This story first appeared in the December 2015 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
Much like Laurent Koscielny, the best moment of WILLIE YOUNG’s Arsenal career came at Wembley Stadium.
A no-nonsense centre half, Willie made 237 appearances during his four years in north London, helping the team to win the dramatic 1979 FA Cup final against Manchester United.
Fast forward 35 years and Koscielny was enjoying his moment in the Wembley spotlight, scoring the equalising goal as Arsenal came back from 2-0 down to beat Hull City in a similarly entertaining final.
The France defender has established himself as one of English football’s foremost defenders and, according to Willie, has become an integral part of Arsène Wenger’s squad. “I think he’s a complete centre half,” starts Willie, who turns 64 on November 25.
"He does his job really well. As players we’re not really too similar. He’s a lot quicker than I was and he’s not an out-and-out centre half. He’s more of a player who plays alongside an old-fashioned centre half.
“But he’s a really, really good player. He’s got good pace, he’s good in the air for his size and build. That speed is so important because it means that if, for example you’re playing offside and it fails, you still have the option to eradicate any danger.”
Willie sees similarities between his partnership with David O’Leary, and that of Koscielny and Per Mertesacker.
“There’s definitely a comparison to be made between myself and David and Mertesacker and Koscielny. When I was playing, I wasn’t that quick and would have to rely on anticipation and predicting what was going to happen. That would allow me to organise the defence. I was always shouting at everybody. I would shout at the holding midfielder and tell him to track a runner because I had somebody else to deal with.
“It’s good to have somebody who can shout and who can boss people about. We used to play a lot of offside and I used to organise how we would do that. Communication is the key to that and it used to work like a treat. If it didn’t work, David O’Leary was so quick that he could catch them anyway. We had a great balance at the time. It’s so important to have good, responsible players making up the spine of your team. An effective defensive unit is essential for any team wanting to be successful.
“In a way, Mertesacker and Koscielny are similar to David and I. Because Koscielny is so quick, it means Mertesacker’s role is more to organise, knowing Koscielny has the attributes to sweep up anything that goes behind the defence.”
Willie, who began his career at Aberdeen before joining Arsenal from Tottenham Hotspur, left the club in 1981. After spells with Nottingham Forest, Norwich City, Brighton & Hove Albion and Darlington, he retired in 1984 and says the game has changed considerably since he stopped playing.
“I don’t think I’d get a start anywhere nowadays,” he laughs. “Now you see people putting their arms around each other at set-pieces. It’s ridiculous. That’s the most important thing they’ve got to get rid of, or else the game will just go downhill. You’re better having a non-contact sport in the 18-yard box than what we’re having just now.
"You used to get a few people doing it when you played in Europe but you’d just give them an elbow in the ribs and they’d never do that. That doesn’t exist now though.
“The game didn’t change much in our era. It was always a big No 9 against a big No 5, and they would fight it out between each other. If you could handle the big No 9, you would be halfway to getting a result.
“We used to almost stick our heads in the opponents’ faces because we wanted to keep an eye on them. I think referees are more lenient now than they were when I was playing. If you committed a bad foul when I was playing, you knew you would get a warning the first time, a yellow the second time and would be sent off the third time. I think they get a lot more. If the game flows on, you sometimes see the referees leaving it and not going back to discipline them.”
After retiring, Willie owned a pub for 19 years before moving into a different line of work. “I’ve got kennels now,” he concludes. “I’ve been here for 11 years now and I’m enjoying it - after all, I’m used to playing with animals!”
Five moments which have defined Laurent's Arsenal career
Debut v Liverpool
August 15, 2010
Laurent was a relative unknown when Arsenal signed him in the summer of 2010, from Ligue 1 side Lorient, aged 25.
He took the number 6 shirt, previously worn only by Tony Adams and Philippe Senderos in the Premier League era. His first outing in the shirt came in a pre-season friendly away to Barnet (which the Gunners won 4-0) but his competitive debut promised to be a much stiffer examination – away to Liverpool.
Playing alongside Thomas Vermaelen at the back, he had an eventful afternoon. He was stretchered off just before half-time after Joe Cole – making his Liverpool debut – was sent off for a cynical foul on the Frenchman.
Laurent returned for the second half though, and helped Arsenal come from a goal down to earn a point, before being dismissed himself in injury time for a second bookable offence.
“Anfield was an amazing stadium for my debut – the atmosphere was unbelievable,” Laurent said recently. “I remember the game, we drew 1-1 and I got two yellow cards right at the end of the game. I think I played well though. The second yellow was very harsh I think, but football is like this, and one thing is for sure, I’ll always remember my Arsenal debut!”
The one-game suspension he then served meant this first home game didn’t come until September 11, against Bolton, and Laurent scored the opener in a 4-1 win.
Performance v Barcelona
February 16, 2011
“Has Koscielny let Messi out of his pocket yet?” was the general gist of much of the post-match comment on Twitter after Arsenal beat Barcelona 2-1 in the Champions League.
Playing alongside Johan Djourou at the heart of the defence, Laurent barely put a foot wrong in the memorable win over the undisputed best team in the world at the time.
