Arsenal 2010-11 Summer Transfer: Laurent Koscielny Scouting Report
My first emotion when Arsenal confirmed that they had made an offer for Laurent Koscielny was quiet confidence.
Sure, playing for Ligue 1 side Lorient in 2009-10 and in Ligue 2 for the two seasons prior, he was on the periphery of my European footballing consciousness. However, in Arsene I trust, as the proverb goes.
After all, I'd only seen Thomas Vermaelen play a few times before Wenger plucked him out of Amsterdam last June—think of what he's done in his one season at the Emirates. In fact, think of all the shrewd personnel moves and player acquisitions Wenger has made over the last few seasons and throughout his tenure at Arsenal.
Wenger knows how to play the market, and coming (indirectly) from Ligue 1 himself, he is particularly well-connected in France. He is also an excellent scout who possesses a keen eye for talent.
If Wenger were a chef, he would be the kind that wakes up early, cycles to the farmers' market, and selects all his own ingredients for the day's menu. He knows what he's doing.
Despite my faith in le Prof, since credible media outlets have suggested that the 24-year-old Koscielny will join Arsenal some time this week, I've scoured the internet in search of written accounts and video highlights of Lorient's young No. 4. After watching hours of video and reading as many relevant English language match reports as possible, I've been able to form my own impressions of his tendencies, strengths, weaknesses, and potential contribution.
In the following slideshow, I've sought to elucidate Koscielny's strongest and weakest points, as I see them, using a series of clips from his season with Lorient. See if you come to the same, similar, or radically different conclusions about what he brings to the table.
One thing that stands out immediately about Koscielny is his eye for goal.
Four goals in 40 appearances (three in 35 Ligue 1 matches) is a noteworthy tally for a center-back. What's interesting about them is that is that three came on the ground in the scramble following a corner or set piece.
The one Koscielny headed in comes on this play, which he sets up himself with a perfectly weighted long pass before making a well-timed deep run toward the back post. Koscielny may need to work on that spasmodic goal celebration before trying it out at the Emirates, but after scoring the tying goal in the third minute of stoppage time, he can be forgiven for exhausting his creative energy.
The other three goals highlight the quick reflexes and superb balance that make Koscielny, despite being only 6'1", so effective on set pieces. His opening score against Bordeaux in the Coupe de la Ligue semifinal and his match-winner against Le Mans, as I just mentioned, come in similar fashion. Koscielny finds himself in the right place at the right time, to be sure, but he gets himself open and reacts faster than the defenders around him.
Against Nice, Koscielny was unlucky not to score on this play. One of two runners on the near side, Koscielny is the one who crosses the penalty spot, doing well to gain separation from his marker. His effort is parried admirably by David Ospina, but it's a solid attempt.
This magnificent run against Le Mans not only demonstrates Koscielny's Lucio-like offensive instincts (instincts, that is, if not yet abilities), but it shows how fast he can leg it at need.
Koscielny (perhaps straying a little out of position at the start of the segment) wins the ball and makes the split-second decision to turn the play into a brilliant counter-attack.
He overlaps his own winger in a give-and-go exchange. With one touch he's across the half, showing impressive pace on the ball. He lays it off perfectly to Kevin Gameiro, who puts an ultimately ineffective shot on net.
No goal, but brilliant, decisive decision-making by the center-back.
A Brief Survey of Lorient's 2009-10 Season
Lorient were, on the whole, a better offensive side than a defensive side under Breton manager and former Merlus midfielder Christian Gourcuff (yes, father of Yoann).
They were fifth in the league in scoring and ninth in goals allowed; they generally beat the teams they should have beaten and lost to the teams that finished ahead of them (1-5-4 against Auxerre, Bordeaux, Lyon, Marseille, and Montpellier). They finished in seventh place in 2009-10, which was their best result since being promoted from Ligue 2 following the 2005-06 season.
A common theme in many of the goals allowed by Lorient is the over-aggressiveness of their central midfield leading to costly turnovers, followed by poor communication and decision-making between Koscielny and his central defensive partner, Sylvain Marchal.
