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Regretful Departures: Podolski and Van Persie



Three summers ago, Robin Van Persie was involved in that transfer window’s major saga as he moved from Arsenal to Manchester United in search of a Premier League winner’s medal. In preparation for his departure, Arsenal purchased Lukas Podolski earlier that same summer. Three years on and both players have moved to Turkey, Van Persie to Fenerbahce and Podolski to their great rivals Galatasaray. Their respective departures prompt reflection about why the intervening three seasons have not played out as either player or either club would have wished.

Having said that, Van Persie’s United career was by no means an unqualified failure. In hindsight, all parties involved in his transfer from Arsenal gained something. The player won the league title he had long craved, having made a judgment that he was more likely to achieve this at Old Trafford than the Emirates. As things stood in the summer of 2012, this was a sound judgement. He scored 26 league goals in his first season, helping Sir Alex Ferguson to wrestle the title from Manchester City in his final campaign.

Though watching Van Persie win the league in the shirt of a historic rival caused much pain and consternation in Arsenal circles, in truth, it was a good deal for them as well. £24 million for a 29 year old striker with one year remaining on his contract was an offer too good to refuse. Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud were purchased for roughly that sum.

Furthermore, in the last two seasons it’s looked an increasingly good deal as Van Persie’s time at United slowly turned sour. Without a doubt the turning point of Van Persie’s time at the club was the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson; Van Persie was purportedly devastated that he only got to play under him for a sole season. Like other senior players at the club, he did not respond well to the methods employed by David Moyes, with the two barely speaking to each other during the final months of the 2013/14 season.

The appointment of Louis Van Gaal, who Van Persie had worked with at international level, seemed to promise a change of fortune. However, having been overlooked by Van Gaal in the contest for the Manchester United captaincy, Van Persie endured another difficult season punctuated by injury. In what would prove to be his final season at Old Trafford he scored just 10 league goals.

Aside from the managerial changes that seemed cause him disillusionment, it was an old problem that ultimately proved to be Van Persie’s undoing; injuries. When chroniclers of the Premier League era look back on Van Persie’s time in England, they will see just one window between January 2011 and May 2013 when he was free of injury. During this period, he was without question a ‘world class’ centre forward. His early career at Arsenal and last two season’s at United however, will be assessed as periods of unrealised potential due to injuries. At Arsenal these were largely impact injures, his notorious glass like ankles were always carefully wrapped up and padded on matchdays. Recently, there have been more muscular problems that tend to re-occur as players age.

Many people wrongly assume that Olivier Giroud was signed as Van Persie’s replacement at Arsenal; in fact, his successor was Lukas Podolski. Like Van Persie, Podolski is a precise and clinical finisher with an extremely powerful left foot, so one can see the logic that lay behind Arsene Wenger’s decision to bring him to Arsenal. He was given the No.9 shirt and started as the lone central striker on the first day of the 2012/13 season at home to Sunderland.

In Amy Lawrence’s recent book, Invincible, Arsene Wenger uses Podolski as an example to make the point that sometimes a player can end up playing in a position other than the one he was originally signed to play in. This, Wenger argues, is because managers can only fully assess a players qualities once they have worked with them and examined them in training. In Podolski’s case, Arsene Wenger swiftly concluded that he was not suited to being a central striker in Arsenal’s system.

The key issue with Podolski was that he was far too static; whether his lack of movement was due to a lack of understanding of how to play as a lone striker or even sheer laziness. Robin Van Persie was no whippet, but his movement, especially in the box, was exceptional. Gary Neville famously compared Van Persie to a ‘burglar in your house’ in the way in which he deceived defenders with sharp and subtle double movements.

Podolski doesn’t possess such qualities. Granted, when the ball does arrive at his left foot he is capable of firing it with great power and accuracy towards the goal. However, he relied too heavily on service rather than creating space for himself and others through good movement. Arsene Wenger quickly decided that he was better suited in a wide left role.

