In a new series, we will look at players, managers and clubs that have been either rightly or wrongly praised or criticized and analyze whether it has been warranted. The inaugural edition will see Laurent Koscielny’s Arsenal career be put under the microscope.
When Arsene Wenger signed Laurent Koscielny, a relatively unknown name in France let alone abroad, from Lorient in the summer of 2010, the question was whether he would be the man that would shore up the eternally frail and leaky Arsenal defence. Whilst fans and experts alike had been hoping Wenger would dip into the transfer market for a more experienced player, Wenger’s policy of unearthing unknown players seemingly continued.
If his Premier League debut was anything to go on then it perfectly described his first season at the club. A steady and solid performance was marred by a one moment of inconsistency when he was sent off after being handed a second yellow card in stoppage time at Anfield. Tellingly, he received both his yellow cards in stoppage time, a sign of his inexperience at this level playing against arguably smarter opponents, players who had mastered the art of winning decisions. Over a few months, Koscielny was praised for his reading of the game, especially his interceptions of through balls. His style of play mirrored that of a defensive midfielder who was sweeping balls in front of the defence. He was a little eager to step up in front of his direct opponent sometimes, and was either physically bettered or would mis-judge the ball for a split second. Koscielny did not have the physique to allow an attacker to back into him and expect to come out with the ball so he would largely base his game upon coming around his opponent from the back and stealing the ball just before it reached the player. With such an “active” defending style, you may come out the winner 9 times out of 10 but as everyone knows defending is a thankless art as one mistake may be all it takes to concede a goal and be blamed for your team’s loss.
Critics were already out saying he would not be good enough at this level and that Wenger should be out looking for a more able defender to partner Thomas Vermaelen, when the Belgian international returned from injury. To be fair, it did not help Koscielny in his settling in period when Wenger had to chop and change the center back partnership throughout last season. Sebastian Squillaci and Johann Djorou were two of his regular partners at the back. Things looked on the up for Koscielny in the Champions League 2nd Round 1st Leg at home to Barcelona when he was praised for a magnificent performance largely up against Lionel Messi. It helped Arsenal win 2-1. Critics, though, argued he would not be a top drawer defender until those sort of performances of which the young Frenchman was clearly capable of would be more regular and consistent. They were somewhat vindicated within a few days, when Koscielny unfortunately had a starring role in gifting Birmingham City a goal late-on in the Carling Cup Final, a match which dealt a major dent in Arsenal’s season and created a downhill slope from which they were never able to recover. Despite being written off by the end of the season, one man, other than Wenger, who remained vocal in his support for Koscielny was French journalist Juliens Laurens who stated on numerous times throughout the season that Koscielny was highly rated by the manager who wanted to build his defence around him and that there was no way he would be sold. One found it difficult to see how things would improve for the defender during his second season. Most Arsenal fans began calling for a “proper” center back to be signed during the summer, instead of depending on a player who had only 1 season’s worth of experience at Ligue 1 before signing for Arsenal. Despite a mixed season, one of Koscielny’s personal highlights had been getting his first international cap for France, having been called up by Laurent Blanc.
What had Wenger seen in him when he signed him? Looking at the stats, during the 2009/10 season with Lorient, Koscielny had 2.3 tackles per game, the 8th highest rate for center backs in Ligue 1. However, in terms of interceptions, standing at 4.5 per game, he had the highest rate for center backs in the league and the second highest overall, falling short by 0.3 interceptions per game. He also added 9.4 clearances per game, again the second highest in the league for center backs as well as overall. It was clear that Koscielny’s reading of the game and mobility to get in front of the attacker was at the fore of Wenger’s decision to sign him. By the end of the 2010/11 season with Arsenal, Koscielny undertook 2 tackles per game, which left him 16th overall between all center backs, not a good return for a player playing for a side in the Champions League positions. His interception rate had dropped to 2.8 per game, but in the faster paced Premier League, this was still the 3rd highest rate for center backs and 8th overall. Impressively, he also had the 5th highest number of off-sides won in the league, again another characteristic that labels him as an active stopper rather than a passive cover-type defender. He is always on the edge of pushing the ante and moving forward to attack the ball, a beautiful sight in defending when he pulls it off, but a disaster leaving him on his back when he fails to be successful in his attempts. Unfortunately, the latter happened one too many times during his first season in Arsenal. Finally, in terms of clearances, he had 6.9 per game, making him 32nd overall in a league where no nonsense defending is quite popular and a measure of how fans rate their old-school “British defenders”.
