Once upon a time, on Monday, May 17, a former coach, Daniel Sanchez, called Laurent Koscielny to tell him Arsène Wenger rated the Lorient centre-back highly. Given the faith and trust he had in Sanchez, Laurent Koscielny knew there could be some truth in the statement.
A month and a half later, the Lorient defender belonged to Arsenal as their second summer signing. Before he knew it, the little-known but remarkably determined defender who had come through League 1 and 2 ranks in France, was lining up for Arsenal at Anfield to give an impressive display and show the supporters just why the Arsenal manager had been keen to express his appreciation a few months earlier.
It’s a date and phone call that Laurent Koscielny will never forget. If football fairytales exist, nobody hopes and believes more than Laurent Koscielny that this story will end happily ever after.
"The fans’ passion for their club is just incredible. It’s true love!"
The Official Magazine, in the guise of respected French football journalist Julien Laurens, caught up with Laurent in the week leading up to the Liverpool game.
What has impressed you most since you arrived at Arsenal?The most impressive thing for me is that everything is geared towards the players to only think about football and playing well. The rest is taken care of. That’s what a big club is all about. Your mind is just free to think only about doing well for the Club. You don’t have to worry about anything. For example, the Club has taken care of the move from my house in France to a flat here.
Then, of course I was very impressed by the facilities. Coming from France, I was astounded by the quality of the training ground and training pitches. They are simply excellent and yes, they are better than the pitches we play on in the French league!
What are your first impressions of your new team-mates?Well, first, the team is very different to the teams I played for before. I have never played with ‘big stars’ before, players who have won big trophies. So obviously it’s a massive change. Despite the talent and the status of players, I’ve found everybody very nice and humble. It’s a squad where everybody works hard for each other. No one thinks he is better than the team or the Club.
How important was the presence of a big French contingent?It was and still is a big help for me. I had never spoken English before coming here so during my first training sessions, I had one of the French players translating for me what the coaches were saying. It’s thanks to them that I integrated so well. I’ve started taking English lessons though so now I understand much better what is said on the pitch and even a bit of the banter in the dressing room! When I arrived, I asked the guys to tell me some key words like how to say “man on” or “time” and “up”. I had to, because as a defender I talk a lot and I needed to know those kinds of words.
Have you had time to discover London yet?No, not really. I am still living at a hotel but I will be moving into a flat very soon which will be better because in a hotel, you don’t really feel settled. I haven’t had time at all to visit central London yet. I went out for dinner one evening with Gael Clichy. We went to L’Atelier, a great French restaurant. It was good to eat some nice French food after three weeks of eating hotel food. I don’t have my car yet either so it’s hard to do anything. But in a few weeks hopefully, I will start being able to go to London and discover the city a bit more.
Can you recall the first time you heard of Arsenal’s interest?I remember it very clearly. It was on Monday, May 17. On the Saturday, we played Lille for the last game of the season. And on the Monday, I received a call from my former coach at Tours, Daniel Sanchez. He knows the boss well and he told me how much he liked me.
It took a while for the deal to be done, did you lose faith at any point?It took five weeks and to be honest, I went through every state of mind. I thought first that it would be done quickly then when I realised how much Lorient were asking for me, I was pessimistic. Then it was a case of one step forward and two backwards but eventually, it happened. Lorient understood towards the end that it was an amazing promotion for me. It’s not like it was an average Ligue 1 club. Arsenal is one of the biggest clubs in the world and Lorient could not deny me this opportunity.
Do you realise now how big Arsenal is?Yes, you feel it when you are part of it. When I was in France, I used to watch the Premier League every weekend and follow Arsenal. But I could not see everything around the Club, the passion for it and what it means for the fans, the area and everything. When we went to Austria for pre-season, there were around 1,000 fans every day at our training sessions. I had never ever seen that before. The fans’ passion for their club is just incredible. It’s true love! They give everything for Arsenal and, for me a Frenchman, with a different culture, it’s amazing. Back home, you’d never see a football fan walking down the street with his team’s shirt on. Here it’s quite common.
In the same way, were you very impressed by photocall and Members’ Day?Oh yes. It was a very long day but a very impressive one. We did all the photos and videos the Club need for the season, we trained and met the fans. In France, you do one team photo and then you go home. It shows how big the Club is, with big events like that.
How much do you know about the history of the Club?I followed the Club since Mr Wenger arrived and brought the French players with him. It’s a big club in France because of that. I remember watching them winning the ‘double’ and that incredible 2004 invincible season.
You discovered the team and the way Arsenal works during the pre-season. What did you think?It was such a massive change for me compared to what I had experienced before. When I arrived I thought the preparation would go to a kind of crescendo, starting easy and then getting harder and harder. It didn’t happen like that at all! It started full pace straight away. We were training with some sort of electronic devices (GPS) for ages, even playing with them.
