Donning his branded snapback, raising the famous nerazzurri scarf aloft and being mobbed by crazed Inter supporters, Podolski’s arrival in Milan had caused shockwaves on the peninsula. And that was before he had even stepped out onto the Giuseppe Meazza playing surface for the first time.
“Do I have a message for the fans?” he told a Sky Italia reporter amid screams of exuberance. “I am happy. Forza Inter and we hope to have a great season.”
Though beyond the usual formalities, there was a beaming smile on the face of the German. Granted, he had departed England without a valediction from Arsenal manager Arséne Wenger, but Italy had been viewed as his sanctuary, a place where he could redeem himself and return to the salient forward that he once was.
113 senior goals may have been the prominent feature on his CV, or perhaps it was the World Cup winners medal he had bagged the past summer, though either way, Inter boss Roberto Mancini viewed Podolski’s footballing nous and experience as an asset which could propel Inter into the European places.
I know him as a player. He can cover a variety of roles, he shoots splendidly and he’s a World Champion.
He was granted his first appearance in Nerazzurri colours when Inter travelled to Juventus Stadium on January 6th. And, despite having to contend with a cameo role off the bench, Podolski exhibited all the qualities which Mancini had sought after. If Mauro Icardi hadn’t skewed the German’s cross wide minutes after equalising for Mancini’s men, Podolski could have etched his name into the Inter history books within minutes of pulling on the illustrious jersey.
That near-miss has been the closest Podolski has come to gratifying the Inter faithful, as two months and nine appearances later, the German’s only marked contribution under Mancini could have been narrated by Harry Hill, where he was left with egg on his face after gifting Fiorentina possession from his own corner – appearing to connect with the corner-flag instead of the ball.
The stats are harrowing: zero goals, zero assists, 0.7 dribbles and just 1.8 shots per-game (as per WhoScored). Eerily similar to his stat-line in an Arsenal shirt this season, where he failed to register a league goal in seven attempts. To rub salt into the wound, the 29-year-old has yielded just two shots on target in ten appearances – attempting 18 overall efforts.
And he certainly hasn’t been hamstrung by Mancini, either. As someone who often found himself behind Yaya Sanogo in the centre-forward pecking order at Arsenal, Podolski has been granted four starts in his preferred number 9 role in Milan.
Mancini has predominantly opted for two strikers since taking the reigns in November and, given Rodrigo Palacio’s dismal start to the campaign under Walter Mazzarri, Podolski was tasked with reducing the goal burden on 22-year-old Icardi, which he has patently failed to do.
Instead, it’s been Palacio who has assumed the role of chief goalscorer, netting eight goals in his last 14 appearances. He has struck up a deadly understanding with his compatriot Icardi – combining for 17 out of Inter’s last 23 goals – whilst Podolski has been subjected to scathing criticism by the Italian press and lingering doubts over his long-term future.
Contrast arrived in its most brutal form when Inter tasted bitter defeat to Fiorentina on March 1st. Podolski had failed to muster a single shot at goal in 66 minutes of action and the German felt the wrath of Mancini afterwards. “Podolski must do more,” said a dejected Mancini post-match. “What he’s doing is not enough and he’s the first to recognise that.” A far cry from the superlatives the Italian used to describe the 29-year-old upon arrival in January.
Inter legend, Beppe Bergomi, who made 519 appearances for the club, was quick to defend Podolski however, telling Kicker:
In Milan, it is in the psyche of the supporters not to hesitate to criticise a player. They immediately expect more from such an experienced player. I’m sure he has what it takes to become crucial at Inter for the remainder of the season.”
Amid optimum conditions, Podolski’s willingness cannot be disparaged. Against Cagliari last month, for instance, Inter gained the upper-hand over the Sardinians as Podolski was prepared to drop deep and link the midfield to the attack. On two instances, he picked up the ball with his back to goal, swivelled and spread the ball wide to full-back Davide Santon. He continued his run into the box and came close on two attempts, narrowly heading wide on both occasions.
In theory, Podolski’s diligence allows the more fixed Icardi to flourish, and it is no coincidence that the Argentine netted on the evening, finding himself in a considerable amount of space to work the opening.
Cesena, meanwhile, struggled to contend with the rasping left-foot possessed by the German. Introduced at half-time for midfielder Zdravko Kuzmanović, Mancini reverted to a 4-3-3, with Podolski assuming a role on the right of the attacking trio. Within minutes, he had cannoned an effort off a Cesena defender and off the post and soon after, he had stung the palms of Cesena keeper’ Nicola Leali as the Inter pressure grew.
Inter could only yield a 1-1 draw on the night, but the second-half served as a reminder of the threat Podolski covets in his left-foot – one which had Arsenal’s fans mourning at his temporary departure as he was viewed as the club’s most trusted finishers.
Inter can now turn their full attention to domestic matters after their Europa League exit, and with Mancini prepared to dig deep into the depth chart as the fixtures congest, Podolski’s opportunities certainly will not dry up. He was brought in to score goals for the Nerazzurri, however, and his goal tally reads a paltry zero with two months of the season remaining. Perhaps his long-term future is where the discussion the lies at.