Laurent Koscielny: Arsenal’s Ball-Playing Defender Stars Yet Again Against Man City

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It seems like it’s taken some time, but the football world is now finally starting to appreciate the qualities of Laurent Koscielny to a significant degree. Rio Ferdinand, a former star defender himself, recently hailed the Frenchman for his aggression at the back. “Laurent Koscielny, when he’s on form, he’s the best defender in the league for me,” Ferdinand asserted. “He’s one of those you don’t want to play against – he’s quick, he’s aggressive.” Thierry Henry was even more emphatic still. “It’s simple for me – he’s the best defender in the league at the moment,” the Arsenal legend said. “There’s nothing else to add.”

In the Gunners’ recent win over title rivals Manchester City, Koscielny produced another imposing performance to add weight to these suggestions. He defended beautifully, with that customary mix of anticipation and ceaseless energy. Never one to sit off an opposing centre-forward, he stuck tightly to his adversaries, most notably Sergio Aguero, and, when the situation called for it, used his impressive acceleration and closing speed to cut out the potential for concern in City’s final third. All of this work, of course, was defined by his forward-thinking proactivity, by his desire to snuff out the danger before it had a chance to eventuate.

On the ball, too, Koscielny showed that same level of aggression. In the lead-up to Arsenal’s opener, he received possession in the standard position for a central defender, well inside his own half. But instead of circulating it calmly, or even playing it backwards to the goalkeeper, the 30-year-old opted for something more positive. He brought the ball forward, surveyed the landscape in front of him and, with a piercing right-footed pass, sliced through the City defence to find Mesut Ozil in between the lines. The German star quickly laid the ball on for Theo Walcott, and after cutting inside from the left-hand side, the Englishman rifled the ball home from the edge of the area.

This was the moment of inspiration an otherwise cagey game required to get it going, and Koscielny, in typically forceful fashion, provided the impetus from defence. He did this earlier in the season against Newcastle, too, bringing the ball forward against a 10-man Magpies to find Santi Cazorla in the final third. Koscielny’s impact might have been more indirect on this occasion, as both Cazorla and Ramsey saw shots blocked before Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain smashed the ball home, via a deflection off Fabricio Coloccini, to give the Gunners an underwhelming 1-0 win. But again, the ex-Lorient man demonstrated his intent, and given the fact that Arsenal were struggling for penetration in attack, this piece of upbeat play was even more important.

It was also one of the hallmarks of Koscielny’s game. He doesn’t wait around in the hope that something will happen. Instead, he tries to make something happen himself, and though this can sometimes appear a little reckless, a little too cavalier for someone charged primarily with defensive duties, it can also be the spur that allows his Arsenal teammates to kick on. Certainly, the way he pierced Manuel Pellegrini’s defensive set-up, with that ball to Ozil, highlighted this, as too did his second-half aerial pass in behind the City defence. It was floated so expertly that it allowed Joel Campbell the opportunity to shoot at goal, and regardless of the Costa Rican’s failure to find the back of the net, this was indicative of Koscielny’s well-rounded skillset.

He may be one of the league’s best defenders, but his brilliance isn’t limited solely to stopping. He has developed into a genuine ball-playing defender, and alongside the more conservative Per Mertesacker, he has an ideal partner at the heart of Arsenal’s defence. Whereas Koscielny will take risks with both his positioning and his distribution, Mertesacker will corral the opposition and keep it comparatively simple in possession. Together they have formed a thoroughly complementary defensive tandem, and this is a key part of Koscielny’s continued progression.

At 30 he is now the complete defender. He is important to Arsenal both with and without the ball, so much so that Henry even went so far as to claim that he is the club’s only “irreplaceable” outfield player. It’s a big call for a squad that sports a galaxy of stars, ranging from Cazorla and Ozil through to Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud, but right now it’s hard to argue with him.

Koscielny may have struggled in his earlier years at Arsenal, but those experiences have propelled him towards his current standing as one of the best central defenders in Europe. It’s a long way from where he started in France’s lower tiers, and after spending so many seasons honing his craft, as both a stopper and a passer, without anyone really noticing, he truly deserves all of the recognition that people are finally starting to give him.