Last season though, it became apparent that Podolski lacked the attributes to play in that role as well. Firstly, there were concerns about his work rate and defensive application. Arsene Wenger spoke in the spring about the importance of ‘transitions’ in the modern game; that all players have to switch rapidly from defence to attack and vica versa. Those who couldn’t do this, Wenger claimed, couldn’t play. It was clear that Podolski would be rendered redundant should this logic be followed to its conclusion.

Perhaps in a response to the heavy away defeats of 2013/14, Wenger has preferred the more industrious Alexis Sanchez, Danny Welbeck, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain or even Aaron Ramsey in wide areas. If you look back at Arsenal’s win at Man City in January, you will notice how diligently Sanchez and Chamberlain filed back to help their full back. Podolski could not be trusted to get through such a workload. Arsene Wenger was reluctant to play Theo Walcott on the right for a similar reason.

Moreover, Podolski always looked incongruous within Arsenal’s considered and at times intricate build up play. He was a bulldozer among ballet dancers. Contrast this with Olivier Giroud, whose array of clever flicks and touches as seen him become a vital cog in Arsenal’s attacking wheel. A more direct team, possibly where he can play as the second striker in a pair will suit Podolski far better. He leaves Arsenal with decent numbers though, having scored 31 goals in 55 competitive starts.

Neither Podolski nor Van Persie were out and out failures at their respective clubs, but their examples prove that a complex balancing act is required to make a transfer an unqualified success. In Van Persie’s case, the timing of his Manchester United career was unfortunate due to the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson and the two tough years that have followed. In Podolski’s case, a talented player with international pedigree who never quite fitted into his suitors system or style.

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University of Nottingham History graduate. Freelance sportswriter specialising in Football, Cricket and Golf. Interested in the politics of sport.


Why Everton are the perfect club for Theo Walcott to rebuild his career

Rob Meech



Theo Walcott

It is hard to believe Theo Walcott is only 28 years old. He burst on to the scene aged 16 for Southampton in League One and was snapped up by Arsenal shortly afterwards. His inexplicable selection for England’s 2006 World Cup squad, without playing in a single Premier League game, transformed him into an overnight star.

Big things have been expected of Walcott ever since. It’s fair to say that, despite winning 47 caps for England and making 397 appearances for Arsenal, he has failed to live up to the hype. Now, after 12 years, Walcott is bidding farewell to the Emirates and hoping to revive his flagging career under Sam Allardyce at Everton, whom he has joined for £20 million after agreeing terms on a three-and-a-half-year deal.

Speculation that Walcott’s days at Arsenal were numbered had persisted for several years, but his desire to prove himself at the club kept him in north London even when admirers came calling. His 21 goals in all competitions in the 2012/13 campaign suggested he had cracked it, but that proved to be a false dawn.

In truth, Walcott’s decision to sign for Everton was probably a no-brainer. Now in the prime of his career, he simply has to be playing regularly. The reality of how far down the pecking order he had fallen at Arsenal struck this season, when he often failed to make Arsene Wenger’s match-day squad. His last appearance for the Gunners came as a second-half substitute in the 2-1 defeat to Bournemouth.

Everton’s interest in Walcott emerged only recently, but he was clearly one of Allardyce’s top targets. One look at the Toffees’ recent form underlines why. After an immediate upturn in fortunes after the former England boss’s appointment, Everton have embarked on a winless streak that stretches back to December 18.

Lack of pace is a pressing concern and this is an attribute that Walcott possesses in abundance. The likes of Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson are intelligent footballers, but not the type that will blitz opposition defenders. Instead, they have relied on chipping balls over the top for the striker to chase. As such, Everton are one-dimensional and easy to play against, with no player capable of launching a counter-attack.

Also highlighting their urgent need for more firepower is the grim statistic that only rock-bottom Swansea have had fewer shots than Everton this season. New big-money signing Cenk Tosun has increased competition in the striking department but may take time to settle, whereas Walcott’s Premier League pedigree means no transitional period will be needed.

