Arsenal's Koscielny & Mertesacker: An Appreciation Of The Fighter & The Thinker

Arsenal's fighting Frenchman doesn't so much split opinion as chainsaw it in half - lucky, then, that he's got the giant German always lurking behind him...
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Arsenal's fighting Frenchman doesn't so much split opinion as chainsaw it in half - lucky, then, that he's got the giant German always lurking behind him...

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Arsenal's Koscielny & Mertesacker: An Appreciation Of The Fighter & The Thinker

In these dreary, passionless post-Tony Adams days Arsenal have become a byword for defensive frailty and mistakes. Plenty of teams have a tendency to brainfarts in key areas but they’re usually populated by Championship level cloggers or the otherwise cognitively compared – yes you, Titus Bramble. We can still see you behind that bush. When these brainfarts are perpetrated by players at the ostensibly top level clubs however they stick for longer in the memory, and get a lot more coverage, and rightly so. Everybody likes a good “they should know better!” fingerwag, almost as much as the “I told you they weren’t much good”.

So; Laurent Koscielny. He doesn’t so much split opinion as chainsaw it open. The Frenchman signed for Arsenal for 8.5m from Lorient in 2010 at the age of 24 to a lack of fanfare and general bemusement, on the back of a break-out season in which he was one of the key players in the newly promoted side’s best ever finish of 7th in the top division. His first season at the Emirates began what is now familiar pattern. A red card on the opening day’s draw with Liverpool was followed 2 months later with a second in Arsenal’s loss at home to Newcastle and a key piece of boneheadedness that gifted the venerable Obafemi Martins the winning goal in the League Cup final. These incidents, however, contrasted with a string of key performances, including a January in which the defence he marshalled conceded no goals and a quality performance against Messrs Messi and Xavi et al in the win at the Emirates.

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The pattern continued in the season that followed, Koscielny managing to balance out some quietly excellent (and largely unheralded) performances with the occasional act of rashness. What followed was one of the key points in his career and arguably Arsenal’s recent history, as he permanently replaced an increasingly indifferent Thomas Vermaelen to play a massive role in securing Champions League football for Arsenal, his partnership with the telescopic Per Mertesacker beginning to bear fruit.

Koscielny and Mertesacker are a very good partnership, and their two styles complement each other perfectly. The more mobile and aggressive Koscielny closes down attackers, safe in the knowledge that the more ponderous but far more intelligent Mertesacker is lurking somewhere behind him. It’s an old template. John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho and Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand have both been at the heart of mean, title winning defences on the back of the Fighter and the Thinker centre back paradigm, and similar to Koscielny both Terry and Vidic have been guilty of cock-ups in the past, although displayed rather more competence at getting away with them.

The question is whether Koscielny’s usually powerful performances outweigh what doesn’t seem to be a diminishing tendency towards rash challenges, and the answer isn’t a particularly easy one. It’s a lot easier to point to a game lost by a penalty concession than a game won by consistently quality defensive work - it takes a relatively remarkable performance for a centre back to be recognised to have had a good game at all. This means that among those not watching him play week in/week out there will always be a tendency to focus on his silliness, both among fans and in the media. His championing by Arsenal fans (and we really, really like him) is as much down to watching him often enough to appreciate the less newsworthy sides of his game as any sort of tribal bias. If he packs in his rashness then there’s a good chance that, as long as the lanky German is beside him, he’ll go from quietly loved to obviously world class, and nobody but the most blinkered of objector will be able to continue denying it.

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