On Monday, Arsenal announced the deal to sign Lukas Podolski from FC Cologne on a long term contract to bring a long running saga to its official conclusion. Some see this as an early signing and a sign of intent, going so far as to infer that lessons have been learnt. Others might say it’s a late signing and should have been wrapped up in January itself. In any case it’s a transaction that most fans have welcomed.
There seems to be a broad consensus that Prinz Poldi has the makings of a world-class player. Arsenal Vision carried a very interesting and informative interview with an FC Cologne fan. Raphael Honigstein says a more mature Podolski is set to prosper in the Premier League. Arsene Wenger has called him a “top-class player”, “very good finisher”, and “a proven performer at club and international level”.
However, there is a slight but vital difference between a proven world-class player and someone who has the potential to be such a star. Podolski’s spell at Bayern wasn’t a success by any stretch of imagination and while his relative failure is attributed to immaturity and bad timing, there is no doubt the German international has a lot to prove at the highest level.
Some might point to his international record – 43 goals in 95 caps is certainly impressive at first glance – and suggest that he is the real deal. But in the article linked above, Honigstein reports a counter-argument made in the German press,
After a competent but by comparison with his peers fairly indifferent World Cup in South Africa, Spiegel called him “a specialist for football minnows” while Süddeutsche Zeitung thought he was a “milieu player,” only able to succeed in special environments.
The German football correspondent then provides a thought-provoking break up of most of Podolski’s goals.
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), Liechtenstein (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).
Clearly, there is some merit to the criticism, but simply labeling the latest Arsenal signing a small-team bully would be extremely unfair. Arsenal fans could, of course, draw attention to the points dropped by the Gunners against some of the lesser lights of the Premier League and rejoice in the acquisition of a player who could make the difference in such encounters.
Naturally, there is also some debate on the roles that he can play at Arsenal. With Robin van Persie on fire as the leading marksman, and hopefully staying beyond the duration of his current contract in a fully fit state, Prinz Poldi might have to play second fiddle to the undisputed king.
Arsene said the new signing will “provide us with good attacking options”. Versatility is a valuable trait at this level, especially if the player is more than competent in different roles. With Germany, particularly under Joachim Low, Podolski has excelled as a left-sided attack-minded winger/striker. At Cologne he’s either played as the central striker or in a two man attack. This means at Arsenal he could play multiple roles.
Many observers have noticed Arsenal’s limited attacking threat down the left flank this season. Being a naturally left-sided player, and thanks to his tactical development with the national team, Poldi could immediately make an impact on that wing. He could also take up the central role when RvP needs a break or is unavailable. The two could also combine in the middle if Arsene wishes to try some tactical variations but that seems less likely given the manager’s reluctance to deviate from his system in recent years.
Without taking the numbers too seriously, comparing some of Prinz Poldi’s stats with those of his new teammates acts as a guide to shape further discussion.
The German international’s shots/goal ratio stands out. There is no doubt he knows where the goalposts are and has the technique to put the ball between them. Corroborative evidence for this is seen from his appreciable goals/game ratio for the national team. Even against minnows a striker has to know how to find the net in order to score his goals. Gervinho and Walcott will tell you it’s not easy.
It’s interesting to note that Podolski has also got a high frequency of successful dribbles. Only Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain have a higher rate, which is understandable given their natural tendencies and strengths. It should come in handy in wide role even if his dribbling mainly involved dropping a shoulder, kicking the ball past the defender, and beating him in a foot-race with a quick change of pace.
Furthermore, it’s worth noting that Podolski has the lowest frequency of getting dispossessed (except Benayoun) or turnovers which implies he doesn’t lose the ball as often. This must have been a valuable quality for his Bundesliga side Cologne which has the second lowest possession stats. Physical strength and strong technical skills are needed to hold the ball under pressure. This surely must be an area where Arsene will want to use and further develop the German’s skills. It can help the Gunners bring the ball out when they’re being pinned back and also when they’re attacking against a packed defence and have to play in tight spaces.
Let’s now look at some other passing related variables,
To go with his 18 goals, Podolski has managed a respectable 6 assists this season, which is all the more commendable given the quality of the team he has been playing in. His chance creation rate (min/kp) is comparable to Walcott and Benayoun but is lower than that of Gervinho, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Van Persie.
