As the Premier League battles through its notorious and punishing New Year schedule, the current campaign is shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable and equally entertaining of all time. Manchester United have fallen alarmingly in recent months to sit in a lowly 6th place, unable to score and appease the fans so accustomed to winning ways.
Above them are West Ham, enjoying one of their best ever seasons under Slaven Bilić, prospering from the delicious displays of summer signing Dimitri Payet. Watford have defied all critics and sit well placed in 10th, and Eddie Howe’s newly promoted Bournemouth continue to impress despite losing so many key players to season ending injuries.
In their place, Aston Villa remain routed to the bottom of the table despite only their second league victory against Crystal Palace. Perennial relegation strugglers Sunderland are again battling against the drop and Steve McClaren’s Newcastle are yet to consistently find form as they drew 3-3 with Manchester United in one of the games of the season so far.
So with the tables turned, quite literally this season, it is ironic that the top of the Premier League has a more familiar feel to it. Even though they were held to a thrilling 3-3 draw with Liverpool, Arsenal lead the table on goal difference, despite Leicester City continuing their magnificent season with a 1-0 victory at Tottenham.
The perennial Champions’ League qualifiers have not won the league since that invincible side in 2004, but after their barren trophy run was ended with consecutive successes in the F.A Cup, they have been on an upward trend again in recent years, and are arguably back to something of their best.
With the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Özil, and now Petr Cech adding to the coming of age of Aaron Ramsey and Francis Coquelin, Arsenal finally look like a title winning team again.
Whether it is the football cycle once again aligning in Arsenal’s favour, their main rivals stuttering this season, or simply Wenger’s own decision to finally spend on proven big name players, there is a universal acceptance that the Gunners will never get a better opportunity to once again lift the Premier League title.
It is perhaps ironic then, that one of the players that could potentially push his team to crowning glory is not one of Wenger’s most expensive purchases, or even a burgeoning talent finally rid of their injury woes. Arguably this season, Arsenal need look no further than Frenchman Laurent Koscielny for their inspiration.
While Mesut Özil has been rightly receiving the plaudits so far for his scintillating form, which could see him finish the season with a record amount of assists for a single campaign, and Petr Cech has been heralded as the missing piece in Wenger’s aesthetic jigsaw, it has been the understated Frenchman who has helped mold Wenger’s side into legitimate title contenders once again.
While Cech and centre-back colleague Per Mertesacker must also be righty praised for their defensive contributions as part of a seamless triumvirate, it is the Frenchman who has undoubtedly progressed the most in his time on English shores, reaching another level in his performances and displaying all the maturity and quiet superiority that will be needed in the months ahead.
So much so, that with Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany again losing his injury battle with calf problems to take his place on the sidelines, and John Terry finally looking every bit of his 35 years, it is not unreasonable to suggest Koscielny has now surpassed the Englishman to challenge, when fit, the Belgium as the best central defender in the league alongside his German counterpart.
I regard him as the best defender in the Premier League at the moment – Thierry Henry
And with Euro 2016 looming, Koscielny’s performances over the last year ensure that the Frenchman is quietly building a case to be considered not only the best central defender in England, but also in Europe – something Les Bleus will need to take advantage of if they are to succeed this summer.
To put Koscielny’s meteoric rise into context, one should compare the transfer dealings of both Arsenal and title rivals Manchester City. While City flaunted a combined total of almost £60 million for Argentine Nicolás Otamendi and French counterpart Eliaquim Mangala to solidify their central defence, Arsène Wenger parted with just under £10 million to sign Koscielny in 2010, making the Frenchman’s current standing all the more impressive.
And his recent performances have not gone unnoticed. Writing in his column for The Sun, former Arsenal legend and Premier League winner Thierry Henry says he regards Laurent Koscielny as the best defender in the Premier League:
“It’s lucky for Arsenal that Laurent Koscielny has been more or less available every week because he is probably their only outfield player who is irreplaceable. I regard him as the best defender in the league at the moment.”
High praise indeed, but while players at the other end of the pitch attract the headlines, and Petr Cech continues to provide Arsenal with the defensive solidity and leadership they have sorely missed in recent years, the Frenchman has been allowed time to quietly go about his business and his brilliant performances have made him a lynchpin in Arsène Wenger’s side.
With superb positioning and an adept ability to read the game in front of him, Koscielny is rarely forced into making rash tackles or hurried into challenges. To the contrary, perfectly timed interceptions and challenges have become his forte and on the rare occasion his is caught out, his pace and awareness allow him to recover, and provide defensive cover for his centre-back counterpart.
