile, his 18 goals representing 47% of Cologne’s 38 goal total – only 4 other players in the league have such a high direct goal contribution, the same 4 players who have outscored Podolski.
This marks Podolski’s personal best-ever top-flight season, as the only time he has ever scored more league goals was in the second tier of German football league, the 2nd Bundesliga. His goalscoring exploits have definitely been a factor for Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger’s decision to splurge a reported £11million for the striker’s services, but the reason for the huge amount of excitement and anticipation regarding his arrival is his performances for Germany.
Podolski has been a mainstay in both Jurgen Klinsmann’s and Joachim Low’s starting XIs since he burst onto the international scene back in the memorable 2006 World Cup where he helped Germany to finish 3rd on home soil, and was crowned as the Best Young Player of the tournament: ahead of players such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Podolski’s international displays have been excellent throughout his career, with a very impressive 43 goals in 95 international caps, and that worldwide spotlight has always led many casual fans to believe in Podolski’s supposed world-class quality.
1) Can Podolski cut it at a big club?
However, Podolski’s club career has panned out rather disappointingly compared to his international one. He made his first big-money move when he left FC Cologne for German giants Bayern Munich for a reported €10 million just before the 2006 World Cup, and his 2006 World Cup displays naturally led to Bayern believing they had captured a real diamond in the making. Unfortunately for Podolski, he had Luca Toni and fellow international teammate Miroslav Klose in front of him in the pecking order, and a combination of injuries, homesickness and little playing opportunities resulted in Podolski scoring just 26 goals in 106 appearances in all competitions across 3 seasons.
He promptly left Bayern to return to Cologne in 2009, and continued struggling to return to his original goalscoring form when he managed a measly 3 goals in 31 appearances in the 2009/10 season. He did score 14 goals in the 2010/11 season, and built on that successful campaign with this season’s high scoring form.
Taking into account Podolski’s less than spectacular club career, inevitably, the first big question raised is whether he can adapt to not being the main player – a situation where he obviously struggled with at Bayern. His move to a big club was quite rightly deemed a failure, and his decision to return to Cologne suggested a need/desire to be in familiar surroundings, and perhaps being the big fish in a small pond. His fellow Bundesliga striker Klass-Jan Huntelaar has shown how being at a small club may suit certain players, after unsuccessful stints at Real Madrid and Milan led to him joining Schalke 04.
Arsenal fans will be glad to know that 3 years on, and Podolski is definitely a better player and being Cologne’s captain, more used to bigger responsibilities. Unfortunately for Cologne, his goals couldn’t push his team towards guaranteed top-flight survival: they are set to play in a relegation play-off to determine their fate for next season – Podolski’s last game for Cologne. The question of whether Podolski can ‘adapt to the Premier League’ has been reduced to moot after the likes of Papiss Cisse – who moved from Bundesliga club Freiburg to Newcastle – showed how quality will always shine through.
2) What is Podolski’s role at Arsenal?
On paper, Podolski as a player seems to be a perfect fit for Arsenal. He has the speed and pace that almost all Arsenal attackers have, while the strong features of his game are also the features that Wenger’s team lack, such as strength, strong direct dribbling, as well as a willingness and capability to shoot powerfully and accurately – often from distance.
Yet as is often the case in football, bringing in such a high-profile player leads to speculation regarding Podolski’s role in the Arsenal squad, ie the second big question: was Podolski brought in to partner and play with Robin van Perise, or to replace the Premier League’s Player of the Season?
Podolski’s versatility means he can play wide left like he does for Germany, as the main striker leading the line as how he is usually deployed at Cologne, or even as a supporting striker. Thus, there are plenty of options for Wenger to tinker around with, and the most likely role for Podolski is out on the left wing – should van Persie stay. But many have speculated that Podolski’s arrival was in preparation for van Persie’s departure, an event Arsenal fans will not welcome at all.
3) Does this represent a shift away from Wenger’s transfer policy?