The pace and rhythm of training as well is so much more intense. Everybody is 200 per cent committed because all the guys want to win their place in the starting 11. I guess it’s a reflection of the league games where you have to be 200 per cent committed if you want to win things.
It was hard at the start. I struggled to recover physically, especially when we had two training sessions a day. Little by little, I managed to recover better and my body got used to the new rhythm. I feel stronger and stronger every day at training and during games. The language is not a problem anymore either so things are setting into place for me nicely.
Could you tell us a bit more about your background?Well, to become a professional player, you have two paths you can follow: the traditional one which is joining an academy in your early teens – or earlier – and then making your debut with your club’s first team or, you have the uncharacteristic one, like me. I joined the academy of a French Second Division club, Guingamp, very late, at 17, before making my debut in that league.
I was being played at right-back which was not my position so I wasn’t happy. I then left for Tours in the French Third Division. It was an ambitious club and I played as a centre-half there. It was a gamble that paid off as we were promoted straight away. We had a great season then and Lorient recruited me. I played only one season in Ligue 1 before signing here. I am on cloud nine to be honest. It shows to everybody that if you work hard and believe in yourself, anything can happen, even your wildest dreams.
So growing up, you didn’t think you would be a professional footballer?Well, like I said, I didn’t think about becoming a professional player until really late. It was not my obsession at all. I was just happy to play football and was enjoying it, but I would have never thought at 15 or 16 that I would become a professional. That’s why I kept studying and got my equivalent of your A-Levels.
But you grew up in a footballing family…Yes, in Tulle, a little town in the middle of France. It was all about football in our family despite living in a rugby area. I started playing at four. On the weekend, we would go to watch my dad play. He was a striker and had a good career in the French Third and Fourth divisions. My brother plays as well but at a lower level.
How do you get on with Thomas Vermaelen?My relationship with Thomas is great. He is a very good player and a nice man too. He works hard. I think we are quite similar. We have the same state of mind, both hardworking and determined guys, and the same qualities. It’s easy to play with him. Even the language is not really a problem. From day one, things were really good between us. And I love his nickname ‘The Verminator.’
How would you describe yourself?I don’t have the technical genius of Cristiano Ronaldo or the physical strength of Vidic but I fight hard with my own qualities. I have worked so hard to reach the top and I am not going to stop there.
Elaborate on your qualities?I work very hard and never give up. On man marking, I don’t let the striker breathe. I love one-on-one challenges. Technically, I have always worked hard as well because, especially at Arsenal, I am the player who starts the attack so I need to have quality in my passing. I have improved a lot on how I read the game and anticipate what my opponent will do and where the ball will go.
Is it true that last season in France, you never lost a one-on-one challenge?So I’ve been told. It’s a situation I like. A physical, technical and mental challenge. It’s a big battle – part bluff, part judgement. My aim is never to let the striker open on his good foot to go towards the goal. You have to be very intelligent to win those sorts of challenges.
So what do you think needs to improve in your game?I lack experience of course and to acquire it, you need to play at the top level which will be the case this season. It’s not something you work on but something you gain with the games you play. I know in certain situations, I need more experience. Physically as well I need to improve. I am not the biggest defender in the world so I need to gain some weight. However, I don’t believe you have to be physically big to be the best defender, you can compensate in other areas.
Are you aware that you are wearing Tony Adams’ famous number 6 shirt?No I wasn’t aware he always wore that number, but I know about him. I admire how hard he worked to get where he did. He was such an influential figure here. A great centre-half and captain with strong leadership qualities. Maybe, he wasn’t the most gifted defender but he worked so hard to achieve his great career.
Growing up, who was your idol?Laurent Blanc (he smiles knowingly). For me, he was the perfect defender. A leader, with great abilities, sure of himself with lots of charisma. You watch him play, he was the ‘boss’. With him at the heart of your defence, you were not scared.
Blanc is now the French national team manager. Were you disappointed not to be called up for the last game?I was not really disappointed. I had a little hope because the squad didn’t include the players who were at the World Cup but I know I have to become a regular at Arsenal first before being considered for the French national team. It’s normal. If I play here and I am good, maybe the doors of the French team could open for me.
Could you still play for Poland?Yes of course. My grandfather is Polish, but my father was born in France, but I don’t speak the language. Last season, the Polish federation contacted me and I said I was interested but things have changed now. At the time, I would have never thought that playing for France would be a possibility one day. Now that I play for Arsenal everything is different. I am not being pretentious, but you have more chance to play for France when you are at Arsenal. I have a lot of respect for Poland but I don’t want to miss the opportunity to play for France one day.
Finally, supporters are struggling to get to grips with your Polish surname – can you tell us the definitive pronunciation! Ko-si-el-ni, not ko-shi-elni as I’ve heard it often pronounced here and in France.
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