The former Southampton man’s versatility makes him an attractive proposition. For Arsenal, he predominantly featured on the right wing – either in a four-man midfield or a three-man attack – but he is equally adept at playing up top on his own, a position where he tried but ultimately failed to establish himself at the Emirates.

Potential is a word that has long been associated with Walcott. It is no longer applicable. At 28, this is possibly his final chance to realise his ambitions, both domestically and internationally. Everton, a sleeping giant, are a perfect fit. Under the auspices of major shareholder Farhad Moshiri, plans are in the pipeline for a brand-spanking new stadium to enable them to compete alongside the Premier League’s elite.

After being a peripheral figure at Arsenal for so long, Walcott has become the forgotten man of English football. For the sake of his career, he simply had to leave north London. By joining Everton, Walcott, who will wear the number 11 shirt, has the security of working under a manager who rates him highly. Now, he has the opportunity to become the player he always promised to be.

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Bournemouth 2-1 Arsenal: Three talking points from the Vitality Stadium

Rob Meech



Photo: Reuters

Bournemouth came from behind to claim a much-needed victory over Arsenal, whose hopes of qualifying for the Champions League have suffered another blow.

After an insipid opening period at the Vitality Stadium, the action sparked into life when Hector Bellerin broke the deadlock on 52 minutes.

But Arsenal’s lead was short-lived, as goals from Callum Wilson and Jordon Ibe – his first for the club – secured the Cherries’ fourth home win of the season, which lifted them to 13th in the table.

Arsenal, meanwhile, slipped further adrift in the battle to finish in the top four after their third consecutive league game without a win. Here are three talking points…

Alexis Sanchez moves closer to the Emirates exit door

All the pre-match talk centred on a player who wasn’t involved in the contest. Not only was Alexis Sanchez not named in the starting XI, he wasn’t even on the bench having not travelled to the south coast.

Manager Arsene Wenger was ambiguous when pressed on this in the aftermath of the defeat, but the insinuation was clear; the want-away Chilean will not be an Arsenal player come the end of the transfer window.

Both Manchester City and Manchester United have been heavily linked with a move for Sanchez, whose contract at the Emirates expires in the summer. Despite his uncertain future, this match was crying out for his never-say-die attitude.

Arsenal controlled the first half and deserved to be in front when Bellerin fired home. However, the Gunners were unable to add a second and Bournemouth capitalised with two late efforts. Arsene Wenger’s side are now without a win in four games in 2018 as their troubles mount.

Bournemouth buck the trend against the ‘Big Six’

Before this fixture, Bournemouth had lost all of their matches against the ‘Big Six’ this season, scoring only one goal in seven outings.

While those are not necessarily the games that will define their campaign, it was a worrying statistic that Eddie Howe needed to address. Facing an Arsenal team without Sanchez or Mesut Ozil looked like being the Cherries’ best opportunity to buck that trend, and so it proved.

With only nine points separating all the teams in the bottom half, an unexpected win can do so much to alter the picture. The Cherries didn’t fold after going a goal behind and they merited the three points for an enterprising second-half display.

Having beaten Arsenal for the first time in their history, Bournemouth are now four points clear of the drop-zone. They are by no means safe because of this result, but the psychological impact could be immense.

Jack Wilshere getting back to his best

Returning to the club at which he spent last season on loan, this was not the afternoon Jack Wilshere would have hoped for. Though it didn’t go well from a team perspective, the 26-year-old was close to his best at the Vitality Stadium.

He touched the ball more than any other player on the pitch and also completed more passes. After a frustrating start to the campaign where he struggled for minutes in the Premier League, Wilshere is now establishing himself in the starting XI.

He was Arsenal’s best player against Bournemouth and in a team that lacks leaders, he was one of the few who looked like he wanted the ball. Wilshere ran the show in midfield and was always keen to move forward with purpose.