Another concerning trend, more specifically related to Koscielny, is his tendency to drift too far up the pitch. He gets caught out of position, ball-watches, and reacts too late when the play begins to break down.
This is beginning to make him sound like an incompetent and totally inconsistent defender, which is not my intention by any means. Most of the time, he's solid, he often covers well for others' mistakes, he marks well and tackles hard, and he has the pace to recover even when things go awry.
During the normal run of play, Koscielny is very reliable when it comes to carrying out marking assignments and shutting down attacking players.
In the first match of the season away to Lille, Koscielny does well on this play to shut down the striker without over-committing.
Early in this match against Lens, Koscielny and Marchal hold a good line, allowing Abdoulrazak Boukari no promising crossing options. Koscielny's physical marking is noteworthy on the play.
Later in the same match, Koscielny and Marchal communicate well to shut down a tricky play, ultimately forcing an optimistic long-range shot.
The 3-1 loss to Lyon in January provides a good example of Koscielny's dependability and solid marking in a pretty typical scenario.
On the first Lyon goal, Koscielny does a good job of denying Bafetimbi Gomis the space to turn, thereby forcing the ball wide. The breakdown that leads to the Lisandro Lopez goal comes later in the play, and Koscielny even blocks Gomis' first attempt before Lisandro rockets home the rebound.
Decision-Making and Tactical Awareness—the Good
Like most defenders, Koscielny is far more likely to get caught when the unpredictable happens and when blunders are made up the field. When the play breaks down in front of him, Koscielny is often caught badly out of position, sometimes reacts too slowly, or makes impetuous split-second decisions.
Here is an example of Koscielny and Marchal reacting well to a blown defensive play in front of them.
As the play begins to unfold, the two Lorient central midfielders are both drawn to the man in possession, creating a wide-open situation for the Montpellier midfielder, Joris Marveaux, who receives the ball at 1:40 in the video clip.
This immediately puts the question to Koscielny and Marchal in the center: Someone must continue to mark the striker, while the closer man must meet the run at the point of attack. Koscielny is in line to try to head off the midfielder on the ball, which he starts to do. Marchal loses the striker, but Koscielny's well-timed rush obliges Marveaux to shoot from distance.
Perhaps Koscielny should close the gap sooner in order to avoid creating a hole in the vacated space behind him. It's tough to criticize a player for allowing a 25-yard shot through traffic, though, especially when the initial breakdown occurs much further forward. Overall, Koscielny reacts well on this break.
Koscielny makes another strong recovering play here in the second half of the match in which he made his fantastic sideline run.
Le Mans have numbers forward with the Lorient central midfielders caught out of position. Marchal is caught on his heels at 3:18, opening a seam for Dossevi to make an opportunistic run, exploiting the open space and pressing the numerical advantage. Koscielny recognizes the problem quickly and leaves his man for the more immediate threat, closing down Dossevi's angle. It's a great, instinctive play that severely limits the shooting opportunity.
Obviously, when three- to nine-minute highlight reels of goal-scoring chances, close calls, and goals are the only things to go on, there will be fewer examples of good defense to watch. Thus, it's important to stress that these are only a few examples of Koscielny's generally strong play.
On the other hand, one often learns the most about a player's strengths and weaknesses when that player is faced with adversity. Let's move on to some of the plays Koscielny would probably prefer to forget.
Decision-Making and Tactical Awareness—the Bad
This play is just bone-headed. The ball comes through to Koscielny, who, in a tight situation, decides to dribble through traffic and try and beat two men...on his own 18-yard line. No! Bad!
A theme throughout these highlights, as mentioned, seems to be the poor staggering of the Lorient central midfield. They frequently turn the ball over in the middle of the pitch with three men all running parallel to one another, thus allowing three- to five-man jailbreaks heading the other way.
On this play, against Le Mans again, after the left back bites and gets beaten on the turn, it's three-on-three. Koscielny comes out to meet the ball, where he is caught on his heels and badly beaten.
It comes to nothing, thanks to a wasted chance from Le Mans forward Le Tallec, but the way Koscielny freezes on the play does not inspire confidence.