There is a perception that Wenger only buys young, unproven players in bargain deals, and that the signing of Podolski signals Wenger’s intent to finally use some of that big budget that Arsenal supposedly give him every transfer window, and purchase some big-name experienced players.
However, one only has to look at Arsenal’s transfer records to realise that the many myths surrounding Wenger’s transfer preferences are unfounded.
Many pundits and fans have been calling for Wenger to add more experienced players who are instantly ready to challenge for the title – yet Wenger has been doing that to quite an extent over the past seasons already.
For starters, the purchases of centre-back Per Mertesacker and forward Gervinho from the last summer transfer windows are good examples of Wenger choosing to buy experienced players.
Mertesacker has 79 international caps for Germany, having established himself in Germany’s starting XI from the 2006 World Cup, continuing to be a first-team regular even up till today. He has also played in the Champions League and UEFA Cup for Werder Bremen – losing the final of the latter in 2009 – and winning the DFB Pokal in that same year. As for Gervinho, he arrived from Lille having scored 15 league goals and helping Lille clinch the domestic double – winning both the Ligue 1 and the Coupe de France in 2011.
Looking further back prior to the 2010/11 season, Wenger also bought the likes of Sebastien Squillaci and Marouane Chamakh. Squillaci arrived in London with plenty of titles to his name such as consecutive league triumphs and domestic doubles with Lyon, the Copa del Rey with Sevilla, and even a Champions League runner-up medal with Monaco (who had lost to Jose Mourinho’s famous Porto team).
Similar to Gervinho, Chamakh came to Arsenal having won 5 trophies including the domestic double with Bordeaux in 2009 – winning the Ligue 1 and the Coupe de la Ligue.
Wenger’s willingness to splash the cash – for the right player – also dates back to the transfer window before the 2009/10 season where Andrei Arshavin became Arsenal’s record-signing in a move worth £15 million. This came after Arshavin starred in Russia’s Euro 2008 campaign and was in the UEFA Team of the Tournament, and had won the 2007 Russian Football Championship and the UEFA Cup, UEFA Sup Cup and Russian Super Cup in 2008.
These numerous examples are evidence of how Wenger is willing to bring in experienced players, players who had won many trophies and titles in the top-flight before coming to Arsenal – and Podolski is just the latest in the line of these players.
Admittedly, the reason why Wenger is considered to be slightly stingy with his money is because all the above signings have been failures, or limitedly successful at best. Mertesacker and Squillaci both have been consistently found wanting defensively with a series of errors, while Chamakh quickly lost his goalscoring instincts after a profilic but short start to his Arsenal career. Gervinho has been a relatively good signing in his first season in London, but Arshavin has sunk to new lows having been sent back to Zenit St. Petersburg on loan.
In fact, looking at some of Arsenal’s best players now – Wojciech Szczesny, Alex Song, Mikel Arteta, Laurent Kolscielny, Bacary Sagna and van Persie – they have all been relatively cheaper signings who joined Arsenal having won little with their previous clubs. Only perhaps Thomas Vermaelen and Tomas Rosicky have been more high-profile expensive signings – and even Rosicky has taken ages to reach top form after a injury-hit career in London.
As such, given his success rate with such signings, it’s only normal that Wenger continue with cheaper signings and be careful about spending more money on more established players. (Of course the counter-argument is that although they are Arsenal’s better players, Arsenal are nowhere near being title-winners because their best players simply aren’t good enough).
Wenger is likely to continue buying experienced players like those mentioned above, coupled with the young starlets that he loves so much, such as Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and the latest being the likes of Carl Jenkinson, Ryo Miyachi and Alex Oxalde-Chamberlain. It will be a massive surprise if the signing of Podolski marks the beginning of Wenger only signing experienced players and zero youngsters.
In any case, the 3 questions Podolski’s arrival poses are difficult ones, hardly meant to be answered at the moment because of football’s thrilling unpredictability. Nonetheless, Arsenal and Premier League fans will be waiting with great anticipation for the man they call ‘Prinz Poldi’, and in spite of all the factors that might suggest otherwise, I hope and really believe that Podolski will be a big success.