By Tim Hargreaves
Laurent Koscielny. A relative unknown before he signed for Arsenal, having spent just one season in Ligue 1 with F.C. Lorient as a starting centre-back. Prior to this, he started his career with En Avant Guingamp in 2004, mostly playing as a substitute and in the right-back position. He moved to Tours F.C. in 2007, then playing in the Championnat National, the third division in France, in an effort to find first-team football and to play in his preferred centre-back position. He then signed for Lorient in 2009 and then before moving to Arsenal in 2010.
Koscielny is now 29 years of age and pretty much guaranteed a first team spot at Arsenal when fit enough to play. His fitness has come into question this season, with his Achilles tendons proving problematic enough for him to be sent back to Arsenal by the French National team prior to international duty this season. His injury was described as a “chronic” issue which needed immediate and lengthy rest. This Achilles issue kept him out of a number of Arsenal matches this season, where Arsenal dropped valuable points with him being unavailable to play.
The Club had been left short in the centre of defence due to the sale of Thomas Vermaelen to Barcelona, Ignasi Miquel to Norwich, the completion of Johann Djourou’s sale to Hamburg after a loan spell there and the previous summer’s departure of Sebastian Squillaci on a free to Bastia. I know many people would argue that Djourou, Squillaci and Miquel had limited squad value to Arsenal, but they were there for exactly this circumstance: to provide depth to the squad and cover for injuries. The most important was the departure of Thomas Vermaelen, the Captain who had now become a squad player due to the form of the pairing of Koscielny and Mertesacker in central defence, which had been one of the most miserly combinations in the league, aside from the Chelsea and Manchester City away matches (Koscielny went off injured in the City match near the end of the first half) – Vermaelen had been poised to leave for a while before he departed but the bigger issue was the lack of a signings being brought in the summer transfer window to replace the lack of players in that position who had departed over the last 12 months, aside from the signing of Calum Chambers, who was untested as a centre-back.
When Koscielny was unable to play due to the Achilles problem I mentioned, this left Arsenal desperate and Nacho Monreal, a 5’9” (1.73m) tall player, was slotted into central defence next to Mertesacker, a player struggling for form and fitness and suffering from fatigue after a long and gruelling season where he had played almost every match and played in a number of matches for Germany at the World Cup. Monreal looked shaky in his first few matches but then started to improve at the position due to his strong positional sense and above-average tackling ability. However, his lack of pace was a problem, especially next to the also slow-paced Mertesacker and conceding goals from swift counter-attacks became a problem and saw us concede silly goals that before would not have happened. (e.g. 2 of the goals Anderlecht grabbed in the Champions League, Chadli’s goal for Spurs in the 1-1 draw at home, as well as in the home loss to Manchester United). Chambers also featured in most of these matches as right-back, due to Debuchy’s injuries and Gibbs started as the left-back when available.
The emergence of Hector Bellerin at right-back must have been a huge relief for Arsene Wenger, as Bellerin possesses much more pace than Chambers. This is not to say that Chambers is a bad player, merely that, in my opinion, he is unsuitable as a right-back as he lacks the required pace. Bellerin’s emergence coincided with Koscielny’s return from resting those problematic Achilles tendons, Mertesacker finding form and Monreal being moved to his preferred left-back slot. The signing of Gabriel was also important as there would now be the genuine option to rotate centre-backs for different matches, something Arsenal lacked the personnel to do before.
It is my opinion that signing at least one centre-back this summer should be near the top of Arsene’s player shopping list, another defensive midfielder (we have no player similar to Coquelin’s playing style there) and another wide forward if a contract cannot be agreed with Theo Walcott, as there will be at least one centre-back departing in Semi Ajayi, whose contract expires. As for suggestions, I’d like Samuel Umtiti from Lyon and Steven Caulker from Q.P.R. – both are young centre-backs with a lot of potential for the future, something that must be considered with both of Arsenal’s starting centre-backs being the wrong side of 30 by the next winter transfer window. I think we have decent options in the full-back positions, with Jenkinson still out on loan, although a young left-back who can learn from Monreal and Gibbs may be a longer-term target for Wenger. I’m of the opinion that Jenkinson’s loan will be extended for another year at either West Ham or another Premier League club, or he will be sold on with a buy-back clause in the contract, similar to what Arsene Wenger did with Carlos Vela.
The first time I saw Dennis Bergkamp play was in 1996 – I started following Arsenal properly in 1998 after the World Cup. When Arsenal then signed Thierry Henry – a player I had seen in that World Cup win by France – as well as already having Vieira and Petit there, plus several English stars like Tony Adams, Martin Keown and David Seaman just cemented Arsenal as the club for me. There was very little football coverage in South Africa during the 1990s as rugby was (and still is) the dominant sport here.
I was not really ushered in any specific direction in terms of which club to support – I chose Arsenal myself. It’s only over the last 3 years that I have been able to watch matches regularly – we get excellent TV coverage of European football now and I try to watch all Arsenal matches live.