Laurent Koscielny recently granted an interview to France Football.
You can now read the English translation as Laurent talks about adapting to the Premier League and Arsenal's recovery from a tough start to the season.
Laurent, did the player who was still playing in Ligue 2 less than three years ago felt he’d landed on a different planet when he discovered Arsenal?
I had formed an idea of what I could expect in England, but I had to see things with my own eyes. For me, it was the best league in Europe. All the ingredients are there for that. You’ve got attacking players who’re physically very strong, the pace is very quick, the intensity of the games is incomparable – and not to the prejudice of technique. I naturally needed a period of adaptation to take stock of all of this, in particular when it comes to physical impact and game intensity.
You can’t have forgotten your first match for Arsenal...
Oh, that first game, against Liverpool, I remember it well! (laughs) First, there is the Joe Cole tackle on me, which got him a red card. I was really scared – he could’ve broken my leg. But I came back into the game.... until I too received a red card towards the end! I really went through many emotions that day, but, all in all, playing my first game in England at Anfield, that was something huge for me.
Did you tell yourself straight away: careful, there are many things I need to change in my game?
It’s first and foremost a question of mentality. In France, when you’re 2-0 up, the other team stops playing and tries not to concede again. Here, your opponent doesn’t let go, they still try to score. Given the atmosphere in the grounds and the support of the fans, they can flip a game on its head in a matter of minutes. You must imperatively be focused from the first minute to the last: you never know what’s round the corner. A dead-ball situation, a goal, and the house is on fire!
I also had to work on the purely athletic side of my game. I don’t have the build of a ‘physical’ stopper. And the intensity of the training sessions isn’t the same. Here at Arsenal, we’ve got one session per day, which lasts one hour and a half; and during this hour and a half, you don’t stop. Everything’s done so that you’re at your maximum, from the warm-up to the end of the session. So, at the beginning, it was tough for me, I could feel I was really stretching my engine... all the more so that, at Lorient, [manager] Christian Gourcuff tended not to call on me for the first two days of the week, after which I re-integrated into the squad. Here, I had to do a lot of work with the trainers to get in the right shape.
Were you surprised by the type of forwards you had to defend against?
England, in the past, it was ‘hoof it’ - but that’s over. You’ve got every kind of striker: a Drogba, who is so strong his back to goal; Peter Crouch, who’s 2 metres tall; Kun Agüero, who’s 1 metre 50, but who’s so fast! (laughs) It’s not the worse for that: you taste everything, you improve more quickly. You encounter a different problem every week. One week, it’ll be header after header, because you’re playing a team like Stoke, who like to play long balls; the next, your job will be to pass the ball out of defence. The diversity of the attacking players you face pushes you ahead. In my first year at the club, I was a novice. To play against opponents as different as I had to made me improve.
Does a central defender have to adopt a different kind of positioning in the Premier League?
When I was in France, I liked to ‘stick’ to the forwards, because I had the ability to go in front of them; it was easier for me, because those forwards were not as strong as they’re here, when you’re sometimes playing against huge guys who weigh 90 kilos and are still able to switch direction. I told myself ‘wait a bit, move back one or two yards’. That way, I can see whether his first touch will take him left or right, I can intercept, and initiate play from the back.
We worked on my positioning - because of the physical impact of English forwards. But, wait, even if I’m someone who likes the beautiful game, I also enjoy the physical side of it. ‘Go to war’ - no worries! (laughs) English referees aren’t as card happy [as French ones], and I’m not unhappy that they let the game flow a bit more. In France, it’s constant whistling. The halves don’t last 45 minutes, but 40! Here, there’s no play-acting... when it’s tough, it’s tough. And it isn’t the worse for it. There’s no cheating, and that’s a good thing.
Which strikers have caused you the most problems in England?
You want names? Ah, it depends. There are games when you feel well, and others - like the one at Liverpool, this season - when I didn’t feel at my top, physically speaking, and Luis Suarez caused me problems on several occasions. Football is bizarre. You’re good one game and, the next, you have the same desire, but you lose more 50/50s, because you don’t feel quite as well. But there are forwards who will always ask you questions. Drogba. Rooney. Guys whom you know can make the difference with one touch, or one pass.
On September 15, Arsenal is 17th in the league table. Beginning of May, you’re third. Do you have an explanation for that?
The beginning of the season was a catastrophe. We’d lost players who were key to our system. We recruited late, and it took a while for us to gel. We were whopped at Old Trafford. Everybody thought we were dead and buried. But you don’t lose your football like that, like snapping your fingers. It can happen that a grain of sand falls in the machine, and the machine stalls; then you start to have doubts about your qualities, your club, your coach, everything... We had to put the house back in order. And everyone did their bit: the coach, the club, because we were in a critical situation. The squad wasn’t giving enough for the club, and was aware of it. We got back to work, we told each other the things that needed to be told; after which, one win, two wins, confidence comes back, and things follow from then on. The new players gelled in the squad, and here we are...
There was also someone called Robin van Persie, no?
Sure! It’s his season. I’m really happy for him. It’s the first time he hasn’t been bothered by injuries, and you can see the difference...
What’s it like to play against him in training?
I try not to kick him too much! I go ‘soft’ on him...(laughs). We try to be reasonable: the season is so long...
Now this long season is almost over and you look back, what is your dominant feeling? Could it be regret, or frustration?
I cannot live with regrets. If we had a nightmarish start to the season, it is because we deserved to have it. But, frankly, I’ll come out of this season a more mature footballer. Everybody thought us dead and buried, but we stuck together, the players, the club, the staff, we fought together. The season I’ve gone through has been tough, but full of emotion. Tottenham at home... there was pressure on us, we were five points behind Chelsea, everybody was saying, ‘Champions League? It’s over, Tottenham will win’...and we put five goals past them, and went on a seven-win run.
We might not have dominated every single game, but, mentally, we had something extra. At Liverpool, for example, we always believed, and Robin gave us victory at the very end. The biggest regret is, perhaps, the first leg against Milan, when the game completely passed us by. Arsenal’s place is among the top four clubs in England. A club doesn’t ‘die’ like that, and the players realised it. There weren’t too many people to accompany us in this climb back [to our place], but we did it.
One Thierry Henry did some of the climb with you....
Thierry didn’t have the legs of a twenty-year old, perhaps, but, whether it’s in the dressing room or on the pitch, he’s played an important part. He knows this club, he’s lived big things here, he won titles, he became a legend for all the fans. He brought us this extra hunger to win, including in games in which we struggled to play our football. And there were a few of those ‘complicated’ games. One thing we knew though, was that we would score. We proved it at Liverpool, at Sunderland, against Liverpool, against Villa in the FA Cup. When you truly believe, as we’re not that bad a bunch of players, results follow.
What about next year?
I’m not thinking about it yet. The most important thing is to get that third place. Then - if we keep our key players, if we bring in players who can bring something extra, if we make a good start in the league, then, yes, we’ll be contenders for the title.Copyright 2016 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source