England manager Gareth Southgate surely can’t ignore Wilshere’s form and, fitness permitting, he must be a shoo-in for the next squad. In a World Cup year, Wilshere is peaking at just the right time.

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An absence of progress at Arsenal leaves Arsene Wenger in danger of becoming the villain

Martyn Cooke



Photo: Reuters

“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”.

So says Harvey Dent, a character in the 2008 DC Comics action movie The Dark Night Rises, which portrays the story of the fictional superhero Batman as he fights against organised crime in Gotham City.

There may be no men dressed as bats around the Emirates Stadium but it is a quote that might resonate with the thoughts and feelings of a growing number of Arsenal supporters regarding the position of Arsene Wenger in recent seasons.

The Frenchman is one of the most influential and successful managers in the club’s history, having secured ten major trophies since his appointment in 1996 and overseen the transition from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium, but has come under increasing pressure over the last three seasons as The Gunners struggle to maintain the pace set by their title rivals.

The previous campaign was tainted by calls from from a portion of the Arsenal fan base for the 68-year-old to resign, although the club eventually opted to hand him a new two-year deal.

However, eight months on  and Wenger’s position has never been more fragile and the number of dissenting voices in the stands is beginning to increase.

The frustration around the Emirates Stadium is completely understandable. The Gunners are 23 points behind league leaders Manchester City, face an uphill task to qualify for the Champions League next season and suffered an early exit from the FA Cup at the hands of Nottingham Forrest.

Furthermore, Arsenal are in danger of losing two of their prize assets in the summer for nothing after allowing the contracts of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil to run down into their final year. The unwillingness of the duo to remain in North London is a definitive sign that the club are no longer considered to be a significant threat in the domestic game.

With the club slipping behind their title rivals and struggling to retain key players, Wenger is in danger of turning from a hero into a villain.

A lack of forward momentum

The one thing that Arsenal have lacked this season, and arguably for a number of years, is a sense that the club is making progress or moving in the right direction.

The Gunners have been on a gradual decline that is only now beginning to come to the fore and there has been nothing to suggest that Arsene Wenger has the vision or prowess to reinvigorate a club that is anchored in stagnation. Even success in the FA Cup has felt like a brief moment of respite rather than a signal that a corner had been turned.

The Frenchman has failed to correct the issues that have undermined the team on the pitch, exemplified by his inability to purchase a top-quality central defender or defensive midfielder, and it has now been nearly thirteen years since the club last won the Premier League title.

A sense of progress is why Jurgen Klopp and Mauriccio Pochettino have sustained their positions at Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, respectively, despite failing to secure any silverware between them and have retained the favour of their club’s supporters.

Both have implemented a clear philosophy and playing style whilst creating the feeling around Anfield and Wembley that the team is moving forward in the right direction.

Wenger has secured more silverware than both Klopp and Pochettino combined since 2014 yet he finds himself under increasing pressure due to a lack of any forward momentum at the Emirates Stadium.

Whilst there is a general feeling that Liverpool and Tottenham are improving, the perception of many Arsenal supporters is that the club is standing still at best and certainly slipping behind their counterparts.

There have been question marks around Wenger’s future for some time and yet this feels like the 68-year-old is on the edge of cliff.

Success in the FA Cup has provided him with a degree of respite in recent years which made his team selection for the defeat to Nottingham Forrest appear especially bizarre.

With Arsenal already out of the title race you would have thought that Wenger would have put extra emphasis on winning the competition which, arguably, allowed him to negotiate a new contract in the summer.

However, such is the obvious disparity in quality between the Gunners and Manchester City that Wenger can no longer hide behind domestic cup success.

Failure to qualify for the Champions League for a second consecutive year would signify how far the club has fallen and the pressure on the Frenchman has been further exacerbated by the seemingly imminent departures of Sanchez and Ozil.

Whilst Liverpool and Tottenham are moving forward, Arsenal seem to be moving backwards. With Wenger’s position appearing increasingly fragile and the club in decline you have to wonder whether the Frenchman has now become the villain of the piece.

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