Arsenal are shocking at the back and always have been, right? The theory being that Arsène Wenger inherited a decent back four, and besides a lucky break of getting Sol Campbell on a free, twenty years have gone by without Wenger actually knowing how to get the best, consistently, from a defence. It’s just a theory, but it’s widely accepted. The ‘Gravity theory’ of football, if you like: what goes up, won’t be won in the air by Gabriel.
Arsène relies on players expressing themselves rather than rigidly coaching defensive structures like his nemesis Mourinho does; he’s the English teacher who lets you play Radio 1 while you write essays, not the Biology teacher who you’re scared will castrate you if you hand in homework late. The problems with Arsenal since the Invincibles have been with Mertesacker, Djourou, Gallas, Senderos and the like, more than with Nasris or Girouds. That’s what costs you in big games, and Arsenal have consistently lost out thanks to their weak defence. They reached the Champions League final with Flamini at left-back, for goodness sake; the first third of the pitch is perennially weaker than the third for the Gunners.
Even Wengerites as stubborn as the man himself are hard pressed to disagree with that in the immediate aftermath of Mertesacker vs. Chelsea last season, Gabriel vs. Manchester United or even Holding and Chambers’ understandably bumbling performance against free-scoring Liverpool on the opening day of this campaign. Arsenal often look a wreck at the back, and a long-time lack of a quality defensive midfielder, along with Wenger’s penchant for converting wingers into full-backs, has scuppered many a title assault.
So the following sentence will come as a surprise, given that Arsenal boast the obvious talent of Alexis Sánchez, Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla. Arsenal’s most important player is a defender.
Laurent Koscielny looked like a disaster from the off. Wenger’s made his fair share of defensive errors in the transfer market, and with less concentration than an leaky juice carton, the Frenchman looked like the latest in a long, mostly Gallic line, as he cost Arsenal numerous times in his first season. A player who slipped to lower French clubs for game time, he seemed like the archetypal Wenger buy – comfortable in possession, French and with something to prove – but while many defenders have wasted Arsène’s trust in them – see similarly French and abysmal Pascal Cygan, hilariously invited back to the club for a “Legends” game recently – Koscielny only pushed himself to get better as a footballer. While you can’t argue that Adams and Campbell are the best defenders the club ever had, you’d now be hard-pressed to find a third better than Koscielny. Even despite Cygan’s recent legend status.
The Koscielny turnaround is astonishing, even more so that it’s come with so much calamity around him. Jenkinson was sent on loan, Mertesacker always looked to have a mistake in him and Gibbs lost his place after failing to live up to expectation. Bellerín had a rough start to Arsenal life, as did Monreal; Gabriel has always looked erratic, Vermaelen even admitted at one point that he needed to be dropped, and ahead of the defence, Arsenal employed mostly Flamini or Arteta to shield the centre-halves. Koscielny has almost had to teach himself: there’s been little help from his colleagues and often he’s had to mop up for others. He’s been so exposed for so much of his Arsenal career, it’s like he’s been an BAFTA-level actor in Mrs Brown’s Boys, at times.
Because while whoever partnered/sat in front of Koscielny was often a worry, it was always so much more of a worry when Koscielny wasn’t there to tidy up. From 2013 to 2015, Arsenal had a 70% win ratio with him; this dropped to 33% without. 14% of the games the Frenchman missed in that time, Arsenal failed to keep a clean sheet.
Even with some of the best attacking power in the division, this makes Koscielny the first name on the teamsheet. He even chips in with goals when they really matter: the knack he has for bundling the ball over the line when Arsenal most crave a break is Adams-esque – see the FA Cup final 2014, and more recently against Burnley and Southampton – and though he doesn’t bark commands at the Emirates backline like Mr Arsenal used to, he is a leader in every other respect. He’s silenced some of the world’s best strikers, led incredible fight-backs, and now with the captain’s armband, leads the team out onto the field, as well as during the entire 90 minutes. He calls Wenger signing him “a bet” that he wants to help his manager win every time he steps onto the pitch.
Wenger always knew that Henry, Fàbregas, Pirès, van Persie, Özil, had the talent; he in return had a system to help them express themselves. With defenders it was always a little more difficult, but Koscielny bucked the trend because he was so technically proficient. Koscielny is quietly pacy, far more so than a lot of strikers who consider it their strongest suit. He’s calm in possession, can pick a pass nicely, and though positional play hampered his early days at Arsenal, years of developing an understanding with Per Mertesacker have rectified that almost completely. While Koscielny has rarely been encouraged to fix himself to an opponent and man-mark, he’s combined his pace and on-the-ball prowess with a ferocious tackle that he always had in him. He’s had so much faith instilled in him to just stay calm and be patient, that this icy composure has defined who he is as a player.
With Mustafi now in the first team, Arsenal have a stronger, more commanding defender to counteract Koscielny’s quieter style. Ultimately, Arsenal always bottle it though, right? Well, they bottle it more when they miss one particular man. Koscielny is the leader of that team, and one who’s overturned a nightmare start to his life in North London to become one of the most sought after defenders in the league. Arsenal fall apart sometimes with him, often without him.
Winning titles is about grinding results, and that starts with building from the back. Özil is majestic, Alexis a magician. Ramsey is a force of nature, Xhaka a smart buy and Cazorla is the heartbeat of the midfield. But behind the beautiful, upper-field play Koscielny is the linchpin. He holds everything in place; he is the gravity that keeps the team ticking.