Even in an eventful summer in France, there was perhaps one transfer which caused the most surprise; that of Laurent Koscielny. Kosicelny made his move from the relative modesty of FC Lorient to the vibrancy and tradition of Arsenal for a fee of £8.5m rising to £10m in 2010; a fee which seems perfectly normally in today’s climate if only Koscielny hadn’t spent just the one season in the country’s top-flight. Cue plenty of back-slapping, man-hugs and lame-cool guy handshakes from those who brokered the move on Lorient’s side.
Arsène Wenger knew he was taking a gamble on Koscielny but similarly, a calculated one at that. The statistics show he was Ligue 1 best defender last season, making more interceptions (159) than any other player and clearances (328) too, although conversely, Lorient did allow the most shots against them in the championship. He was his club’s best defender – their Gary Cahill if you like – composed on the ball, aggressive although without the frame and a fine reader of play. But due to his rapid rise in a short period of time, there was always question marks regarding his suitability at the top-level. Wenger, however, was willing to take a punt on a raw talent he felt he could nurture into a fine centre-back. “He said he was interested in my quality,” said Koscielny. “That I had progressed well and I was intelligent in the matches.”
In that sense, Koscielny is a typical Wenger signing; plucked from relative obscurity and dropped perfectly into the line-up, it’s as if he had always been there. However, some argue therein lies Arsenal’s weakness because Wenger’s signings in central defence are always usually too similar and lacking a bit of experience. They feel The Gunners need an aggressor, a no-nonsense defender who acts as the antithesis to complement their fixation on style. Which, is a fair argument if not for the fact it is also too simplistic.
Signings need to fit in strategically and by having all-rounders at the back, it allows Arsenal to play a high line to complement their pressing and possession game. Of course, that’s not to say more orthodox centre-backs don’t have their uses. Phillipe Senderos was crucial in Arsenal’s Champions League final run in 2005/06 although it particularly worked because Arsenal defended deep in a compact 4-5-1 formation. Wenger hadn’t usually played the system and when he did decide to switch back to the 4-4-2 in Europe the next season, his side went crashing out of the tournament to PSV as Ronald Koeman purposely told his team to let Senderos have the ball as often as possible because they felt he was their weakness. Another argument against Wenger is that two similar defenders deny Arsenal of a “first-ball/second-ball” partnership, which is again a valid point because Arsenal do yearn the return of Thomas Vermaelen. However, their recent impressive form shows that as a partnership, Johan Djourou and Koscielny possess the necessary skills to complement each other and in the 3-1 win over Chelsea, Djourou displayed his authoritative side by dropping deeper so he could better handle the threat of Didier Drogba.
The reason for the recent upturn of form – coinciding with a run of four clean sheets – is that Arsenal have found a balance structurally. Wenger has decided on a settled line-up and the team are now playing more compact. Earlier in the season, the gap between the attack and defence was at times large, making it more harder to press – or rather – win the ball back and this owed much to Arsenal’s inconsistencies. The ramifications a bad pressing structure has to the side is that it makes it easier for opponents to break through to the midfield and get the ball quickly to the strikers, forcing the Arsenal defence to scramble back. Former Barcelona defender Víctor Muñoz helps explain the risk in regards to the Catalan club, but because the underlying systems are similar, it can be applied to Arsenal as well.
“You can’t have it both ways, there’s always a downside,” says Muñoz. “If the press doesn’t get the ball, you’ll often see Gerard Pique and Carlos Puyol (or Johan Djourour and Lauren Koscielny) furiously sprinting back to ward off the danger. They have the pace to do that. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does, it can be scary.”
Ipswich Town exposed that weakness in the first-leg of the League Cup semi-final when Tamas Priskin continually broke the offside trap because of Arsenal’s high-line before finally scoring to give his team a 1-0 aggregate lead, although, the example also shows the correlation there is between the attack and defence. Arsenal needed to push up as they looked to force the initiative as the dominant team but were rebuffed because the attack failed to work Ipswich’s defence. As a result Ipswich could remain organised and compact because Arsenal’s passing was too parallel and sideways, and often too lethargic to drag them out of position. With each attack that Arsenal failed, the danger was that they could be left exposed to a quick counter-attack and as it turned out, they were punished by a long-ball which had Djourou and Koscielny scrambling back.
