“I wanna dance with Koscielny
I wanna feel the heat with Koscielny
I wanna dance with Koscielny
With Koscielny who loves me!”
Laurent Koscielny signed for Arsenal from FC Lorient in June 2010 for a fee of £11m. His transfer fee was a surprise to many, Koscielny was an unknown, Lorient were newly promoted to Ligue 1 and Koscielny himself had just been purchased the season before from Tours FC for a mere £2m.
Wenger would later say that the reason he paid so much for Laurent was “He was a bit like Cannavaro, the Italian defender, not too tall but very mobile, reads the game very well and has great interception qualities. The only question mark I had with him coming to English football was will the aerial game be a problem for him?” The aerial game would be a problem at first, but once he was paired with the 6’4″ Per Mertesacker, Koscielny’s recovery speed and awareness would prove to be the perfect foil for Mertesacker.
But his competitive debut for Arsenal was inauspicious. Away at Anfield, Koscielny played alongside Thomas Vermaelen. He was stretchered off at the end of the first half after a red card challenge by Joe Cole. But in what would be almost symbolic of his Arsenal career, he came back on in the second half and played well right to the end, when he was sent off for a second bookable offense. It was a harsh second yellow and many fans thought it was a make-up call for the red to Joe Cole but as Koscielny would later say about the card, “The second yellow was very harsh I think, but football is like this, and one thing is for sure, I’ll always remember my Arsenal debut!”
After serving his suspension, he scored on his home debut in a 4-1 win over Owen Coyle’s Bolton Wanderers. Koscielny scored the opener in the 24th minute of that match and as with almost everything in Koscielny’s early career, he was also at fault for Bolton’s equalizer with a mistake at the back twenty minutes later.
Koscielny didn’t endear himself to fans right away because of his inconsistency. One week he would make a last ditch tackle to save a goal, like he did in Arsenal’s 4-1 win over Tottenham in the League Cup and then two weeks later he would get sent off, like he literally did in injury time of a bitter 1-0 home loss to Newcastle two weeks after the Spurs game.
Koscielny wasn’t entirely to blame for Arsenal’s defensive woes that season. Wenger wanted to pair him with Thomas Vermaelen but that 2010/11 season would be the first of many injury-hit seasons for the Belgian. Instead, Koscielny played with a number of different defenders. He played with both Squillaci and Djourou that season and though he would eventually form a strong partnership with Djourou his first season at Arsenal was rocky to say the least.
His high point in his debut season was when Arsenal beat Barcelona 2-1 in the Champions League. Koscielny played the whole match at a disadvantage because he carried the extra weight of Lionel Messi who was stuck in Koscielny’s pocket for 90 minutes. Wenger opted for an unusual defensive approach to the match and told his defenders to man-mark Messi in the second half and it worked. Former Gunner great Martin Keown said that Koscielny “bossed” the game and though many years later fans would call Koscielny “Bosscielny”, it would be because of performances like that one against Barcelona.
From pinnacle to nadir, 10 days after bossing Barcelona Koscielny would be the goat again, this time in the League Cup final against Birmingham. Nikola Zigic scored the opener: Birmingham won a corner in the 28th minute and Koscielny was supposed to mark Barry Ferguson on the penalty spot. Ferguson won the initial header and flicked on for Zigic to nod home from inches.
Arsenal were down but not beaten, and the Gunners leveled through a van Persie goal in the 39th minute. As the second half was winding down, the Birmingham players were clearly tiring and had even started stretching on the field to stop play. It was all there for Arsenal to win it. In the 88th minute, the Birmingham keeper took a free kick, Zigic again won the header, and Koscielny sauntered over to clear the ball easily but got a shout from rookie keeper Wojciech Szczesny. Szcz fumbled the ball and Obafemi Martins nipped in to score. It was a Tunguska Event: as their end of the stadium erupted and ours all sat down, stunned.
After the match, the center backs were savaged by the moribund crowd. “Why can’t we get a defender who can head the ball??” one man shouted as we trudged back in silence to the Wembley train station. It was a sentiment that led many Arsenal supporters to foolishly wish that Arsenal would buy Chris Samba.
Koscielny’s second season wouldn’t get any better. In fact, it was the worst Arsenal defense of Wenger’s career, allowing 49 goals, including 8 against Man U, a match Laurent Koscielny started. Koscielny’s 2nd season was one of chaos: Wenger was forced to sell Fabregas and Nasri and bought 8 players to beef up his squad. One of the new players was German Giant Per Mertesacker. Koscielny would play with Per for many matches while Thomas Vermaelen was shuffled around and Wenger looked for his best center back pairing.