And with an average WhoScored.com rating of 7.43 this season so far, the stats certainly mirror Koscielny’s glowing performances. Indeed, with an average of 1.6 tackles and 3.5 interceptions, whilst conceding only 0.8 fouls per game, the Frenchman also has an average pass completion of 88.2%.
Koscielny for me, when he is on form, I think he is the best defender in the league – Rio Ferdinand
It is no coincidence that Arsenal’s superb defensive record this campaign so far coincides with Koscielny’s good form, and if this is to be the season Arsène Wenger once again lays his hands on the Premier League title, Koscielny will prove to be a priceless asset.
And while it is not surprising to see such a player perform so well, it should not be forgotten that Koscielny is already a multiple trophy winner, scoffing the notion that the Frenchman has emerged out of nowhere as a bargain buy from Ligue 1 for Arsène Wenger, to those unacquainted with the player.
Aside from back to back success in the F.A Cup with Arsenal, Koscielny has also won the Community Shield with the Gunners, and has been named in the Ligue 2 Team of the Year in 2009. He was also named Arsenal’s Player of the Month in January 2012 and was included in the Premierleague.com Users’ Team of the Season for 2013–14 and 2014–15.
Arsenal fans also voted Koscielny as Wenger’s most effective signing of 2010–11 following an impressive debut campaign.
With such a list of accolades to his name already, and with potentially a Premier League title to add to his collection at the end of the season, Koscielny is enjoying his most prominent period yet as a player.
And having made over 160 appearances for the Gunners so far, 2016 seems destined to be Koscielny’s breakthrough season as one of Europe’s standout central defenders. And with Euro 2016 giving the Frenchman further opportunity to display his immense talent on the world stage, few could bet against him staking his claim even further.
But he does face competition. When fit and available, Vincent Kompany is undoubtedly one of the finest central defenders of his generation, while Real’s Sergio Ramos has matured greatly in recent years and can compete with the very best when he can curb his aggression and tendency to give away unnecessary fouls.
Dortmund can count on German stalwart Mats Hummels and one need only look to the new generation for France’s own Raphaël Varane, who looks destined for the very top and can already lay claim to being one of the most coveted central defenders. And with fellow compatriot Kurt Zouma impressing when called upon with current league champions Chelsea, Koscielny appears to be peaking at exactly the right time.
Although it must be said, the Frenchman is not exempt from criticism and does come with flaws of his own. While boasting excellent pace and strength for a central defender, he can also be aggressive.
And while these attributes serve him well in England, with his ball playing prowess complimenting Arsenal perfectly, he has demonstrated lapses in concentration at times.
The most notable example of which came in the last minute of the 2011 League Cup Final, where Koscielny was involved in a terrible defensive mix-up with then goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny, which allowed Birmingham City striker Obafemi Martins to score the winning goal.
And there are serious question marks over the player’s injury record too. With 17 injuries in the last two years, the Frenchman has been harshly branded the new ‘Abou Diaby’, and while other players have missed more game time during his tenure, the number of niggling injuries picked up by the Arsenal man has often stinted his progress.
But while missing so many minutes on the pitch has often left Wenger with a selection headache, it is also ironically no doubt one reason for the player’s late bloom which the Gunners now profit from.
And with age has also come maturity and consistency for the Frenchman. Mistakes are consigned to the past, with universal acclaim being heaped on the player for his improved recent form. Speaking as a pundit for BT Sport, former Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand has said:
“Koscielny for me, when he’s on form I think he’s the best defender in the league. [Manchester City’s Vincent] Kompany’s not fit enough consistently enough and he’s turned into a real top class defender.”
Arsène Wenger has also spoken of his defender in glowing terms. Speaking to ESPN, Wenger says he likened Koscielny to former FIFA World Player of the Year Fabio Cannavaro when he first saw the Frenchman play. He said:
“He was a bit like Cannavaro. Not too tall, but very mobile, read the game very well and had great interception qualities. I was told by a friend of mine who was his coach a few years earlier that he was a quality player, so I kept an eye on him. I felt that the only question mark for him coming to English football would be dealing with the ball in the air. But he’s slowly getting there.”
While Arsenal fans have had to endure some testing moments with the Frenchman, as Wenger alludes to, their patience has been rewarded. With time has come an established and understated player and Arsenal are currently reaping the rewards. If they are to become league champions this season, the Gunners will hope Koscielny’s time has indeed come and the wait is over.
If he stays fit, then the quiet and unassuming defender from Tulle could well enjoy unprecedented success this summer both domestically and internationally. If he does, then the Frenchman has every right to be considered not only one of Arsène Wenger’s greatest ever signings, but also the best central defender in Europe.
Jeffrey Gamby Boulger