Hugo Greenhalgh returns to examine Lukas Podolski’s impact as a substitute and the subsequent fear of typecasting…
He miscontrolled it. He lost possession. He clattered into his opponent, in what should have definitely have been a foul. Ten seconds later Lukas Podolski had scored the crucial last minute goal to give Arsenal victory in Brussels on Wednesday night.
This cameo (he was only on the pitch for 6 minutes) did a lot to reinforce what we already know about Podolski: give him the ball at his feet and there a few more clinical finishers in world football. However, this skill is offset by a number disadvantages that make a place in Arsenal’s starting XI ever more unlikely. He is clumsy, prone to error and lacklustre defensively in a side that is often left worryingly exposed on the counter.
Cast your mind back to Arsenal’s last 16 second leg against Bayern last season. Podolski was on the scoresheet but again the goal illustrated his flaws as much as his attributes. He barged Philipp Lahm off the ball, in what should have quite obviously been a foul, before bursting into the box and scoring. This lethal ability has been part of his game since he was a teenager, one of the young stars of the 2006 World Cup but he has done very little since to improve as a player.
What Wednesday night did prove is that Podolski is most effective when coming off the bench; his “bull in a china shop” approach is a lot to handle against those infamous “tired legs”. Yet unfortunately for him the goal simply retrenches his position as a substitute.
A recent victim of this substitutes’ curse is Edin Dzeko. The Bosnian striker suffered from being typecast as a goalscoring Plan B, rather than the man to lead the City line. This was unlucky. It was only until the end of last season that a run of starts allowed Dzeko to show what he was capable of. As it happens, he is much more of a complete footballer than Podolski ever could be, but continually found his path blocked by Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli, players who didn’t share Dzeko’s perceived humility. As he was all too ready to point out, he had never been a “super sub” before in his career; this was a man who had lead Wolfsburg to a Bundesliga title and had come with a £27 million price tag.
Manuel Pellegrini also seemed unsure how to use Dzeko at first, in the presence of a more talented team mate (Sergio Aguero), a less talented opportunist (Alvaro Negrado) and simply for his knack of scoring late goals off the bench. When an older footballer has this ability it is very easy to think of them as some sort of “special team” player, charged with changing a game late on rather than setting its pace.
As for Podolski, he seems reasonably content to play second fiddle and he will probably have to as long as he is an Arsenal player. For all his critics, Olivier Giroud has played a key role in this Arsenal side as the man to hold up the ball and bring the highly talented midfield into play; if Podolski is the last sprinter in a 4 x 100m relay, Giroud is most definitely a marathon runner who has put his body through the mire numerous times for his side.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made a career out of his explosive performances off the bench, in spite of his rather limited attributes. It would be the best example Podolski could follow for the time being. Indeed, with his penchant for selfies and slapstick humour, he can be Arsenal’s very own “Baby Faced Assassin”.