Koscielny would have final say in the 2011/12 season and perhaps go a long way to endearing himself to Arsenal fans: he scored the winner in the 54th minute of the final game of the season against West Bromwich Albion. Arsenal needed to finish 3rd that season to ensure Champions League qualification and to finish above a rampant Spurs side eager to get out from under the shadow of their North London rivals. Koscielny’s header secured both the Champions League spot for the Arsenal board and ensured that Arsenal finished above Tottenham for the supporters.
This resiliency, the ability to lose 8-2 in the early part of the season and to just keep plugging away at your goals and the team’s goals is the hallmark of a truly great player. And this has been the hallmark of Laurent Koscielny’s career at Arsenal.
Koscielny has now made 295 appearances for Arsenal and in his time has had to play center half with Squillaci, Djourou, Gabriel, Vermaelen, and Sagna. All of those players have been sold or let go on a free. And he was brought in to replace center backs Senderos, Gallas, and Silvestre who were all shot out of the club in the season he arrived. Last season, Koscielny was paired with Mustafi, who Wenger sought to sell this summer, and yet another new player in Rob Holding. Koscielny has also played center back with players like Calum Chambers who may not be officially sold but who have been dropped and rarely see any games these days. Through all of that turmoil, Wenger even dropped center backs Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker when they were captains at the club. But Koscielny has been constant as the North Star.
Playing center back at Arsenal is a thankless job because Wenger insists on playing defensive formations which expose his center backs. In Koscielny’s first season, Wenger was still playing the suicidal high line which left acres of pitch for his center backs to cover. The opposition would often just sit in the low block, wait for Arsenal to turn the ball over, and then lump a ball over the top for everyone to chase. Koscielny fit into this system because he had speed and foresight, but as with all Arsenal center backs, he would occasionally make a single mistake which led to catastrophic goals or, like we saw with his early career above, red cards.
After Fabregas left, Wenger switched to a system with a single center mid (Arteta) and two center backs with the fullbacks encouraged to play high up the pitch and provide Arsenal’s attacking width. Arteta was a football genius and could anticipate counter attacks and swallow up space It didn’t matter which system Wenger played or who he played in it: playing center half for Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal is thankless and has ended eight Arsenal careers since 2010.
Wenger demands so much from his center backs: they have to have the speed to cover vast areas of the pitch, they have to be able to step in and intercept the ball off the center forward without fouling and without missing (a skill which Koscielny excels at, leading Arsenal in interceptions three of the last four seasons), they have to be strong in aerial challenges, they have to remain switched on for the full 90 minutes and cannot make any mental errors, and they have to be able to not only pass the ball sideways to each other but be able to start the Arsenal attack with a probing long pass along the ground (Koscielny led Arsenal for two seasons in accurate long balls from 2014-2016). Koscielny is able to do all of that and has been the perfect Arsenal center back for nearly 8 seasons now.
Sadly, Koscielny was diagnosed with achilles tendonitis while away on international duty back at the start of the 2014/15 season. That initial injury kept him out for 7 weeks but he has since suffered occasional injuries and setbacks and he recently revealed that “I have some problems… I know it is a difficult injury because you need to work every day on this. Every morning I have my treatment for my Achilles and I know I need to do this to the end of my career.”
Laurent Koscielny is a player who relies on his speed both to intercept passes before they get to the forward and to make the last-ditch tackles that he has become known for. He needs to be 100% healthy in order to play and as his Arsenal career winds down, the club seem to have him on a schedule of one game per week.
My favorite Koscielny moment, and the move that epitomizes his Arsenal career, is the goal he scored in the 2014 FA Cup Final. Arsenal went down 2-0 to Hull City and nearly were down 3-0 but for the crossbar. And just like everything else about Koscielny’s career, things started off terrible. But then Arsenal put their heads down and went to work. Cazorla scored with a free kick, then Cazorla played in a long corner. Sagna won the header but he nodded it into Giroud. For a brief moment all time seemed to stop and the ball spun in the air. Koscielny, though, didn’t stop. He backed up to give himself a crucial inch and when the ball fell near him he swung a leg around and swept the equalizer into the back of the net. The Hull keeper clattered into Koz, brutally twisting his ankle. Koz lay on the ground holding his ankle and my own celebrations were cut short. I simply sat there hoping that he wasn’t injured.
The Arsenal physios cleared him to keep playing and he would later say “I would have wanted to play with a broken arm.” He finished the match and Arsenal won when Aaron Ramsey scored the third. This was redemption for Koscielny. He, who had his hair tousled by a Birmingham player when he lost the League Cup final in 2011, played a major role in the comeback and lifted the first of three FA Cups that he would go on to win for Arsenal.
That’s his trophy haul so far. He still has two more years to go on his Arsenal contract, where he will probably finish his career. Not many players do that for Arsenal these days and even fewer center backs last 10 years at our club. Koscielny is one of Arsenal’s rare talents and should be fondly remembered for years to come.