Arsenal and the post-Koscielny era

Doubted and criticised during his first two seasons in London, Laurent Koscielny has since grown into one of the best defenders in Europe, often saving the Gunners in desperate situations week in week out, his partnership with Per Mertesacker having been the best in the Premier League from 2012 to 2014.

After that, an unsuccesful partnership with Gabriel and a pairing with Mustafi made of highs and lows, Koscielny seems to finally reach the end of his peak, he’s getting slower, easier to push and get away from, making basic mistakes at key moments, like against Manchester United at the Emirates for Valencia’s first goal. With “Robokos” being 32 now, it is time to look at what comes next for him, but also for Arsenal.

A painful end to a beautiful story:

After arriving from Lorient for 8M€, only one year after his Ligue 1 debut, a few eyebrows were raised towards Arsène Wenger, for bringing an unknown defender to an already shaky backline, and his first two seasons almost proved them right, with Koscielny struggling to adapt and making costly mistakes, the biggest one costing the Gunners a League Cup in 2011. Wenger kept his faith in him though, maybe due to the fact that there were no funds available to bring another centre-back other than Per Mertesacker on deadline day in 2011.

This late arrival proved to be a blessing for the frenchman, as he very quickly struck a great partnership with the German, Mertesacker compensating his lack of focus while Koscielny has his recovery pace to compensate Per’s lack of pace. With both of them being around the same age, therefore going through their peak at the same time, Arsenal had a very complementary and solid backline in Sagna Mertesacker Koscielny and Gibbs from 2012 to 2014, the Frenchman quickly became a rock at the back and also Arsenal’s deepest creator.

Sadly, an achilles injury in 2013/2014 was the beginning of the end for the Frenchman, chronic achilles inflammations which have forced him to go through loads of treatment in injections in order to play regularly for a club that he always defended bravely, chipping in with the odd yet important goal in the various races for Champions League spots. The injections weren’t an issue at first, only forcing him out of a few games each year, and still allowing him to come up with incredible performances against the very best strikers in the world, whether it was Aguero, Suarez, Kane or Lewandowski.

In the last few months, he started to lose a few yards of pace, and looked to be suffering against strikers he usually handled easily, Lukaku for instance, while he also needs more rest in order to keep his achilles healthy enough to play, which begs the question: what next?

Koscielny’s immediate replacement is already at the club:

A young centre-back, good on the ball but a bit reckless, always looking to step in and intercept, playing on the front foot and capable of the best like the worst at any time. Mustafi’s ressemblence to 2010-2012 is striking in those aspects. Although the German is a world champion and a £35M signing, the transfer market has blown out of control since 2010.

Mustafi’s first two seasons at Arsenal have also been quite the rollercoaster, between injuries, mistakes against Aguero and Pogba and huge performances against the likes of Diego Costa and Morata. He’s still young, has the leadership of a future captain (he wore the armband at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea in the League Cup) and has shown enough quality to deserve the same faith that Koscielny benefitted from. While Mustafi’s rise in importance this season make him a big part ot Arsenal’s future, it also opens the question of his partner in central defence, which will have the responsability to numerically replace Koscielny in Arsenals’s starting eleven sooner rather than later.

Names like Manolas, Koulibaly, Evans, Rugani or Lenglet are thought to be followed closely by Arsenal and new chief scout Sven Mislintat. To play next to Mustafi, Arsenal will need a player capable of playing as a left center-back, with a good positional sense and the ability to step back when the German pushes upfield to press. The Gunners also need a player that is composed under pressure, in order to avoid having an unbalanced defence once again.  Names like Evans, Lenglet and Rugani then tick more boxes than Manolas for instance, as his lapses of concentration could prove costly.

Most of these defenders will come at a price however, apart from Evans’s 5M€ release clause if West Brom are relegated, all of them will cost more than 30M€. Even if Arsenal’s budget is tight with the lack of Champions League football and the funds used for Özil’s new contract, a new centre-back is a huge priority in the summer, Mustafin being the only centre-back older than 23 and younger than 32. Money will not make Arsenal’s defensive animation impenetrable but, until a new coach comes in, new and better personnel is one of the only ways to improve as a team.

The internal solutions :

Reiss Nelson and Eddie Nketiah take the most of the spotlight when it comes Arsenal’s youngsters but if there’s an area that isn’t short of quality in our youth teams, that’s central defence, with Bielik, Holding, Chambers, Mavropanos and Plezeguelo all under contract at Arsenal and eligible for under-23 football. Chambers and Holding have made their breakthrough and are part of the first-team squad and most matchdays squads, the others are younger or more unlikely to play for the first-team.

The question now is, can one of them be the heir to Koscielny?

It looks quite unlikely today, most of them are far away from the squad, Holding is suffering in his second full season at the highest level after a magnificent first season, topped with a top-class performance at Wembley in the FA Cup final. The former Bolton player started the season as a starter in Arsenal’s back 3 with Koscielny and Monreal, this starting streak ended after 3 games, mistaked against Leicester and Stoke, along with a dreadful performance at Anfield pushed the Englishman out of the starting XI, replaced by Mustafi. Mistakes and sloppiness on the ball replaced his usual composure, at times where a calm figure was needed in defence. Mertesacker then Chambers quickly surpassed him in the pecking order. He now looks set to go on loan, Burnley are interested and Sean Dyche would be a good fit for Holding.

The switch to a back 4 in november further restricted the youngsters’s chances for minutes, especially in the Premier League, although Chambers seems to have saved his Arsenal career this season. After a very good season on loan at Boro and a summer full of uncertainty and interests from Leicester and West Brom.

Chambers stayed at Arsenal and got a new deal until 2021, even though he looked to be 6th choice behind the starters, Holding and even Mertesacker, plagued by injuries during the fall as well. That makes his return all the more impressive, he kept his head down, working his way up the pecking order, and he’s now the first name behind Mustafi and Koscielny. He impressed on the right of the back 3 in december and is now a regular in the team again, 4 years after his arrival from Southampton. It is most likely not enough to replace Koscielny in the side but he has done enough to prove his worth and that he belongs in North London.

Koscielny will no doubt still have impressive performances for Arsenal, the game in Milan showed that class is permanent. However, he won’t get any younger, and for a player so reliant on his recovery pace, this summer might be the perfect time to part ways for all parties, and bring in someone to get the best out of Mustafi and build a partnership for the long-term, rotation options being assured with Chambers and the youngsters. The Frenchman should still be remembered as a world-class defender, who played his heart out for the club, through the pain barrier and who stayed on in difficult times despite interest from Bayern Munich. Without doubt one of the best defenders of the Wenger Era, arguably the best.

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