A more mature Podolski set to prosper in Premier League
It's been a very good season for Bundesliga strikers. Bayern Munich's Mario Gomez and Klaas Jan Huntelaar from Schalke 04 are head-to-head in the race for the leading goal-scorer trophy, with 23 league strikes each. (In all club competitions, the two of them have netted a combined 74 times so far). Polish attacker Robert Lewandowski has emerged as a key factor in Dortmund's title challenge (17 goals) while Claudio Pizarro (Werder Bremen, 16 goals) and Martin Harnik (Stuttgart, 14 goals) is almost single-handedly keeping his team in contention for a Europa League spot.
Recent deportees have fared well, too. Miroslav Klose has scored 13 in 26 Serie A games for Lazio to become an instant folk hero. And at Newcastle United, Papiss Demba Cissé has chipped in with nine goals in eight matches since his move from SC Freiburg in the winter break. The Senegalese striker's success in the Premier League suggests that widespread doubts about a forward's ability to score "at the highest-level" are often misguided. There was, on the contrary, no logical reason why an in-form attacker who had found the net 37 times in 65 matches for perennial relegation battlers Freiburg should not succeed when put next to better players in a system that utilized his strengths.
Second-guessing how well Lukas Podolski would do in an Arsenal FC shirt is a slightly more complicated exercise, however. The 26-year-old forward is currently enjoying his most prolific season in the top flight with lowly 1. FC Köln, having scored 17 times. The impressive number is testament to the Polish-born striker's new maturity, high-work rate and efficiency on the pitch but also reflects rather less well on his previous exploits. The season before, he'd set a new personal best, with only 13 league strikes, after a terrible spell at Bayern had yielded only 15 Bundesliga goals in three years.
Up until this season, it was possible to argue that Podolski maintained his place in Germany squad despite his club performances, rather than because of them. Unsurprisingly, his much more eye-catching hit-rate for Germany at international level, where he's amassed a cool 43 goals in 95 games, has been more often cited by the UK media and excited Arsenal fans as evidence of his pedigree.
How much can really be read into these stats, however? In Germany, there's long been a suspicion that his excellent rate has owed more to the lack of real quality at the supposed "highest-level" than to his own skill. After a competent but by comparison with his peers fairly indifferent World Cup in South Africa,
A closer look at his Germany record shows that some of the cynicism was justified. Podolski has scored a goal each in games against Brazil, England and Russia and netted eight times in three major tournaments but the bulk of his strikes has come against much more modest opposition like San Marino (4), South Africa (3), Liechentstein (3), Azerbaijan (2), Luxembourg (2), Thailand (2), Slovakia (2), Ecuador (1), Austria (1), Cyprus (1), Slovenia (1), Northern Ireland (1), China (1), Finland (1), Kazakhstan (1) or Hungary (1).
At Bayern, Podolski's game time was limited by the presence of Luca Toni and Miroslav Klose. But his own inability to adapt was a key factor as well. He spoke of missing Cologne, of needing the trust of his managers, of "not having to prove anything." The left touchline provided him with a modicum of guidance in the national team but in his preferred position as the second striker, Podolski lacked focus, effort and geographical awareness. But he didn't know it. When Germany captain Michael Ballack complained that he wasn't running into space enough in a game against Wales (April 2009) Podolski slapped him in the face.
Three years later, Podolski is without a doubt a bigger man and better player. Being the captain and sole star performers of his struggling team has resulted in him taking on more responsibility and, perhaps, developing more of a sense of perspective. Podolski used to pride himself on "never thinking in front of goal" but he's been able to add a considerable amount of on-pitch intelligence to his more instinctive talents (strong left foot, pace, directness) this season. Eighteen months after many experts announced the end of his reign on Germany's left, he's still Jogi Löw's first choice for the role. The outrageously talented Mario Götze (Dortmund), a player that Arsène Wenger wanted to sign as well, will have to make do with a place on the bench at the Euros, alongside other pretenders to Prinz Poldi's throne like Marco Reus (Gladbach) and André Schürrle of Leverkusen.
Watching Gervinho's frustrating lack of progress this year makes it hard to believe that Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger has his team practicing specific attacking patterns days on end. Podolski, to be sure, would certainly benefit from the sort of detailed instructions that Germany manager Joachim Löw relies upon. Day to day coaching of the highest order at the Gunner's base camp in London Colney, combined with a much more attacking setup and better teammates should, in theory, bring out the best of Köln's best-loved player since Pierre Littbarski. "He's ready for a move abroad now," Löw said in February.
Wenger, it's fair to assume, will have been more impressed with Podolski's improved performances in recent months than his Germany numbers, and for good reason. His still fairly raw potential is more exciting than his flat-track-bully antics with the national team.
The player's flexibility also ticks the right boxes. No one -- including perhaps Wenger himself -- can be sure whether Robin van Persie will still be at the club come August but in Podolski, Arsenal have a ready-made replacement. Just like the Dutchman, Podolski is a playing center-forward, happy to drift deep and to turn provider. The German might have to bulk up a little to lead the line in the Premier League but he's certainly brave and robust enough to to play on his own up front. Granted, he's not quite at Van Persie's level yet. But then who is?
Podolski would maybe be slightly more effective behind another forward in 4-3-2-1 system or he could play wide out on the left, as for Germany, in case Van Persie stays. He will certainly offer a bigger goal-threat on that flank than Gervinho, Rosicky or Benayoun, so his addition makes sense irrespective of Van Persie's possible departure. It'll certainly be fascinating to see if he can become the latest former Bundesliga forward to succeed abroad, after Berbatov, Santa Cruz, Pogrebniak, Demba Ba, Cissé or lose his way the way Edin Dzeko inexplicably seems to have done at Manchester City. I'd suggest that in Poldi's case, one shouldn't actually believe the hype. He's better than his Germany goal-scoring record suggests.