To anyone who watched Arsenal throughout the 1980s, 1990s or early 2000s, the number 6 shirt will forever be associated with one man. Tony Adams was the archetypal captain, a solid and dependable centre back who increasingly showed great technical prowess too.
Such is the aura surrounding the number 6 shirt, only two players have worn it since Adams’ retirement in 2002. Philippe Senderos’ Arsenal career didn’t go to plan, but Arsenal have found a dependable number 6 once again in Laurent Koscielny.
It feels strange that Koscielny is now 29, and creeping into the stage where he’ll be considered a veteran: he’s still fresh-faced, still plays the game with youthful exuberance, and is still improving. Koscielny has always been an asset to Arsenal, but his consistency over the past year has been better than ever.
Koscielny’s style is extremely distinctive. Whereas most centre backs depend on their aerial ability, so position themselves inside the penalty box and allow the opposition to build pressure, Koscielny is the opposite. He’s one of the most proactive defenders around, sticking tight to opponents and winning the ball quickly.
"I always anticipate – one day I will get caught, but that’s my game"
When you think of old-school centre backs like Adams, you imagine headed clearances from the edge of the box. With Koscielny, however, you think of him making interceptions close to the halfway line, or tracking opponents towards the corners to tackle decisively.
He’s a rare beast: a centre back who thrives outside his own penalty area, and that proactive nature ensures Arsenal keep a high defensive line, and push up the pitch to increase their attacking potential. This has always been Koscielny’s style.
“My game has not changed much compared to when I was at Lorient,” he told Arsenal Magazine earlier in the year. “But I am obviously a much better player and I keep improving. No one can ever be perfect but you can still improve. Experience is a big factor.”
Experience is particularly important for a player like Koscielny, whose style means he’s forced to make big decisions frequently. For reactive centre backs, it’s not so much about decision-making as simply performing obvious tasks consistently, but Koscielny is constantly calculating whether to sit deep or press, whether to jump in front of an opponent or remain goalside. As Koscielny acknowledges, it’s an approach that can go wrong.
“I always anticipate – one day I will get caught, but that’s my game,” he says. “When I intercept the ball, it’s a risk I took to get it. That’s what I do best, but it can lead to mistakes too. When I’m on the pitch I need to go for it, I need to battle.”
Koscielny’s game has improved considerably since he was used alongside Per Mertesacker on a regular basis. Next to Thomas Vermaelen it was less certain – Vermaelen also wanted to take risks, so the players were very similar. Alongside Mertesacker, Koscielny has licence to push up, get tight and make challenges, with the German playing deeper and excelling in the penalty box.
When it comes to contributions in the box, Koscielny is arguably happier in the opposition area, having netted some crucial goals for Arsenal. The equaliser against Hull City in the FA Cup Final at Wembley this year was particularly important, and Koscielny also ended the previous season with a key goal, the winner at Newcastle to secure Champions League football.
In fact, the goals were almost identical, with Koscielny reacting quickly to reach the ‘second ball’ after an initial header, adjusting his body position to fire home from inside the six-yard box. Again, that summarises Koscielny’s style: he’s unlikely to provide towering headers in the mould of other centre backs, but his excellent anticipation skills means he becomes a useful penalty box poacher.
Goalscoring remains something of a bonus, of course, and Koscielny remains focused on defending. There are plenty of solid, reliable penalty box defenders in the Premier League, but no one has been as consistent as Koscielny has in his own particular, ultra- proactive role.
Considering that style is crucial to Arsene Wenger’s philosophy, no other current defender would fit so perfectly at Arsenal.
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