Arsenal‘s Laurent Koscielny has never struck me as a ‘top, top’ defender, to paraphrase Sir Alex Ferguson’s latest book.
Sourced from FC Lorient for an incredibly reasonable £8million in summer 2010, for me, perhaps ignorant in my own superficialities, the Frenchman epitomises the purgatorial state between Europe’s leading stars and the-best-of-the-rest that the vast majority of Arsene Wenger’s sub-£10million acquisitions tend to fall firmly into.
I would argue that view is fairly unanimous throughout the English footballing public, yet abroad, and rather paradoxically, another opinion appears to prevail. Throughout the current campaign, the 28 year-old has been consistently linked to the likes of PSG, Monaco and Bayern Munich, clubs whom, through the power of finance and prestige, could acquire almost any centre-back in world football that happens to tickle their transfer fancy.
Through his French connection, links with the Ligue 1 big spenders are understandable. But PSG and Bayern Munich both have ambitions dominate the Champions League for the many years to come, let alone their domestic top flights, and with that goal in mind, the Arsenal centre-back certainly doesn’t constitute what one could describe as an automatic or unanimous choice of defensive stalwart.
Resultantly, the question must be considered – is Laurent Koscielny dangerously underrated in England?
Arsenal fans took to Twitter in angst on Monday afternoon after it was revealed that the France international hadn’t made it into the PFA Team of the Year, with Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany picked ahead of him. There’s two ways of looking at that militant response; firstly, that the Emirates faithful have a better view than anyone of Koscielny’s performances this season, and therefore can claim a greater pool of evidence and knowledge; or alternatively, just as any group of fans would be, the opinions of the Gunners clan will always be biased in the defender’s favour.
But the stats certainly make interesting reading. Here’s a look at the Etihad captain’s from his 24 Premier League outings, courtesy of Squawka; 26 aerial duels won, 51 interceptions, 12 blocks, 133 clearances, 59 tackles, 6 cards for bad tackles and 88% pass completion. Now compare that to Koscielny’s vitals, albeit from five league outings more; 48 aerial duels won, 81 interceptions, 21 blocks, 224 clearances, 54 tackles, 2 cards for bad tackles and 92% pass completion.
I’m of the firm opinion that the numbers can’t explain everything, at least not when they’re used without context – Arsenal are a place lower than Manchester City in the Premier League table despite playing one game more, and averaging 56.6% possession per match, in comparison to the Citizens 57.4%, the assumption is that Kompany has had less defending to do than his Gunners counterpart this season. In spite of this, it’s worth reminding that the Etihad side have conceded just 35 times this term – the second-best record in the top flight and averaging out at one goal per match – whilst Wenger’s side, with Koscienly a near constant, have conceded six goals more.
Yet, in regards to the Team of the Year nomination, the Arsenal faithful may have a point. Koscienly’s 92% pass completion rate is bettered throughout the entirety of the Premier League by one player – centre-back partner Per Mertesacker. His perfect passing display against Newcastle yesterday evening was the fifth time Koscielny recorded a 100% completion rate this season. Likewise, his 2.8 interceptions per match is the most of any top four defender, the next best being Martin Demichelis with 2.5, distantly trailed by Kompany with 2.1.
Combining this with what we know about Koscienly physically, for example his height and notable pace for a central defender – you have to be fast when compensating for Per Mertesacker – it’s hard to identify a chink in the France international’s armour.
One could point to Koscielny’s magnetism towards own goals or rare lapses in concentration as potential misgivings, but if competence and reliability are the ultimate litmus tests for Premier League centre-backs, then the Gunners defender passes with flying colours. He may not fit the modern trend of front-footed centre-halves capable of marauding their way up the pitch, but in terms of the nuts and bolts of the defensive arts, Koscielny is a master. This is underpinned by the 28 year-old’s biggest strength; his ability to anticipate and attack the ball.
Furthermore, it’s no secret that the Frenchman’s partnership with Mertesacker has been the bedrock behind Arsenal’s dramatic revival in form, spanning from the end of last season. At the turn of 2014, the defensive duo’s record for the Gunners stood at an incredible 19 wins, eight draws and no defeats from their 27 outings in tandem, in the process claiming 16 clean sheets and conceding on average just 0.5 goals per match.
Admittedly, Koscielny and Mertesacker’s defensive record has waned since, perhaps giving us an insight as to why the Frenchman is never considered in the same terms as the likes of Vincent Kompany or other members of the European elite; the 28 year-old’s most notable flaw, much like Arsenal, is his performances in big games – he’s been present amid defensively calamitous, multi-goal drubbings at the hands of Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City this season, the three matches in total creating an aggregate score of 17-4.
But you have to compensate for what’s in front of Koscienly, namely an Arsenal side continually set up by Arsene Wenger with incredibly little defensive protection in the heavyweight contests. In spite of this, statistically at least, he’s certainly given the likes of John Terry, Gary Cahill and Vincent Kompany a good run for their money this season.
Therefore, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the Gunners centre-back’s stock is so high abroad. If the Premier League is the toughest top flight in world football, Koscielny has undoubtedly grown and developed to meet it’s many defensive demands over the course of the past four campaigns. He may not be glamorously adventurous in possession, a regular goal-scorer or a particularly dominant physically over his opponents, but when it comes to the basics of defending, the Frenchman is certainly one of the Premier League’s best.
In that sense, and perhaps through no over faults than his slim price-tag and unceremonious style, Koscielny is disturbingly underrated in England.