In the Coupe de la Ligue semifinal against Bordeaux, everything was looking good for Koscielny after scoring an 11th-minute goal. Less than 15 minutes later, however, he was deep in M. Gourcuff's dog house after taking down recent Arsenal signing Marouane Chamakh in the box.
Koscielny's deflected clearance falls to Yoann Gourcuff, but he doesn't react to the danger until it is too late.
Still out of position after the attempted clearance, Koscielny is caught ball-watching. While he shuffles sideways to get back to the center, the ball is played over his head to an on-side Chamakh. The striker chests it down in the penalty area and shields it in one move. Whether Chamakh would have scored or not is debatable, but Koscielny is clearly caught; he puts his arm around Chamakh and earns the red card.
At home to Auxerre a couple months earlier, Koscielny had another up-and-down performance, coming close on a corner kick at one end and misjudging a play that very nearly led to a goal at the other.
On that play, Koscielny starts on the far left of the screen with Marchal, marking Daniel George Niculae, the more central of the Auxerre strikers. As the ball is played back from the center line to one of the Auxerre center-backs, Koscielny is a little slow reading the developing play. In consequence, when the ball is quickly played forward across the center line, he has to race to shut down the wide open Benoit Pedretti.
Pedretti receives the pass in space with time to turn around and play the ball unchallenged to Niculae, who beats Marchal's attempted offside trap and flies through the gap in the line left by Koscielny. Goalkeeper Fabien Audard reacts well to fly out and limit Niculae's options and preserve the 0-0 scoreline.
No goal, but a dangerous breakaway opportunity on which it can be argued Koscielny failed to read the play. This is beginning to take the shape of a fatal trend for the young defender.
This last one is unavoidably accompanied by a soundtrack. I'd suggest making the most of it by turning your speakers up and getting (briefly) into the Esprit Gitane. Actually, considering the embarrassing nature of a couple of the goals in the minute-long clip, the music provides an amusing counterpoint to the play on the field. Think of it as a blooper reel.
The first goal is the only one that is relevant to Koscielny's play: At the very beginning of the clip, massive Auxerre midfielder Dennis Oliech charges forward, catching Koscielny flat-footed and too far forward, muscles through a dangerous tackle from the center-back, and puts the ball over the stunned Audard for a lightning bolt of a goal.
Again, not too good from the youngster. Let's move on to Koscielny's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
Decision-Making and Tactical Awareness—the Painful
Certainly Koscielny's worst match with Lorient, and perhaps the worst match of his young career, came in a 4-1 defeat at Bordeaux last December.
This particular match should not be confused with Lorient's Coupe de la Ligue semifinal loss, in which Koscielny scored a goal before being red-carded in the 23rd minute. That match also ended 4-1, but Koscielny missed most of it due to his ejection. The December match was much worse for the young defender.
The play leading to the first FCGB goal starts with a nice touch from Koscielny on a 20-yard pass up the middle. Unfortunately, his teammate slips, turning the ball over. One ill-judged challenge later, and it's a familiar story for les Merlus: Bordeaux are charging across the half with numbers, while Lorient are caught back on their heels with only the back four in between les Girondins and the goal.
Marchal pulls up to meet the ball just past the center circle, leaving Koscielny one-on-one with David Bellion (the Manchester United flop). Koscielny allows Bellion the inside track (strike one), Marchal fails to prevent the through ball from Gourcuff (strike two), and Bellion beats Koscielny for speed (strike three): 1-0.
The turnover wasn't Koscielny's fault; neither was the overhasty challenge that set up the five-on-four attack. However, he made two mistakes in marking Bellion that would be unforgivable against, oh, say Didier Drogba or Wayne Rooney.
On the second goal, Koscielny is caught drifting too far forward by a long ball that lands just in front of striker Fernando Cavenaghi. Cavenaghi recognizes the gap behind Koscielny, who is flying back at a gallop, and flicks it forward with his head to catch David Bellion in stride. Bellion is through for his second goal in as many attempts: 2-0 at halftime.
The third goal is a thing of beauty, but Koscielny is made to look pretty foolish on the play.
After a missed penalty at the other end, Bordeaux quickly push the ball forward on the right wing, producing a favorable counterattacking position at 5:19: midfielder Jaroslav Plasil is in possession inside the Lorient half with two teammates flanking him on either side.
