The definition of a ‘cult hero’ has always been a curiously nebulous one for football fans. It’s difficult to define what makes a cult figure, but generally we find consensus on the identity of our folk heroes pretty easily. Broadly, they fall into two categories. Sometimes supporters turn players into cult heroes as a kind of unspoken apology for viewing their talents ungenerously.
Jon Sammels, Perry Groves and Emmanuel Eboue have all trodden this path in the past. But quite often, players become cult heroes because they offer qualities fans are not used to seeing in their team. Their lack of conformity makes them something close to novelty. Anders Limpar’s swaggering, bemulleted, shirt untucked and socks rolled down elán provided a stark contrast to Arsenal’s team of short back and sides types.
During Sead Kolasinac’s nascent Arsenal career, he has been described almost exclusively as a cult figure. Whilst the Gunners squad is not the hastily assembled cast of will o’ the wisp playmakers that many would have you believe, Kolasinac defines the term ‘bulk’ in a way few Arsenal players have under Arsene Wenger.
The adjectives used to describe his performances have been universally combative. ‘Tank’, ‘beast’, ‘unit.’ He fits the stereotype for a Balkan athlete with his pleasingly square body shape. One could almost hear him utter the words “if he dies, he dies” Ivan Drago style after an especially meaty 50-50 challenge. Were he an NFL player, he’d almost certainly be nicknamed “The Refrigerator.”
Following his debut, Arsene Wenger referred almost exclusively to his physical properties and how they titillate English football crowds. “The determined attitude gets to the crowd and the crowd responds to that, and that gives a swing to the team, you can see that with him and when he intervenes he provokes happiness.” He excites our more primal, gladiatorial urges.
Whilst Arsenal have improved their physical presence over the years with more mature athletes, it’s hard to recall an Arsene Wenger signing as stocky as Kolasinac. But I wonder if terms such as “tank” and “beast” slightly detract from what a technically accomplished footballer he is. “Maybe he is not a glamorous dribbler but the quality of his runs is very efficient,” Wenger opined back in August.
In fact, I wonder if the cult hero tag and his conformity to Eastern European stereotype doesn’t detract from his other less tangible qualities too. His steadily increasing library of goals and assists show a man with a variety of different clubs in his bag. Two of his most pleasing manoeuvres against Swansea involved a wonderfully executed back heel and a dainty pirouette- Alexis Sanchez availed of both.
His relationship with Alexis Sanchez is very promising. The archetypal Arsene Wenger goal involves working the ball to the by-line for the pull-back. Wenger doesn’t really want his wide players or full-backs tossing crosses in from the touchline. Working the ball to the by-line inside the penalty area opens up a corridor of opportunity for Arsenal’s college of forwards and onrushing midfielders. The Bosnian has the presence of mind to deliver the final ball with the correct pace.
In the current 3-4-2-1 system, the combination between the inside forwards and the wing-backs is key in moving the ball into the window of opportunity at the by-line. Kolasinac has quickly found a soulmate in Alexis, because the Chilean likes nothing more than popping into the half-spaces and combining with a wing-back. Sanchez especially likes to try and squeeze the ball into the crevice between the opposition centre-half and full-back.
Sead appears to have the consistency of end product that evaded someone like Kieran Gibbs, who often took up good positions but failed to find the correct delivery. It almost looks like Arsenal bought a player that fits the system they are playing, rather than buying him and spending six months wondering how he fits into the Tetris like pieces of this Arsenal squad.
Then you remember that the signing was pretty much confirmed prior to Arsenal’s move to a wing-back system and try not to mutter the words ‘happy accident’ to yourself for the sake of your own sanity. Not to rake over old ground too forlornly, but it does call into question why the shitting crikey Arsene was so hell-bent on playing Oxlade Chamberlain and Bellerin in the left-wing back role back in August- when the Gunners gave up some cheap points at Stoke and Liverpool.
Kolasinac has experience of playing in midfield and that shows in his end product. The wing-backs are incredibly crucial to Arsenal in the current system. Alexis and Özil earn a lot of attention from opposition defenders, which potentially frees up Bellerin and Kolasinac. Bellerin, by the way, is taking up superb positions this season, but is just a little behind his left sided counterpart on final product.
Whatever you think “xG chain” is worth, Bellerin is one of our top 3 in that metric every game and 2nd overall this season.
— YankeeGunner (@YankeeGunner) October 28, 2017
Arsene recognised the space on the flanks at half-time against Swansea and the result was that Granit Xhaka found Kolasinac on 9 separate occasions in the second period. In fact, Xhaka’s average position in the second half was close to ten yards further back, compared to the first half. This was clearly with the intention of finding a little more space to whip those diagonals to the Bosnian.
Kolasinac says he modelled his game on Roberto Carlos and the template is evident. Carlos was also a stocky, muscular presence at left wing-back. History remembers him as a more velvety figure because of his Le Tournoi free-kick and because he is Brazilian. Kolasinac also combines power and grace, but his presence in a team (often unfairly) characterised as selfie-crazed boyband prototypes and his Eastern European-ness means his physical properties invite greater focus.
There is nothing wrong with Kolasinac being referred to as a ‘tank’ or even being feted as a cult figure due to his uncompromising build. There is an undeniable thrill in watching opponents bounce off his frame like wasps flying proboscis first into a clear glass window. Barney Ronay described him as “a stiffening effect, like a gust of warm air on a cold day.”
But make no mistake, there is some ballet in Kolasinac too. We are of course still in the honeymoon period of a new signing, where imperfections are regarded as endearing and maybe even mildly arousing. His defensive attributes will be given a stern examination in Manchester on Sunday. But cult figure or not, Sead Kolasinac could significantly add to Arsenal’s arsenal.