Can Lukas Podolski help Arsenal with their still-possible title push? It depends on how he is accommodated in the team in the absence of key players due to injury, including Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere, Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey.
By all intents and purposes, Lukas Podolski has failed to live up to the huge expectation, which heralded his signing by Arsenal; although his coming to Arsenal was not unaccompanied by skeptical voices.
At his signing by Arsenal, his doubters pointed to his failure at Bayern Munich as proof he would likewise not succeed at Arsenal. They suggested that his success at FC Koln was the result of the smaller stage that Cologne is.
Podolski broke into Cologne's first team in 2003, having joined in 1995. His distinguished performance there led to a call-up by the German national team.
As part of the World Cup team, Podolski had a breakthrough performance at the 2006 World Cup, leading to the opportunity at Bayern Munich.
A combination of injuries and in-form experienced players ahead of him prevented his becoming a regular first XI player at the club, where his form remained inconsistent and his goal haul a meager 15 in 71 league games, many of them from the bench.
His return to Cologne in 2009 and the rekindling of form during the 2011-12 season opened the door to Arsenal.
Two seasons later, it appears the skeptics were correct. Similar kinds of problems as those at Bayern have plagued him at Arsenal.
First, having been given the No. 9 Jersey suggesting that Arsene Wenger had intended to use him as Arsenal's main striker, Podolski has played without the awareness the striking position requires, often looking lost and unsure in this position.
His failure to interpret the No. 9 role has consigned him to playing wide left. But rather than solidifying this position for himself, he has been reduced to playing second fiddle to Santi Cazorla, whom Wenger prefers for this role.
Podolski's inability to become a regular first-team member at Arsenal remains baffling, giving his success in the German national team, even if his form there has also waned in the last couple of years.
Can injury and Cazorla be blamed for this, or is there another factor hindering this potential star player?
I believe a contributing factor to Podolski's lack of impact at Arsenal is the team's one-dimensional approach to formation, which results in players being forced or adapted into the formation rather than the other way round.
Whereas this factor is not the result of lack of imagination from the manager—who on occasions has tinkered with the formation even if subtly—but more of exigency, it nevertheless constrains not only Podolski but also Arsenal in a number of ways.
First, it makes it easy for a tenacious and imaginative opponent to neutralize Arsenal, and when this happens, Arsenal often lack a plan B to fall upon.
Second, it results in like-for-like substitutions that often fail to generate the required impact that this should give to a team.
Third, it renders Arsenal inflexible since there's just one option and approach in terms of general tactics. One can contrast that with Roberto Martinez's teams, which always display tactical flexibility that Wenger's Arsenal lack.
Of course, the huge expectation to win every match and finish in the top four, despite having to rebuild his team almost every season over the last few years, is a huge factor in Wenger's apparent lack of formational flexibility.
Nevertheless, this problem has contributed to Podolski's failure to settle at Arsenal.
It is apparent for anyone who has followed Podolski that, in terms of striking, he is an arriver rather than the apical point of a formation.
Put differently, Podolski is more effective and at home when he plays off a main striker. Formation wise, 4-4-1-1 suits him best. His preferred position would be analogous to Dennis Bergkamp's in Wenger's first-decade Arsenal, a position in the hole behind the main striker.
But whereas Bergkamp was a playmaker, Podolski is not. But if you look at his goals, you'd see that many of them are a product of him running or arriving into space to drive home the ball.
Because Wenger prefers his team to control the midfield, it results in his rigid adherence to the 4-2-3-1 (4-2-1-3) formation. This leaves players like Podolski in limbo.
And whereas other formations like a 3-4-2-1, 3-5-1 or 4-3-2-1 could—without sacrificing midfield dominance—accommodate Podolski in his preferred position, Arsenal’s lack of formational flexibility due to the pressure to win every time eliminates these options.
True, Podolski has played for the German national team mainly on the left, but the class in the team often frees him to run into space in the manner described above.
And whereas Podolski can strive to impose himself on the left at Arsenal, it would be best if from time to time Wenger could tinker with the formation so as to play him in his position of strength. This would allow Arsenal to get the best out of Podolski.
Beside this, Podolski needs the kind of trust and support he had at Cologne. One can never underestimate the impact of such a support on a player's self-belief.
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