16 April 2014

Is a pissed-offed Podolski a productive Podolski?

We love Podolski. He's a cut-up. A card. A clown. #Aha! And so on. Whether he's trying to learn a bit of London slang, taking cute pictures of himself around town, or shouting that aha of his, he is, by all accounts, a wonderful personality and great all-around guy. However, something's been missing from him this season, and it's not just the goals and assists that he delivered so many of last season. Yes, he's got 10 goals now to go with four assists, but he did go for 16 and 12 last season. This time through, he's often cut a forlorn figure, consigned to the bench, as others have supplanted him. It's gone far enough that rumors of his departure swirl endlessly. However, that may have changed just a bit after Tuesday's performance.

For one, Poldi played a full match, start to finish, for the first time all season. He's come close on a couple of occasions, but the symbolic value of being on the pitch as a starter and walking off only after time is called is notable; it's something he earned through his performance. All too often in the past, he's been subbed off at some point after 65-70 minutes. More than that, he's almost always been the man subbed off when something else goes awry—such as when Gibbs was sent off against Chelsea. He's enough of a defensive liability that we can rarely afford to rely on him, not until he decides to track back more urgently. When he does end up on the bench, he seems to end up sulking and muttering to himself, disgruntled to no end that he sits while others move ahead of him in the pecking order.

Part of it is down to injury, as he missed nearly four months after tearing his hamstring against Fener back in August. He's had to work his way back to form. More importantly, though, he's had to regain Arsène's trust, and that's taken longer than Poldi would like. Even as we've seen others fall to their own injuries, it looked at times as if Arsène was looking for other options besides Podolski, such was his apparent lack of trust.

After Tuesday's performance, it may be that Poldi has turned a corner, reminding us all of what he can do when he puts his mind to it. That's the key: putting his mind to it. I don't think anyone doubts what he can do with that left foot of his. What's been lacking has been the commtitment, the desire, necessary to impel him to play at his best. After getting subbed off against Wigan, he was frustrated enough to kick a water bottle. After the match, he admitted that he is "not happy to always come out and watch from outside. You cannot be happy with this situation." However, his performance to that point had lacked incisiveness or purpose (not that many others could claim to have played much better).
From the start against West Ham, though, Poldi looked like a different player. He was driving forward and looking dangerous, putting all three shots of his on-target and converting two, and his pass-accuracy was an impressive 90%, behind only Arteta and Cazorla, showing an impressive focus and intent. That finishing—oh, that finishing—was something to behold. The first was the more clinical as he had to turn in tight space and cut his shot at an acute angle across the mouth of the goal to the far-post, out of reach of Adrian but still inside the post, and in. That's a tough shot, and coming off his left, getting the English right to keep it from curling away from the goal is a tall order indeed. The second goal was a thunderous shot that might have hadouken-ed Adrian through the back of the net had he dared to attempt the save. Poldi's now sporting a rather-tidy 31.6% conversion-rate, far and away the best in the squad. No less an authority than Ian Wright has weighed in, suggesting that Poldi get some more time on the pitch. It's hard to argue against the logic: more time= more shots. More shots= more goals.
However, what struck me about Poldi's performance was the growling, almost-grim, focus. After each goal, there was little if any celebration, just an acknowledgement that a goal had been scored. For the first, he turned and trotted away, thanking Cazorla for the pass, but his reaction was otherwise businesslike. After the second, he put a fist in the air, but there was no glee, no celebration in it—just a scowl. The aha! Poldi was nowhere to be seen. In his place was a determined, focused player intent on making his mark and staking his claim. If we lose a bit of the clownish Poldi, on the pitch at least, and see a chippier, grittier one, one playing with a chip on his shoulder, then so be it. There will be time enough for silly Poldi off the pitch.