By the end of the proceeding summer transfer window, Arsenal had signed experienced German international defender Per Mertesacker who had 80 caps for the German national team as, seemingly, the long-term partner for Vermaelen who was on the verge of a return. Whether that helped play a role in spurring Koscielny to be more focused on the pitch is moot. Despite starting the early season well, Koscielny was involved in two of Arsenal’s most humiliating losses of the season, 8-2 at Manchester United and 4-3 at Blackburn Rovers, scoring an own goal in the latter. It seemed like things were as they had been at the end of the previous season and the Frenchman’s Arsenal career may be coming to a standstill. However, a short-term injury to Vermaelen gave Koscielny one more chance and this time he forged a solid partnership with Mertesacker, forming the backbone of Arsenal’s recovery from near the bottom of the table to their current position in and around the Champions League spots. Contrary to tradition, Arsenal also qualified comfortably from their Champions League group and avoided a customary clash with Barcelona, at least for now. With the summer that Arsenal have had, losing two of, arguably, their three world class players, in Fabregas and Nasri, they have done marvelously well in remaining competitive after an early-season faltering start that had many questioning whether Arsene Wenger should remain in charge. Koscielny has played a starring role this season and has been Arsenal’s steadiest defender at a time when their defence has been badly hit by injuries, as a result of which Vermaelen has had to play at left back at times, Koscielny has filled in at right back for a few games, young Coquelin has also slotted in at full back, whilst Djorou has had a few decent games at right back too.
By early January, Koscielny ranked 1st in the league in between center backs for tackles at 2.7 per game, 1st in the league between center backs for interceptions with 2.8 per game, 2nd overall with 1.6 off-sides won per game and 30th overall with 5.7 clearances per game. Had Arsenal played a bit more like Stoke and had a less passing style of football, Koscielny’s clearance figures would surely have been higher too. What those figures exhibit is that Koscielny has remained consistent and improved steadily, especially in the tackling department, adding almost 1 extra successful tackle per game, which is significant at this level in a season when the league’s general level of defending has arguably deteriorated. Statistically, he is in the current team of the season, whichever angle you look at it from, even though he may not win as much plaudits compared to some of the media’s favorite players, based upon reputation. He has improved his figures in most of the categories analyzed which is as much as Wenger could’ve asked of him this season. Most impressively has been his success at not only reading the game well but ensuring that he comes in from behind the attacker and cut out the ball, something which was not coming off as much last season. He no longer is brushed off the ball as easily and it’s clear to see his confidence in his own ability to perform is higher than its ever been. He now actually believes that he belongs in the Arsenal team. He’s had a few man of the match performances this season, namely at the Velodrome at Marseille where he was magnificent as well as at Stamford Bridge, against Chelsea, where despite conceding 3 goals, Koscielny was one of the key performers who helped Arsenal overcome a late Chelsea revival.
Despite huge questions marks lingering over the signing of Koscielny, Arsene Wenger stood by his man at each and every cross-roads. He continuously praised him and had faith that the now 26 year old would be a key component of the Arsenal back-line, almost to a point of ridicule. Wenger’s belief that mobility can better serve than physique for center backs as football moves forward has begin to be vindicated with both Vermaelen and Koscielny having strong attributes in that respect. Question marks never stood against the Belgian’s quality but over his injury proneness. Koscielny, however, has had to respond to criticism since entering English football, but it is safe to say that if he keeps performing as he is this season, then he would have quashed them comprehensively by the end of the season.