It was a gutsy performance in the south of France, which secured a fine win away from home in Europe’s elite competition against a side who themselves have not made the best start to the new French season, but are none the less an experienced European outfit, playing in a daunting albeit diminished, stadium.
Aaron Ramsey’s injury time winner put the icing on the proverbial cake with moments to spare, but it was the performance of the defence and Laurent Koscielny in particular that has won the plaudits this time. The accolades were fully deserved, Koscielny’s positioning and timely interceptions were the stone foundations of Arsenal’s first away clean sheet in Europe in seventeen games.
Alongside the equally impressive but less refined Per Mertesacker the Gunners defence by and large contained Loic Remy et al with relative ease. I have seen a few commentaries on the game, discussing Koscielny’s progression under Arsene Wenger. When he was signed from Lorient for £8.45 million in 2010 Wenger claimed we needed more height in the defence, and Laurent would provide this. I would be the first to admit that he had an unsettled start to his Arsenal career.
He was sent off in his first premier league start against Liverpool, and sometimes struggled to keep up with the pace of the game, not that he is slow by any means. At first it seemed as though he was surprised by the movement, muscle and speed of the Premiership’s finest, but it seemed to me that slowly he was getting a grip on life in the fast lane. The miss-timed tackles were being kept to a minimal and he was tracking his men with more success. He was, and still is technically a very strong defender.
Sometimes his touch brings a wide smile to my face. But the criticism still persisted. It didn’t help his cause that the Arsenal defence in general at times resembled a lower division ensemble, rather than an outfit operating at the top tier of world football. He also had numerous partners at the back in his first season, due to the continued absence of Thomas Vermaelen and Johan Djourou. Sebastien Squillaci, who was possibly even more maligned than Koscielny didn’t help matters with his erratic decision making and below par form.
Then came along the epic game against Barcelona last season that set the Emirates alight. Koscielny had a very impressive game against the best team in the world – perhaps ever – winning praise from far and wide. Since then he has had some assured displays, as well as frustratingly poor performances, against Blackburn Rovers this season in particular. In scoring an own goal in that game, his consistency was starting to be called into question.
The damning conclusion seems to be that he is more suited to a continental type game where the ball is played around in front of him a lot more, than he is a typical robust ‘English’ game when physically he is called upon as much as technically. But isn’t this an indictment of our own game as much as his? Consider this for a moment. A man of the Match performance against the European champions leads to effusive praise, but an upcoming game against the burly Stoke this weekend seems to be bringing pessimism in the press. We used to adore the technically minded and composed defender in this country, because we didn’t produce many. Alan Hansen and Des Walker for instance were regarded as ahead of their time here.
Rio Ferdinand is the best we’ve produced in the past ten years, and Bobby Moore is our best ever. But these days we don’t seem to be producing enough of these. John Terry and Gary Cahill are not exactly Franco Baresi and Matthias Sammer. So now we encourage the ‘big man’ at the back to take center stage, and then wonder why we can’t compete with the likes of Spain at international level when it comes to ball retention and passing. Aside from the fact that no-one can compete with Spain at the minute, doesn’t all good football tend to come from the back? Instead of maligning defenders who don’t kick it into row-z, shouldn’t we encourage bringing the ball out of defence?
After all, it wasn’t in the distant past when Tony Adams used to incite donkey chants at away grounds? Adam’s mantra was ‘If the ball is in row-z, then it can’t be in the back of my net can it?’ This is all well and good, and Tony Adams is a legend and icon for England and Arsenal. But wouldn’t it be nice to once again embrace the ball playing center half? Laurent Koscielny is I my opinion a fine defender with a bright future.
Two seasons at Arsenal would be enough to break even the most experienced defender, but he just seems to be getting more of an appetite for the club with the return of Vermaelen and the acquisition of Mertesacker, Koscielny may start to find his opportunities somewhat limited in the coming months. But I would like to see him be given a fair crack at the whip, which I’m sure he will get under Wenger. This could turn him into one of the better defenders in the league. Or, on the other hand, he could become the next Philip Senderos!