The KP/A (key passes/assist) stat is an interesting one. Essentially, it measures the number of chances a player has to create for his team to score a goal. Superficially speaking, this could be a benchmark for the quality of chances created. That would mean Walcott and Gervinho are creating very high quality chances whereas the ones by Van Persie are the weakest. To an extent this is true as the wingers tend to get in behind and provide gilt-edged opportunities in front of goal. Many of RvP’s key passes, on the other hand, have come from set-pieces and had a lower probability of success.
However, there is also the case that Van Persie has been on the end of many of the chances created by his teammates and has made them look easier whereas the chances he’s conjured have not been finished as well by others.
As a side note, it seems better to leave out Benayoun and AOC from this particular discussion given that their numbers under consideration are too small (1 assist, 11 chances created). In other words, if the next chance they create turns into a goal their ratio will drop from 11 to 6, which is too big a change from a single event. Drawing any sort of inferences from such numbers would be counter-productive at best.
With this in mind, Podolski’s KP/A ratio is encouraging as his teammates certainly do not have the class that, say, Van Persie does. This means the German could potentially amass a higher number of assists at Arsenal and better the ratios of other wingers if he can combine effectively with De Kapitein.
Moreover, given that his shots/goal ratio is excellent, Prinz Poldi could convert more of the chances that Van Persie is creating. This would bring RvP’s KP/A ratio to a healthier level and add to the overall goals scored by the team. Again this would depend on the understanding between the two.
Poldi’s Min/Pass ratio is high which means he doesn’t make as many passes, nevertheless it is somewhat better than that of Van Persie. For a striker 3 minutes per pass is not bad. But he’ll have to be more involved if he has to play on the flank. Arsenal have failed to replace the technical qualities of Nasri, which made the job of others easier, so it will be interesting to see if Lukas is the man to bridge the gap and ease the burden on the midfield.
For Germany, he stays relatively higher up the pitch while someone like Muller provides the defensive balance and work rate on the right. At Arsenal, Ramsey could take up that mantle in the big games but that would mean leaving Walcott out. If Theo has to play on the right, Podolski will have to double up as the working-winger, if you will, in order for Arsenal to find the balance the system of play demands.
He’ll also have to improve his passing success, which is the lowest in that table and probably the only area where he lags behind every Arsenal player compared. Then again, it takes two to make a pass and the quality of his teammates would certainly be a factor in that. Similarly, Podolski has not made a high number of through-balls (succeeded with 4 out of 10 attempted) but could potentially do better if he had runners like Van Persie and Walcott alongside.
The future Arsenal player also has a better crossing success rate than Walcott or Gervinho (20 successful out of 106). The Gunners could undoubtedly benefit from better crossing, especially from the left.
All-in-all, with the arrival of the German, one can certainly hope for greater attacking impetus, multiple offensive permutations, and shared responsibility culminating into more goals. And isn’t that the main reason for signing a striker/winger?
The optimism surrounding the signing must also be tempered with a dose of caution. As with any transfer, there are many reasons it could fail. For instance, the up and down nature of the league which produces end-to-end football could be too much for the Cologne No. 10 who has been known to shy away from consistent physical efforts in the past. Or he could react to the grappling and kicking that is common in the Premiership and have disciplinary problems. Let’s not forget Van Persie’s had his issues in the past and just earlier this year Gervinho picked up a three game ban when he succumbed to a clever player’s antics. The Ivorian has since learned his lesson but the German comes with a bigger reputation of being a hothead – he once slapped national captain Ballack on the field of play.
The Prince of Cologne must also prove he can adapt to life outside his comfort zone in a different city, and with big players alongside him, in order to produce consistently outstanding performances in a demanding environment. Some fans might recall a certain Jose Antonio Reyes and wonder if Podolski will have similar struggles.
Football transfers don’t have warranty periods and returns are rarely accepted, certainly not at the same price. These are gambles that clubs have to take. Given the price reportedly paid for Podolski and the qualities he has, this seems like an astute signing by Arsenal. He won’t, on his own, win the major titles for the Gunners and he could struggle to fill in the boots of Van Persie if the Dutchman were to leave or get injured for a long period, but Podolski will make the squad significantly stronger and, crucially, give the manager some options that he’s lacked this season.
Lukas Podolski, welcome to The Arsenal.Follow @goonerdesi