Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Wednesday May 23 2012
Arteta`s action man looks; ceaseless ball retention and team ethic was enough for him to chisel his way into your affections for 3rd place in the Vital Arsenal Player of the Season poll. Whilst Arteta`s tireless work probably appealed to the studious, aesthetic football fan in us, the man in 2nd place tackled, blocked, intercepted and headed his way into your hearts. Laurent Koscielny`s first season at Arsenal showed great potential, but the leap from Ligue 2 to Premier League in 2 years was a steep learning curve for the man with the early era Bart Simpson hairdo.
A couple of (harsh) red cards against Liverpool and Newcastle hastened his acclimatisation into the fire and brimstone of Premier League football. He suffered some reputational damage by having to spend much of his season playing alongside Sebastien Squillaci- a defender who clearly didn`t compliment his style. A run in the side alongside Djourou saw Arsenal put together a run of seven clean sheets in ten games, before Djourou dislocated his shoulder at Old Trafford. February 2011 kind of summed up his season. An absolute master class in defending saw him keep Lionel Messi at bay in a 2-1 home win over Barcelona. His snappy, persistent interceptions helped him perform a better job reducing the Argentine`s influence than probably any defender in Europe has managed for the last three years. But then came the Carling Cup Final.
An 89th minute mix up between him and Szczesny gifted the Carling Cup to Birmingham in heartbreaking circumstances. That week in training, Wenger told the press Szczesny`s cast iron self belief saw him forget the error within 24 hours. Koscielny, the manager said, had taken it a little harder. I began to wonder if we had another Senderos on our hands. A talented centre half that would wilt under the lights. His response has been exemplary. Last summer the talk was all of Vermaelen`s return from injury. As with most injured players, Vermaelen`s reputation grew simply by not being around. Though doubtless the Belgian is a good defender, if you ask Arsenal fans now as to who the centre half partnership should be with Mertesacker now in the frame, the question has tilted more as to who should partner Koscielny.
Koscielny has learned quickly and applied every blow from the school of hard knocks into his game. Distribution is an important facet for an Arsenal centre half and his has improved markedly since his signing. We rarely see the aimless hacks down field under pressure. What makes his defending so eye catching is his determination. Possibly his biggest attribute is his ability to step in front of strikers and intercept passes along the ground. It`s a combination of tenacity and quick thinking. Aerially he has become very dominant. His standing leap is a sight to behold and, again, it`s his determination that wins him so many aerial challenges. Ruthlessly spotting a high ball to his attacker before hurling himself at the ball.
Part of the reason I believe Arsenal fans have begun to take to him so much is that he`s probably the purest defender we`ve had since Sol Campbell. Gallas, Toure and Vermaelen are all good centre halves. But you got the impression they`d rather be further forward given the chance. Koscielny loves to defend. Throwing himself into a block, hurtling himself at an aerial ball, bustling his way ahead of opposing strikers. He likes getting his shorts dirty. What`s impressed me the most I think is the tangible evidence of how much work he`s put in on the training ground. He appears to be faster along the ground now. He was already adept at spotting danger, but I can only guess that he feels comfortable enough as an Arsenal player to take the responsibility to cover a wandering teammate (a regular occurrence at Arsenal).
As I pointed out in the April Player of the Month article, Koscielny seems equipped to deal with all sorts of strikers. He sticks like glue to nippy forwards that like to knock the ball past you or beguile with trickery. He has the determination to deal with physical, bullying strikers. He reads the game well enough to snuff out poachers. 54% of Arsenal`s goal concession last season emanated from set pieces. That`s down to 27% this year. Rice`s more hands on role in coaching there along with Szczesny`s greater command of his area are two big factors. But I think the assertiveness Koscielny has added to his game this season
I think the next step for Koscielny next season is to become a real leader of the defence. He plays by example, but seems a quiet, yet reliable character. It will be interesting to see if he can now grow even more assertive and begin to become an organiser. Not just of his defence, but of his team. Too often last season Arsenal`s centre halves were exposed by their midfield and I think Koscielny can start communicating with them a bit more. If Vermaelen wanders forward, tell either Arteta or Song (presuming the latter listens) to sit in. In fact, don`t tell them, demand they do it. Koscielny is an excellent sweeper defender, often sprinting over to cover Vermaelen. The next progression is for him to order his teammates around so that he doesn`t have to cover. If he improves at the same rate that he has since this time last year, it won`t be too tall an order for one of Arsenal`s best, most reliable and consistent performers of 2011-12. Bon faire Laurent. LD.
Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVAE
Date:Wednesday May 23 2012
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