This season has not been a good one for the Gunners’ defence. It is Wenger’s worst at Arsenal in terms of the number of goals conceded. Although a part of this can be attributed to that once in a blue moon goal fest at Old Trafford, the defensive frailties of Arsenal continue to worry the fans as the team looks to form a stable defensive partnership at the back.
Yet, Laurent Koscielny has stood out like a beacon guiding the team through troubled waters and ensuring that the backline is as impenetrable as possible. What’s ironic is that he’s the least experienced of the three world class centre backs currently in the Arsenal squad and at the same time the most matured of the lot.
Thomas Vermaelen was expected to lead the defence this season, already having a wealth of experience under his belt. But an injury plagued year on the sidelines had rendered him a little rusty and his form had been suspect. Per Mertesacker had just joined the club this season and was taking time to adapt to the rigours and physicality of the Premier League.
But Koscielny has proved his worth time and again and has hardly put a foot wrong this season. The question on everyone’s mind at the start of the season was; who will partner Thomas Vermaelen in defence? Koscielny or Mertesacker?
The question soon became; who will be benched – Vermaelen or Mertesacker?
In a season that could break all Premier League records in terms of the sheer volume of goals scored, Koscielny would find a place in my Premier League XI any day. Going simply by stats, Vermaelen has been picked ahead of him by many because he has scored more goals (Insert favourite Fernando Torres/Andy Carroll joke here). But having closely watched Koscielny’s performances over ninety minutes in Arsenal’s games this season, one would hardly realize that this is the same player who, only a couple of years ago, was playing in the second tier of French football.
His progress over the past two seasons has been astronomical. He didn’t have the best of debuts after he signed for Arsenal from Lorient. He was sent off in his first Premier League game at Anfield – a game where he was stretchered off at half time after a Joe Cole tackle but came back on for the second half. Later in the season, he forged an unlikely but formidable defensive partnership with Johan Djourou and kept many clean sheets which propelled Arsenal up the table. His best performance came against Barcelona as he kept the likes of Messi and Iniesta at bay.
But the dream run came crashing down in the Carling Cup final when a mix up with Szczesny allowed Birmingham City to scoring the winner in the final minutes of the game. Arsenal’s form dropped and they were soon knocked out of all competitions. But that did not deter Koscielny. He was determined to make up for his mistakes and continued to train hard.
That determination has paid rich dividends this season. Arguably the most consistent defender on the pitch, Koscielny’s improvements were laid bare for all to see. His Man of the Match performance against AC Milan at the Emirates comes to mind when we talk about his best performances. In a recent interview, he revealed the different methods he adopted to ensure he could adapt to an opponent’s style of play – be it dealing with long balls for Peter Crouch or taking on technically adept players like Luis Suarez.
His positional awareness and well timed leaps to win aerial duels did not go unnoticed. Crucial tackles in the box and clean last man tackles (the most in the Premier League) ensured opponents did not even get a sniff of the goal. He has won more than 60% of aerial duels (2 per game) and has a pass success percentage of more than 80%.
His interceptions are also a key in initiating attacks as we see him charging through the centre of the field, sometimes even dribbling past three players before passing it forward and getting back to his position. He has also won 50 offsides this season (more than Vermaelen, Mertesacker and Sagna combined!) at the rate of 1.5 offsides per game; which is an amazing stat as Arsenal heavily depends on this strategy when they play a high line.
What’s remarkable is that Koscielny is only 26 years old. That’s a long way to go for a central defender. In just two years he has become a force to reckon with in the Premier League, keeping top strikers at bay and at the same time earning a national team call up from the French coach Laurent Blanc who said, “Laurent Koscielny is having an excellent season at Arsenal. Perhaps the most improved player of the year.”
But a single competent defender does not a good partnership make. The other centre backs need to pull up their socks and Wenger must decide how best to use his defenders. What Arsenal needs is someone who can complement Koscielny at the back. And a good rotation policy next season will ensure an injury free campaign.
Having played more than 40 games in both his seasons at Arsenal and on current form, Bosscielny who started his career as a full back is undoubtedly Arsenal’s number one centre back.
Stats from WhoScored.com