How Koscielny became Arsenal's star defender
Amid the mess, drift and discord of a difficult season at Arsenal, one story suggests Arsène Wenger's instincts are as acute as ever. Laurent Koscielny, the centre-back signed after just one season of top-flight football, has blossomed into one of the finest in the Premier League.
Had Koscielny started in the Barcelona academy his performances would have been impressive enough. But for a man whose first clubs were Guingamp and Tours; who was playing in the French third tier four years ago; whose career has since then been an inexorable march to the European elite; it is as remarkable a story as that of any recent Arsenal star.
To watch Koscielny, now 26, this season has been to watch a player with complete mastery of his game. His prescience without the ball, his anticipation of opponents, his authority in the tackle, his grace in possession, his precision in passing, all tell of a defender with few superiors in England or even in Europe.
And this is a defender who spent 2007-08 in the Championnat National, the third tier of France. He joined Tours from Ligue 2 side Guingamp in 2007, impressing then-manager Daniel Sanchez, now in charge of Valenciennes. "He reads the game well," Sanchez told The Independent. "He has tactical quality, the quality of reading the game, but also great physical quality."
It was the following season, back in Ligue 2 with Tours, that the groundwork was laid for Koscielny's eventual move to Arsenal. Not just from the excellence of his performances, but thanks to a phone call from his manager to an old friend.
"In the second year, when I had seen that he had great potential, I called Arsène Wenger, I told him about the player," recalled Sanchez. Arsenal scouts soon went to watch Koscielny, but a move from Tours to Arsenal would not have been smooth. "It was difficult for Koscielny to go from Ligue 2 in France to the Premier League in England," continued Sanchez. "So he needed an intermediary level."
Enter Ligue 1 side Lorient. "Guingamp is not far from Lorient, so we had been following him for a while," Lorient club president Loïc Féry revealed to The Independent. In June 2009, after two good seasons at Tours, Koscielny moved. For some it might have been too much of a vault, but when asked how quickly it became clear that Koscielny would excel, Féry was brisk: "From his first game!"
"As soon as the first game of the season, he does a great game, an amazing game, and we win away at Lille," Féry said. "Second game of the season, we play Montpellier at home, I think we are 2-0 down, come back 1-2, and then 94th minute, who scores? Our central defender Laurent Koscielny for 2-2. And he had such rage: I mean, you can feel that he is someone very calm, but you can feel that beyond, he had this winning mentality, behind someone who is extremely calm."
This quiet defender made a big difference even in the top flight, showcasing the gifts which have made him a success at Arsenal. "He was physically impressive, his speed was impressive, his quality of passing, immediately brings the game forward: he was amazing in many games that season," recalled Féry, painting an image immediately familiar to Emirates regulars. "That season, we got the best result of the club [in history], ending up seventh."
Such success in France could never evade the attentions of Arsenal, particularly given Wenger was already aware of Koscielny. With William Gallas, Mikaël Silvestre and Sol Campbell on their way out of Arsenal, Wenger made his move. In July 2010, Koscielny signed for Arsenal.
It was a remarkable journey: from Tours' Stade de la Vallée du Cher, which holds 13,500, to the Emirates, more than four times the size, in just over 12 months. For perhaps the first time, he was slow to adjust, and his early months in England were difficult.
But his first season, and his time at Arsenal, turned on one brilliant performance against Barcelona. In probably Arsenal's greatest night at the Emirates, they beat the eventual Champions League winners 2-1, Koscielny producing a performance of assurance and high quality, shrugging off Lionel Messi as if he were a youth-team tyro in a training match, and starting the move that ended with Andrei Arshavin's winning goal.
From that evening exactly a year ago, Koscielny has grown to become one of the division's best. Nigel Winterburn, who knows what it means to play in defence for Arsenal, believes early hopes have been vindicated. "My place is pretty much the same since he joined the club," he said.
"I think he's got huge, huge potential. I always think we're very quick to judge people, and not give them at least a year to settle into a football club. But I think he's developing into a useful defender: he's got pace and he's aggressive."
Koscielny's performances have certainly been of international class. France coach Laurent Blanc, who was interested in signing Koscielny when he was Bordeaux manager, first called up the defender in February 2011, and gave him his only cap to date last November. With a European Championship four months away, Féry believes his former player should start for Les Bleus: "When you look at who's playing as a central defender [for France], they don't play the same type of competitive game that he plays."
France, of course, open against England in Donetsk on 11 June. With one of the Premier League's finest centre-backs to call upon, how could Blanc possibly prefer anyone else?