With Robin van Persie releasing a statement on his website regarding his future late on Tuesday, many of Arsenal’s fans’ worst nightmares about their star man were realised. It was confirmed that he would not renew his contract and would stay no more than one more season at the club. Before the news, it was always questionable as to whether the new signings at the Emirates – Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud – could both play in an eleven that also contained the Dutch striker.
Arsenal were the only Premier League team to start every game of last season with exactly the same formation (4-2-3-1). Arsene Wenger clearly prefers playing with just one up front, and might well have been reluctant to change his ways next season.
While no Arsenal fan would have wanted their main man out, Giroud and Podolski’s arrivals will soften the blow if he does depart this summer, and their goalscoring credentials can certainly not be doubted, with both having a fine previous season in Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga, respectively.
Would either of them fill the void left by van Persie when (or if) he leaves, and how could they line up together should he stay? WhoScored.com has had a look into their stats from last season to see if we can find out.
Statistical comparison - Scorers
When looking at the attacking statistics from last season of each of these players, whilst there are some similarities, there are also notable differences. All three are left-footed, played as a lone striker for their clubs and were the top scorer for those teams last season.
Their scoring stats in particular, are similar, up to a point, at least. Robin van Persie and Lukas Podolski each scored 17 left-footed goals, while Giroud scored just one less than that. Their strike rates with their strong foot are also roughly the same, with van Persie scoring 17% of his left-footed attempts, Podolski 21.8% and Giroud 16.3%. Furthermore, each scored just the one header in league games all season, albeit from vastly different numbers of attempts. While Podolski is clearly reticent to use his head, having scored one of only 2 headed attempts all season, van Persie had 23 headed shots, whilst Giroud, whose ability in the air is something that one might well expect to lead to a better headed conversion rate than 2.9%. Giroud won 132 of the 188 aerial duels he competed in last season; his 70.2% success rate is one of the best in Europe in any position, let alone just amongst strikers, and is a great deal better than either Podolski or van Persie.
Van Persie leads the other two with regards to shooting accuracy, with 47.1% of his shots hitting the target, compared to Podolski’s 42.9% and Giroud’s 43.5%. However, Podolski is more clinical with his finishing, having scored 21.4% of his 84 shots for Cologne last season, while van Persie converted 17.2% of his 174 and Giroud 13.0% out of 161. Clearly the latter two got into scoring positions more often than the German international, but also, their confidence with their weaker foot also plays a part in this statistic.
Podolski only had 4 shots in leagues games with his right foot all season, and, unsurprisingly, none of them resulted in goals. Giroud, meanwhile, made 24 attempts to score with his weak foot, netting 4 of those, and van Persie, who earlier on in his career was oft criticised for all too rarely using his right foot, had 48 shots with that leg, hitting the target with 12, and scoring every one of those 12 times. More simply put, Robin van Persie scored every time he hit the target with his right foot in the Premier League last season, an incredible stat for the weaker foot of a striker. While Giroud and Podolski are undoubtedly top strikers that will provide a threat up front at Arsenal, van Persie stands out from the crowd in this respect.
A striker’s value, of course, is not solely in his goalscoring abilities. Naturally, any team wants a frontman who can turn provider and lay on chances for other members of the team, and each of these three showed their abilities in this regard last season.
Arsenal’s Dutch forward set up a Premier League high of 21 ‘clear-cut’ goalscoring opportunities for his teammates, with lacklustre finishing behind the fact that he only picked up 9 assists. Alongside the likes of a Podolski or a Giroud, maybe that stat would have been significantly higher, and Arsenal fans will be hoping they get the chance to find out next term.
Giroud picked up assists in equal measure for Montpellier, collecting 9 himself, though his were, partly down to his aerial prowess, with flick-ons and nod-downs to teammates the means for these. While, 4 of van Persie’s assists were directly from set-pieces, 2 of Giroud’s came from corners or free-kick situations, though he was on the receiving end of the crosses.
Podolski, meanwhile, was playing in a team that was significantly less free-scoring than either Arsenal or Montpellier, and was stuck in a relegation battle as a result. It is maybe more impressive, then, that he created 7 goals for his team, despite being in a squad in which the second top scorer netted only 5 league goals. His goal contribution to Cologne’s season of 25(18 goals + 7 assists) accounts for 64% of their league tally, and is the biggest individual contribution of any player in Europe’s top 5 leagues. While he may not be the main man straight away at Arsenal, given the chance, he could well prosper when surrounded by better players.
How will they combine?
Even with the news that Robin van Persie will not stay beyond next season, much is being made of whether the trio would be capable of lining up together in Arsenal’s starting eleven. Given Wenger’s unwavering preference for a 4-2-3-1 formation, the presence of all three in the team seems highly unlikely. It is true that van Persie and Podolski have each, in recent times, played out wide for their countries, but the former is extremely unlikely to accept anything other than his usual role up front for the Gunners. Furthermore, Arsenal already have numerous wingers in their ranks, and Theo Walcott, for example, was selected to play whenever he was available last term. Wenger prefers tricky wingers who can get at full-backs, rather than sacrificing a striker like van Persie and playing him wide.
Wenger could, of course, elect to play 2 strikers, but even then, Podolski would have to become a left midfielder in a flat four, and that simply would not suit his game. He flourished as a striker for Cologne, and has shown for Germany that he can play as a winger, though he is most certainly less effective there. His 4 appearances as a wide player this season all came at the European Championships for Germany, and in those 4 games, he picked up just one goal and provided no assists. Furthermore, in those 4 games he successfully dribbled past an opponent on only 2 occasions and made only 2 key passes. One would expect much more of a £10 million striker, and maybe Germany would have got it, had he got the chance to play in the position he had been for Cologne all season.
Whatever formation Wenger opts for, the attacking threat of at least one of his strikers will be severely diminished, while, moreover, none of these 3 strikers do much to help out defensively. In the 2011/12 season, they made a combined total of 58 tackles in 103 league appearances, so playing one in a less advanced role could have a negative effect on Arsenal’s defence.
Should van Persie stay another season, having to select from 3 top strikers is hardly a problem for the Gunners. However, playing all three, or even two, in the same team could well be.