Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The strange case of Lukas Podolski

There was a point towards the end of August, when despite Arsenal's only summer signing being Yaya Sanogo, the papers were insistent that Lukas Podolski was about to move to Schalke in a swap deal for Kyrgiakos Papadopoulos. Even ignoring the press' obsession with pretending that real life is like Football Manager and that swap deals are a regular and realistic option for clubs, it raised a very important point: Arsenal bought Podolski for around 11 million pounds, a cheap fee because his beloved Köln had been relegated. He then proceeded to have a successful first season and in August was 28, in the peak years of his career.

In other words, it would have been fair to value him at about 20 million pounds. And yet I couldn't think of one team who would pay that and I would be upset if my team did for a player of Podolski's calibre. Therein lies the problem: people speculate about him being off this summer but who is going to pay his fee? Maybe that means he is worth less than 20 million - typical Tory argument about the market always being right - but if so, the benefit to Arsenal of selling Podolski is diminished.

More to the point, at which top team is he going to get more game time than he is currently getting at Arsenal? All speculation about him leaving is entirely contingent on him being happy to go back to being the best player at a mid-table club, and that sort of club being able to afford him. I think it's unlikely.

I find the idea that the manager doesn't "fancy him" slightly fatuous. If you look at how often he has picked Podolski when he is fit, it suggests that he is indeed a player who is highly rated at the club. That he hasn't come off the bench in certain recent matches is more an indicator of how in a tight game, introducing a player as defensively incompetent as Podolski is a big risk. It's not that he doesn't attempt to track back - he does, that's why he's always knackered after 65-70 minutes - it's just that he's not very good at it. He doesn't understand defensive positioning and consistently helps to leave his full-back exposed. The contrast with Cazorla is vast. Santi wasn't especially good defensively when he came to the club, but has improved enormously. He was even making slide tackles against Man United - my friend Chris has nicknamed him "Santi the enforcer".

The idea that Podolski is subbed off for any reason other than fitness simply does not explain why he is consistently subbed off. If Wenger simply "didn't fancy him" why would he start Podolski and play him for 65-70 minutes before taking him off? Even the argument that he wasn't subbed off much at Köln has little substance to it - at Köln he had far fewer defensive responsibilities as a central striker, and hence played a less tiring role. And As Köln were relegated, striving to emulate them is probably misguided.

It's certainly true that Podolski has been subbed off less for Germany than for Arsenal, but that's probably just because he has played alongside players with even worse stamina - Mario Gomez, Miroslav Klose and Thomas Muller stand out here. Given that the vast majority of substitutions are made for physical rather than tactical reasons - and Wenger consistently replaces Podolski with another left winger - it's reasonable to surmise from all the evidence available that the main reason Podolski is subbed off is because of his fitness.

With regard to the wider question of how good Podolski is, I think the answer is not as good as his record suggests. People who compare his conversion rates with Giroud's miss the point - Podolski almost only shoots when a goal is likely. That's not a criticism of him. But if the entire team played like him, the 'SHOOOOOOOT' brigade at the Emirates would get even angrier, so comparing the two strikers' conversation rates to work out who is a better player is absurd. In general, one stat on its own reveals almost nothing and quite often actually points you in the wrong direction.

People rave about his bullet shot but guess what - opposition managers watch Arsenal too. The reason he's not banging in brilliant goals the whole time is that opposition teams know to close Podolski down when he gets the ball in a shooting position, a job made considerably easier by - how shall I put this delicately? - Podolski's less-than-brilliant anticipation. He grabbed the headlines as he scored the winning goal, but there was more than one occasion during Sunday's match against Liverpool where I was screaming "run Lukas, run" as Mesut Özil held the ball up for what felt like an eternity for Podolski to catch up with the play. Even when he's up with play, his movement in terms of getting into positions where he can actually pick the ball up and look threatening, without team-mates' producing moments of sheer brilliance to assist him, are few and far between.

This might seem like a hyper-critical take on Podolski, and to an extent, it is. But the value of a player who both struggles to play centre forward in Arsenal's current system, and also lacks the defensive nous to protect his full back effectively as a wide player is limited. Certainly Podolski gets lots of goals and assists, and in a way he reminds me of Theo Walcott three years ago, in terms of being able to point to end product. The difference is that Walcott's pace was an added advantage for the team as it made difficult for the opposition to commit vast numbers of players forward; Podolski doesn't have a similar attribute.

Realistically, I expect Podolski to remain at Arsenal in the summer and continue in roughly the same vein: contributing a reasonable number of goals and assists, playing regularly against smaller teams where his defensive lapses matter less, but playing in fewer big games than some pundits might like. Podolski is a very good player but not a great player. And he should be viewed in that light.

Keep the faith.

No comments: