Lukas Podolski finished the season with his trademark huge grin plastered across his face, but he experienced plenty of ups and downs before the incredible story of 2013/14 provided a happy ending.
When the German forward paraded the FA Cup in front an overjoyed Arsenal faithful at Wembley Stadium on May 17, it was just reward for a year of patience, perseverance and perspiration from ‘Poldi’. After kicking off his season with a brace against Fulham in August, Lukas was then ruled out for four months with a hamstring injury picked up in his very next game, against Fenerbahce in the Champions League qualifier.
It was the first such injury of his career, and Arsenal’s flying early-season form - aided by the arrival of Germany team-mate Mesut Ozil - made his absence from the side even tougher for him to bear.
He was back with a bang at the turn of the year though, and that trusty left boot was soon firing again in the win over West Ham in his comeback game on Boxing Day.
He then found the FA Cup to his liking, scoring against Coventry and Liverpool, before adding crucial Premier League goals in April against West Ham and Hull City as fourth place was secured from the ashes of an unsuccessful title bid.
The best was yet to come though. He was in the starting line-up for the FA Cup final against Hull, and the excitable German enjoyed the celebrations as much as anyone when Arsenal completed a memorable comeback to secure a record-equalling 11th trophy, and end nine barren years without silverware in the process.
So there was plenty to discuss when the Arsenal Magazine caught up with Poldi to reflect upon a rollercoaster season that finished on the highest of highs.
What were your personal aims at the start of the season? Did you think a trophy was a real possibility?
Of course, when you play for a big team like Arsenal you always start off playing for the title and for the cups as well. We spent weeks and weeks in first position in the league, so it was right that we targeted the title. We lost some games against big teams and that’s when we dropped down, but we still had the opportunity to make it a great season by winning the FA Cup. It was important to qualify for the Champions League too, and if we win the qualifiers next season, we will be there again.
You scored twice in the win over Fulham in just the third game of the season. As a forward how important is it to get your first goal as early as possible to set you up for the campaign?
Yes, I felt great at the beginning of the season, I felt strong and I played well at Fulham, and scored a couple of goals too. I was playing with a lot of power but then I got my injury against Fenerbahce. That wasn’t good because I was feeling great at that time. Then I was out for four months.
How did you deal with the injury mentally, if it’s not something you are used to?
It was very tough, and also the team had a good run while I was out so I really wanted to be involved. But I worked hard at the training ground every day to get back to 100 per cent. I had treatment, worked hard, trained hard. I’m lucky that I don’t get injuries every six months or every year, so I just had to focus on getting back to my best and that’s what I did.
Shortly after your injury we signed your compatriot Mesut Ozil, what was your reaction to that signing?
I was very excited when I found out about it - firstly because you love to play with great players, and secondly because he is a good friend of mine. We have spent a lot of time together for the national team, so it was great news we were signing him. We have spent a lot of time together in London. He’s a great player who’s helped us a lot this season. He’s young as well and he’ll have a lot of great moments at this club.
When I was younger in Germany I remember the FA Cup, whether Arsenal were winning or someone else, I was always interested in it
Was it extra frustrating that you couldn’t play alongside him at first as you were injured? Did you help him settle in at Arsenal while you were out of the team?
Well, it was the beginning of the season, which was frustrating to miss, and then we signed Mesut and I was thinking, “Why can’t we play together yet?” But it happened, it’s part of football and since then we have had the chance to play alongside each other. We are doing it well, but next season we must do it better.
Your first game back from injury was as a sub in the win at West Ham on Boxing Day. You scored that day, but only started one of the next five league games. Was it difficult to remain patient at that time?
Everyone was saying, “Podolski’s not playing, why is he not in the team?” But in those first few weeks back it’s important not to go crazy and play every game. It was a big injury after all, so you play 15 or 20 minutes, and slowly, slowly get back to your best fitness. There’s no point playing 90 minutes in two games then having the same problem with injury again. So the media might have been going crazy about it, but for me I knew it was important to build my fitness and get strong. Then you saw in the last few weeks of the season I was able to play a lot of matches and to help the team. We won six games in a row, got fourth place and won the FA Cup.
You featured heavily in the FA Cup, scoring against Coventry and Liverpool. How much does the FA Cup mean to you?
The cup is something special. It’s the biggest cup in the world, with a lot of history. When I was younger in Germany I remember the FA Cup, whether Arsenal were winning or someone else, I was always interested in it. So if you have a chance to win the cup, it’s something special. The atmosphere at the games is great – there were 50,000 Arsenal fans at Wembley for the semi-final which was amazing. Then we went to the final and we wanted to get the cup back for the fans, for the club and for the manager. After nine years without winning a trophy, we knew it was a great opportunity, and it was fantastic to win it.
Is the FA Cup popular in Germany?
Yes, they watch the German cup mainly, of course, but they also watch the FA Cup, just like the people in Indonesia, Japan, China all want to watch the Premier League and FA Cup, because English football is the best and most popular, so people want to watch it.
The FA Cup became more important as the season went on, especially after those damaging league defeats to Liverpool and Chelsea. Are the memories of those games still painful?
Yes, of course, especially as you see that we got to 79 points this season. That’s a lot of points to finish fourth – I think teams have probably finished first or second with 79 points before. So when you look back you think about the games you lost. You think about why we lost them, and what might have happened if we had won. Even a couple of games that we drew – if we’d won them we would’ve had a chance at the title. But really you need to look forward now. We finished fourth, we are two games away from being in the Champions League, so we move on and look forward to next season. Next year we want to play how we did this season, but we know we must be stronger against the teams like Chelsea, Man City and Liverpool.
How did Arsenal always manage to bounce back so well after those huge disappointments this season?
Well, that is football. Every game and every goal is important, because every point and every goal could make the difference at the end of the season. So if you get punched, you don’t have time to think about it, because there is another game in three days. You can’t cry about it when you get knocked down, you should look forward, because there are always more points to win. After the Everton game the top four was not in our own hands. We managed to have a good run after this game though and it was really important to stay strong and get three points in every game.
We knew it was a great opportunity, and it was fantastic to win it.
You played the full 90 minutes in a lot of games at the end of the season, which was rare earlier in the campaign. Did you start to feel stronger at the end of the season? Was it tough to take being substituted often previously?
Of course it’s frustrating if you are always the first player taken off, 60 or 70 minutes into a game. If you were happy with being taken off every week you wouldn’t be a real footballer. I want to play football and I wasn’t happy then, but that’s part of the game and in the last few weeks of the season I played many minutes and many games. It’s not true that as long as you play 90 minutes you are happy – there’s more to it than that, but it was nice to be able to help the team. I felt I played well at the end of the season and it was important for me. When you come out of games after 60 or 70 minutes it’s all right, but not every time. That was the only thing I was unhappy about. In the last couple of months though I played the whole games and that was good because there is a big difference between training and the matches. You can only get to 100 per cent by playing matches. You must fight in a game situation to be at your best, training can’t give you that.
Was the benefit of missing four months at the beginning of the season then that you felt fresher in April and May?
Well, it’s true that I feel strong. After a big injury you are never going to be 100 per cent in just a few weeks. You need five, six weeks to be back properly. That’s what I did and now I feel strong and happy to play. You can’t get the feeling of playing a game during training sessions.
So perhaps you will feel fresher at the World Cup having played 30 games this season rather than 50?
I don’t know, I can play 50 or 60 games and be fine. Look at Per, Laurent or Olivier – none of them look tired. Everybody loves to play football so if you can play every week you feel even better. That’s part of football.
How do you rate your season as a whole? Your stats for goals/ assists per minutes and shot conversion rates etc were very impressive. Do you take much notice of those stats?
Well, I see it in the magazine or on social media, and I’m happy to read it, but stats don’t give you a trophy. I’ve been a professional footballer for more than 10 years so I know whether I’ve played well or not without looking at the numbers after a game. I’m not a better footballer if I run 15km in a game rather than 11km. There are so many numbers in football now it’s crazy. But all that’s important is that you are part of your team, a big part of your club, have a great season with your team-mates and try to enjoy yourself on the pitch, and win the game. Rather than how many shots you have had or how far you have run – getting a win or lifting a trophy is what’s important. ?
Winning the FA Cup was obviously the perfect way to conclude the season, but what were your personal highlights of the year?
I was very happy to score against Bayern Munich, especially as it was away. Also it was great to score against West Ham in my first game after injury. I came on for the last 25 minutes and I scored and got an assist too. It was a great feeling for me because it was a derby match too, and we got an important win.
Who was your choice for Player of the Season?
It’s difficult to choose just one player for Arsenal. You can talk about the centre backs who played very well, and also Wojciech Szczesny had a great season. He kept the most clean sheets of any goalkeeper I think. Then there is Aaron Ramsey, who scored 10 goals in the Premier League even though he missed a lot of weeks. If he didn’t miss those weeks he would have been even better.
And which players impressed you away from Arsenal?
It depends on the position. If you look at strikers you have to choose Suarez because he got so many goals. If you look at a midfielder then Yaya Toure had a great season and scored 20 goals. There are a lot of great players in the Premier League, and we have a lot of great players at Arsenal. I can’t choose just one because everyone in every position has different jobs. You cannot compare, for example, what Olivier Giroud does for the team with what Laurent does. What you can say is that they both did very well for us this season.
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Are you enjoying your time here more the longer you stay? You seem to have a very good rapport with the fans.
Yes, I love the fans. They have been great to me, they support me in the stadium and whenever I meet them in the street. I also love the colours of Arsenal – I love red and white! It’s not easy when you come to a new club, especially in a new country. I think I settled very well though, Per helped me a lot at the start, and I feel great here. I’m happy at the club, in the city and I love playing for Arsenal because it’s a big club. Everything is good, and I’m now looking forward to my third year here.