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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