After pushing past a senseless tackle from a retreating Lorient midfielder, Plasil is one-on-one with Koscielny, who allows Plasil to cut into the middle and exploit the 2-on-1 build up on the left side of the box. A quick through ball, one touch from Yoann Gourcuff, another from Cavenaghi, and the ball is in the back of the net: 3-0.
The goal was engineered brilliantly by Plasil, who made a fabulous diagonal run, beat two men, and slotted a perfect ball to Gourcuff. Unfortunately for the Czech, he's not playing hockey, where he would get credit for a "second assist."
From missed penalty to spectacular goal for Bordeaux. "Quel scénario incroyable," indeed, M. Announcer! For Lorient, however, that's the type of goal that shouldn't even happen in a video game.
A short time later, Koscielny is stripped coming out of the back, setting up a strong scoring change in which Bellion should have earned his hat trick. No goal, but another bad play from the man under the microscope.
The final Bordeaux goal from the much-hyped Yoann Gourcuff is just not fair, but it is theoretically on Koscielny's slow reaction as much as it's on Marchal's poor marking and Audard's poor goalkeeping. Just watch.
Conclusion: Striking the Perfect Partnership
Koscielny is clearly a talented player who brings a diverse skill set to the table. In general, his positional play is strong, though he has a few questionable tendencies that could get him in trouble in the fast-paced, physical Premier League.
Could he be a starting center-back for Arsenal come August? Probably yes, though he would surely experience some growing pains against first-class opposition.
Should Koscielny and Vermaelen be partnered as the Gunners' starting central defensive pairing? Probably not.
They're too similar in their strengths and their weaknesses, for one.
Vermaelen's incredible offensive contribution often made up for his persistent tactical errors in 2009-10. Like Koscielny, last season Vermaelen had a tendency to drift forward, to over-aggressively bite on plays up the field instead of holding a solid back line.
With the experienced William Gallas or Sol Campbell to cover for him, Vermaelen was rarely exposed. With both out-of-contract veterans likely to sign elsewhere, Vermaelen would be called on to play mentor to a player a month older than himself whose positional play is equally shaky.
Another important consideration is preferred position.
Before joining Arsenal from Ajax, Vermaelen played left center-back, a position that was available for him upon moving to Ashburton Grove. Koscielny is a left center-back at Lorient.
Who would move to the right side, and would either be well-suited to the new role?
I believe Koscielny will be a strong signing for Arsenal and well-worth the £8-10 million that some believe it will take to convince Lorient to part with him. However, it seems clear that he is not ready for the full-time starting job and that his style of play and physical attributes are too similar to Vermaelen's for them to be effectively paired at this point in time.
As it is, right-footed, 6'3", 23-year-old Johan Djourou might actually be the best man for the job, though he has to be regarded as a complete wild card at this point.
His injury-plagued last three seasons have relegated him to the fringe of first-team relevance, but when healthy, he has proven an excellent young player.
Unlike Vermaelen and Koscielny, Djourou has been in the system since his youth career and has spent time with the first team over the last five seasons. He is relatively inexperienced, to be sure, but he has a tremendous upside, and with a solid backup behind him, he may be ready to take the reins this season.
Ideally, of course, Arsenal would benefit by signing an experienced right center-back from outside the organization. At a position in which so much depends upon experience and judgment, it would be irresponsible to trust a new player who has never played right center back, or a young player who has been injured more often than not over the last three years. Youth is relative; experience is everything.
I have faith in Arsenal's player development model, but there is simply nobody in the system who is ready to step into the role. Koscielny seems too wet behind the ears to step up to the Premier League and into a new position in an unfamiliar formation.
This may be the year in which Arsenal's increasingly battle-hardened youth contingent announces its arrival across Britain and Europe. An inexperienced, gaffe-prone central defense, however, could easily sap Arsenal's title aspirations before they even get off the ground.
Vermaelen, Koscielny, and Djourou are all excellent players, but is this the season to have three comparatively inexperienced center-backs and one youth call-up as the team's only options at a critical position?
In Wenger I trust, but in experience I believe.