Both players, however, have made massive strides this season and Koscielny, in particular, coming into the Premier League in his début season, has made a very rapid transformation. His first game, a 1-1 draw with Liverpool, displayed everything you have come to expect from a Wenger centre-back. Great presence on the ball, allayed with a studious reading of play, Koscielny slotted in perfectly alongside Thomas Vermaelen at the back. However, he blotted his almost faultless performance by picking up two yellow cards in almost identical positions, highlighting his unorthodox style which is sometimes splayed with risk.
“Laurent is tough, he’s not so tall but goes for the close marking style,” Vermaelen told the Official Matchday Programme. “He’s a clever player, quick over the ground, quick with his feet and looks to be the complete defender. I think we can work together well, he’s right-footed and it’s often better to play one left-footed and one right-footed defender together. That’s the boss’s choice.
“With Johan [Djourou] too we are three quite similar defenders – we all like to mark tightly. Johan is big of course, but myself and Laurent aren’t as tall but we all look to play with our feet, and we are all quick. We are all quite similar so we should be able to work together well.”
<Video>Laurent Koscielny v Milan (Emirates Cup, August 2010)
Koscielny likes to win the ball back quickly so he sticks to his opponents like glue. He gets tight to his opposition forwards to deny them any space and you will often see him dangle a leg around the player in order to knock the ball away. His strength, his former manager Christian Gourcuff says, is at one-on-ones, which he says he “never saw him lose” and has an unerring belief that he can win every ball. “He has a real charisma and gives off a feeling of strength and serenity,” say Lorient scout Christophe Le Roux.
His style helps aid Arsenal’s tactic of winning the ball back quickly but Koscielny knows if it goes wrong, he can put him but most importantly, the team in trouble. In the game against Liverpool, despite looking comfortable for much of the match and expertly helping to squeeze Joe Cole out of the game, over-zealousness meant he received almost identical bookings. The first was for a tug that halted a Liverpool counter-attack, the other, a handball, again just on the halfway line as Torres looked to break. In his next game after the suspension, he was skinned by El-Hadji Diouf for Blackburn’s goal in their 2-1 defeat, perhaps out of a bit of casualness and an unwavering belief in his ability at one-on-ones. His technique, to get square on to his attacker in front of him, means he needs to correctly guess which way his opponent will go. Luckily, Koscielny has got this right more often than not but there are moments this season where an over-complication caused Arsenal to concede a goal.
On five minutes in the 2-2 draw against Wigan Athletic, he stood up fantastically to Hugo Rodallega when the striker had only him to beat but was desperately wrong-footed when Charles N’Zogbia skipped passed him on seventeen minutes, to win his side a penalty. Koscielny tried to anticipate which way the French midfielder was going to go and therefore shifted his bodyweight to his left but as N’Zogbia moved the ball to his right, Koscielny dangled his leg out to catch him. It was a similar situation against West Bromwich Albion in the 3-2 defeat, as Koscielny tried to force Gonzalo Jara inside but the right-back was conceded too much space on the outside, and with the help of a mistake by Manuel Almunia, squeezed the ball in. Koscielny’s bad performance in that game saw him hauled off as Arsenal searched for the win.
But since a patchy start to the season where Koscielny’s performances ranged from the frustrating to the brilliant, such as in the League Cup win over Tottenham and the 1-1 draw with Sunderland, he has gone from strength to strength. It’s perhaps a testament to Wenger’s scouting team and the homogenisation of the game, that Koscielny is expected to slot in straight-away to Arsenal’s style. Nevertheless, he has adapted impressively to the rigours of top-level football and is doing it in a style which is thoroughly his own.