Being a centre half at Arsenal has to be one of the most unforgiving gigs in top level sport. Last August, in a piece on the evolution of defending in elite football, I said that “being a defender and signing for Arsenal is a bit like being a chicken and signing for KFC.” Centre backs tend to observe a tried and tested career arc in N5. Often, they saunter into the team full of pish and vinegar, earning plaudits for their assured performances.
But as the hellish, lonely reality of being a defender at Arsenal begins to take its toll, they transition into mere husks of the bright eyed and bushy tailed men that arrive through the doors at London Colney. (This phenomenon is equally true of Arsenal goalkeepers). The warm acclaim that greeted Shkodran Mustafi’s arrival is slowly growing cooler as the nights draw in on his winter of discontent.
Igors Stepanovs made his first Premier League start in a 6-1 win thrashing of Leicester City on Boxing Day in 2000, his name was sung heartily by an impressed Clock End. Two months later, he turned to dust under the oppressive weight of a 6-1 hammering at Old Trafford. Djourou, Upson, Senderos, Chambers haunt the corridors in Arsenal’s museum of doomed defensive youth. This time next year, an ashen faced Rob Holding will be seen rocking back and forth in a quiet corner of Colney, muttering maniacally away to himself.
Arsenal fans even liked Gabriel when he first arrived. When Chelsea or Real Madrid sack a manager, their reputations do not suffer. For these are clubs with notoriously itchy trigger fingers. “It’s Real, they sack everybody,” comes the weary response. Yet this line of thought does not seem apply to Arsenal and centre halves. Defenders that perform perfectly well in less chastening environments still leave with ridicule raining down on them, their reputations in tatters.
All of which is to say, thank shitting crikey for Laurent Koscielny. The Frenchman has played at the heart of the Gunners defence for seven and a half years now and, frankly, one would forgive him a William Gallas style meltdown in the centre circle. Arsenal’s centre halves are often left to brave blizzards with only a string vest and a tattered blanket for protection. Yet Koscielny, a veteran of many a bloody battle on the fields of Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford, shows little sign of the PTSD that has blighted his predecessors.
In fact, he has gotten better. To survive in the chaotic maelstrom of Arsenal’s reargaurd and be considered one of the team’s most vital players takes a great deal of magnetism. The Gunners defence often unravels for the same reason that the rest of the team does- because they are not well drilled. When teams come under significant pressure, they need a plan to reflexively fall back on and Arsenal do not provide this pillar of support for their players.
So any defender that is able to perform consistently well in this environment does so through superhuman individual feats. Like Forest Gump sprinting back into the jungle to collect wounded allies, Koscielny’s excellence is not the result of well laid plans. Chelsea have made three good, but hardly great defenders in Gary Cahill, David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta very difficult to breach because of the forcefield around them. Koscielny is not afforded this luxury.
So his successes are very much his own. What has impressed most about the Frenchman this season, is the ease with which he has switched his defensive identity without people really noticing. Alongside Per Mertesacker, Koscielny was very much the highly charged partner in the duo. His job was to attack the ball, often leaving the cusp of the penalty area to engage attackers high up the pitch, snapping at their heels and challenging for aerial duels, while Per lingered further back in a ‘sweeping’ role.
The purchase of Shkodran Mustafi slightly altered his purpose. While Koscielny is still able to intercept with the best of them, Mustafi, seven years Lolo’s junior, undertakes the attack dog role. The German is usually the first to leap out of the trenches, bayonet in hand to repel enemy fire. Koscielny has taken on a little of Mertesacker’s role, the senior partner surveying no man’s land in anticipation of covert attacks.
Essentially, the 31 year old has been able to combine a little of his former identity, with a little of Mertesacker’s to become the complete defender. His superior pace means that Arsenal can play much higher up the pitch and squeeze opponents, much like they were able to when Kolo Toure and Sol Campbell forged such a formidable partnership.
Koscielny is analogous to Sol Campbell in this respect- there was never any doubt as to whom the senior partner was in that relationship. Toure never recovered when Campbell left the club. So traumatised was Sol after 5 years of duty at the heart of the Gunners defence that he skipped the country at half time during a league game.
It hasn’t always been plain sailing for Kos at Arsenal, especially during the early years. There were mistakes, red cards and let’s face it, he was just as culpable as anyone in the 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford in 2011. His partnership with Vermaelen failed to bring the best from either player, both of whom seemed too prone to moments of rashness. In hindsight, we can see who the predominantly negative influence was in that tag team.
But the way he marshalled talents such as Aguero, Suarez and even Lionel Messi during the Gunners’ 2-1 win over Barca in February 2011 foreshadowed his potential. His psychological recovery from his mix up with Szczesny during the 2011 League Cup Final signified a strong character. Now he has grown into a leader, not through words and gestures, but by deed.
After his bicycle kick equaliser against Southampton in September, Wenger exclusively referenced the character involved in the execution, as opposed to the technique, “He made that at 1-0 down. Not when you have scored three or four already and that shows he is a special character.” Arsenal’s defensive unit is something of a rickety old footbridge, but he is absolutely the rope that binds it together.
As we saw in Munich, without him, the Gunners backline becomes a collection of sodden wooden struts tumbling into the harsh rapids below. Laurent Koscielny is a general that has seen unspeakable horrors, but still leads his troops onward into the next battle. Few Gunners players escape the ire of the supporters at some juncture or other, but Kos has earned almost universal exemption from the constant diagnoses of the team’s ills.
One wonders how he has resisted the trauma experienced by many of his colleagues and predecessors. Maybe he spends his evenings wheezing into a brown paper bag. Perhaps he regularly wakes in a cold sweat, as he dreams of Arsenal midfielders standing on the halfway line, hands on hips casually watching him rebuff another avalanche. It is possible that he will spend retirement in the hills with a monastery. But I for one, am incredibly thankful that Arsenal have Laurent Koscielny.
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