I’d like to show off by starting this post with an Oscar Wilde reference, but I haven’t read the Happy Prince. Truth be told, I only found out it existed when I Googled ‘happy prince’ to see if I could find an amusing image to accompany this post. The reason being that Lukas Podolski‘s nickname in Germany is Prince Poldi, but it’s not clear when he acquired this regal status, or why. I’m interested to know if it offers any insight into his character, because when Arsenal finally signed him, it was hard to know who they were getting: the prolific forward at international level for Germany, or an erratic player who struggles under pressure.
In the story written by Wilde, there’s a prince who does lots of good deeds and everyone loves him, and when he dies they immortalise him with a fancy statue. And then a swallow comes along and chats to the statue, and learns the importance of doing good deeds. Then the swallow dies and the souls of the prince and the swallow ascend to paradise. Wilde was doing a lot of opium back then.
Ok, that wasn’t very helpful. One thing we can all agree on is that Podolski has talent. He showed everyone what he was capable of at the 2006 World Cup, winning FIFA’s Best Young Player award. Since then, he’s been a constant presence in the German national team, racking up an astonishing 103 caps, and scoring 44 times in the process. Those stats make it sound like Arsenal bought a grizzled veteran in his mid-30’s, but Podoski is only 27. We’ve all heard of players who are unable to reproduce their club form for their country, but Podolski suffers from the opposite and rarer affliction; he struggles to sustain his domestic form, but always looks comfortable in the white and black of Die Mannschaft.
The explosive start to his career with Cologne and Germany earned a move to the behemoths of Bavaria, FC Bayern, where he made 108 appearances in all competitions during three seasons. However, again the stats are misleading, because many of these appearances came from the subs bench. Podolski never managed to cement his place in Bayern’s first team and, after three years, he left. There must be a bit of wounded pride to return home in such circumstances, but Cologne were there to ease the pain, ‘Yes, of course, Son, you come home. We’ve kept your room for you, just as you left it.’
And so, the people sang his name, and the little prince was happy again, for a while. Unfortunately, the Kingdom of Cologne can never stay happy for long. In fact, the only thing Cologne do consistently well is chaos. Even so, it is clear that Podolksi felt a lot more confident playing for the Billy Goats. Once again there were glimpses of the talent that had been anticipated since those displays in 2006, and last season was one of his most prolific in years, notching 18 league goals for a desperately poor Cologne side who were relegated despite his efforts. There were smoke bombs and everything – it wasn’t pretty.
Not a very nice way to say goodbye then. And, although Podolski had at least done his best and returned to form, this in itself raises as many questions as it answers. After moving to Bayern, Podolsk had to prove himself again; he was expected to compete for his place in the team. That he was unable to come out on top after three years’ worth of struggle could be down to a number of reasons – a clash of personalities, or a coach who did not make best use of his attributes. But, it could just mean that Podolski wasn’t quite tough enough for the demands of competing for league titles and European trophies.
Does this mean Arsenal need to be wary of his delicate sensibilities? Most definitely, if they want to get the best out of their new purchase. But there’s another important factor to consider here – Podolksi’s age. Not many 27 year olds have over one hundred caps, and the experience he brings with him will surely make him better equipped to cope with the pressure at Arsenal. He may have been diverted from the vertical trajectory at the start of his career, but that doesn’t make it impossible to find a way back. For proof you only have to look at how the talents of Antonio Cassano and Robin Van Persie have flourished in their late 20’s.
Yes, it’s very early days, but the way Podolski has started the season suggests he is not going to struggle with life in the Premier League. His two goals were both excellent strikes, but it was his all round game that tormented Southampton and will have Arsenal’s opponents worried. He has genuine versatility, able to play wide in a front three or through the middle, and brings aggression and purpose to Arsenal’s forward line. But, he looked so formidable as the main striker that Arsene Wenger may decide to keep him there a while longer. Pity the poor Olivier Giroud, who spent most of the Southampton game watching from bench.
Saints’ porous defence will not be the toughest test of the season, but given the sense of doom that followed the departure of Robin Van Persie, the Arsenal fans have been pretty swiftly placated, thanks in no small part to their new German number nine. He was one of the last to leave the pitch at The Emirates on Saturday, soaking up the applause and feeding off the ‘vibes‘ that his manager spoke of. Maybe the Prince will finally find true happiness (see what I did there).