When questioned on how the centre-back may develop in the future, Thomas Vermaelen was unsurprisingly diplomatic on the subject, especially after having such a barnstorming debut season for Arsenal displaying the virtues of both extremes of the modern defender. “Will defenders become more technical?” mulled Vermaelen. “Well that depends on how you play – you’ll always have defenders who are and others who aren’t. If a boss wants a player who just defends, he chooses someone who is big and strong, and not good with his feet. It’s his choice.”
Indeed, it was his boss’ choice and tellingly Arsene Wenger plumped for another technical defender in Laurent Koscielny to add to Johan Djourou at the club already. It’s still not clear which one – or indeed whether another new defender at the club – will partner Vermaelen nevertheless it does represent the most forward-thinking of backlines Wenger has ever had at his disposal.
A double ball-playing centre-back pairing may seem slightly quixotic seeing as the Gunners have experienced the joys of having someone with the pragmatism of Sol Campbell or Philippe Senderos but Wenger is adamant that the technical and fitness level of the game will continue to improve, and that makes it difficult for a team of Arsenal’s style to effectively deploy such players. It’s best to have the best of both worlds and that’s why he is particularly delighted to hire the services of Koscielny from French side Lorient. “We identified Koscielny as a very, very strong centre-half,” Wenger told Arsenal.com. “He can be an outstanding addition to our team. Koscielny is a central defender with great ability who performed extremely well last season for Lorient. We identified him as a very strong centre-half, who has made big progress very quickly. He has shown he is mentally strong, he’s a fighter and a very strong competitor. Koscielny is a great addition to our squad.”
The rise of Laurent Koscielny is quite remarkable as he was only playing in the second division of French football the season before but impressive performances at the heart of the Tours defence belied his presence in the league. He was quickly snapped up by Lorient convinced they had just discovered a potential bargain so when Arsenal came up with a £8.5m rising to £10m offer this summer, the club was obliged to bite their metaphoric hand off. Journalist Tom Williams of Agence France-Presse (AFP), feels in Koscielny, Arsenal have a central defender who will very much suit the style of the club. “Koscielny started his career as a full-back at Guingamp and he’s a very athletic player,” Williams told The Arsenal Column. “Physically, he’s of average height [6′ 1”] but he’s slender for a centre-back and, like most central defenders, he’s quick rather than genuinely rapid. He looks a bit fresh-faced but he’s very sound technically and good on the ball too.
“He anticipates the game well and is a full-blooded tackler. In theory he should dovetail well with Thomas Vermaelen, who is a more rounded player and more comfortable carrying the ball forward. He’s likely to pose a similar threat from set-pieces too. The only real area of concern is Koscielny’s lack of experience, and the attendant rashness that comes with it. Lorient only signed him from Tours last summer where he was named in Ligue 2’s Team of the Season in 2008-09 but last season was his first, and to date, only season in a top-flight championship.”
Like Williams and Arsenal, those who have seen Koscielny regularly in Ligue 1 have much to be impressed by. His thin, wiry frame harks back to the days where defenders didn’t have to be brutes and also signals an elegance about him although Koscielny does admit that “physical strength” is his main weakness. The statistics are favourable to him too as last season he made more interceptions (159) and more clearances (328) than any other player in Ligue 1 although conversely his club side, Lorient, allowed the most shots against them in the championship. Arsenal, however, have seen Koscielny enough to recognise just how much talent he has and the adverse stats more likely represents his relative freshness and the weak cover in front of him. In terms of scouting, Koscielny’s situation echoes that of Bakary Sagna where the club accumulated most of their watching the season before signing him after the defender almost coming from nowhere to gain prominence. “I saw Bakary Sagna on more than 30 occasions,” said French scout Gilles Grimandi on Arsenal’s right full-back. “I checked him once, then ten times, then 20 times before finally deciding he was the one we needed.”
Laurent Koscielny will have to do battle with Johan Djourou and the next defensive signing to see who partners Thomas Vermaelen at the heart of defence although both players do have cases for and against. Djourou may be slightly ahead due to his familiarity with the English game and that Koscielny is still in need with a bit of gym work but the Swiss has also come back from a long injury lay-off. He has, however, shown before that the vast amount of value he can bring to the side as two seasons ago he put in strong performances at the back, starting with a 2-1 win against Chelsea before leading a young Arsenal side to a very respectable 4-0 victory over Wigan. In that game, he showed just how important defence is to Arsenal’s attack, as his surge helped create the third goal. His subsequent absence in the next round saw the young gun’s fluency drop severly as they stooped to a defeat to Burnley. Wenger had assured Djourou, before he had broken down last season, that he was very much in his plans having sold Kolo Toure to make way for the Ivorian-born defender.
Simon Kjaer and Daniel Agger’s partnership for Denmark in the World Cup showed glimpses of the potential ball-playing and mobile centre-backs can bring to an attacking side – and indeed to an attacking side’s defence also – as Barcelona and Spain have displayed, keeping the ball and forcing teams back is a form of stopping chances. Indeed if Wenger’s continuing reference to Koscielny as a centre-half is anything to go by (as opposed to the more traditional centre-back) the French/Polish defender should complement Arsenal’s style perfectly in both parts of the game.