Up against the combined might of Lionel Messi, David Villa and Pedro, Laurent was magnificent, leading by example at the back, even though he had played just 30 times for his new club by then.
Villa scored to put Barcelona ahead but World Footballer of the Year Messi – who would score 53 goals in 55 games for Barcelona that season – was shackled superbly by Laurent, allowing the hosts to score twice late on to claim a famous win.
No better a judge than Martin Keown said afterwards: “Laurent Koscielny was magnificent throughout, even though it looked like he had heavy cramp late on. He constantly offered himself to danger, committing fully to the ball every time and he really bullied Barcelona’s players. The way he picked off their runs oozed intelligence.”
Winning goal v Newcastle
May 19, 2013
After the close-shave on the final day of the previous season, Arsenal did not want to be in that position again in a hurry.
But just 12 months later, here they were again. And as with the previous season, Laurent was the saviour once more.
Again it was Arsenal and Tottenham battling it out for the final Champions League spot, and again the Gunners were just a point ahead on the final day, with an away fixture to play (against Newcastle) while Tottenham were at home to Sunderland.
Both games were scoreless at the break but on 52 minutes Laurent had his say. Theo Walcott swung in a free-kick and the defender was in the right place to divert Lukas Podolski’s knock down past the ‘keeper.
Then the Frenchman’s job was to help preserve the clean sheet which – despite rumours to the contrary which swept round a momentarily excited White Hart Lane – he did consummately to guide Arsenal to another season in the Champions League.
With 90 per cent of the vote, the users of Arsenal.com overwhelmingly voted Laurent man of the match. Once again he had proved to be the man for the big occasion.
“It was like last year, this goal was important,” he said at the final whistle. “The team played well and gave themselves for the team. We are all good players and we want to play Champions League. It’s a big competition. We did the job and we are happy.”
Winning goal v West Brom
May 13, 2012
Arsenal had qualified for the Champions League in each of Arsène Wenger’s 15 full seasons at the club. They had also finished above Spurs every year since the boss arrived in London in 1996.
This Arsenal squad did not want to be remembered as the group who broke those sequences. Yet that was the very real prospect facing the team at the end of the 2011/12 season. With Chelsea in the Champions League final, fourth place would not necessarily be enough to make it into the continent’s premier club competition.
Third- place was the aim. In late February Arsenal were 10 points behind Tottenham, who occupied that coveted third-place, with just 13 games to play. By the final game of the season the Gunners had overhauled Spurs, but the slender one-point gap meant they had to equal their local rivals’ result on the last day.
Tottenham went ahead early at home to Fulham, and made it 2-0 on the hour. Arsenal had to win at The Hawthorns.
West Brom however, under the stewardship of future England manager Roy Hodgson, were unbeaten in four, and took a 2-1 lead in the first half.
Andre Santos equalised before half-time but it was Laurent who struck the all-important winner. Goalkeeper Marton Fulop punched a corner back towards his own goal, and Laurent stuck out his right boot to net a priceless goal.
FA Cup goal v Hull City
May 17, 2014
The lowest point of Laurent’s Arsenal career? It’s got to be the abject disappointment he felt in the dying moments of the League Cup final in 2011, when his mix-up with Wojciech Szczesny allowed Obafemi Martins to nip in and score the winner for Birmingham City.
But that setback only served to make his goal in the FA Cup final, back at Wembley in 2014, even sweeter.
Still in search of the first silverware of his career, Arsenal looked to have blown another opportunity when going 2-0 down to Hull inside the opening eight minutes. Santi Cazorla started the comeback with a first-half free-kick, but with less than 20 minutes remaining, Hull still led.
Then Cazorla swung in a corner, Bacary Sagna headed goalwards, and once again Laurent was there to bravely stab it in, almost injuring himself in the process.
“I have a picture of that goal on my phone,” Laurent says. “I smelled that I could get the ball, so I just turned near the six-yard box, and I waited. The ball came, and I turned and kicked it towards goal.
But the ‘keeper was coming and he twisted my ankle as I shot the ball. That’s why I couldn’t celebrate, because my ankle turned badly.
The physio told me it was nothing bad, so I thought ‘OK, I carry on’. I would have wanted to play on with a broken arm to be honest though!”
Arsene Wenger on Laurent Koscielny
His first memory of Laurent...
I first saw him play while he was at Lorient, on television and straight away I was struck by his quality, his interceptions, his focus, his mobility and by his pace. I was told by a friend of mine, who was his coach two years earlier, that he was a quality player and so I kept an eye on him.
Who he reminded him of...
He was a bit like Cannavaro, the Italian defender, not too tall but very mobile, reads the game very well and has great interception qualities. The only question mark I had with him coming to English football was will the aerial game be a problem for him? Well he’s slowly getting there!
How he has developed...
He had a lack of experience when he came here. When I watched him, I saw the potential but he had a lack of experience, and he had a bit of a lack of confidence as well. Now he’s getting stature. He has pace, technique, understanding of the game and intelligence, as well as the needed confidence to play. He has developed and has gone through some difficult periods. That’s part of the development. Because he started late in his career, he had to gain that experience of being responsible.
The verdict from...
Thomas Vermaelen (April 2012)
“He has done amazingly this season. I don’t understand why a lot of criticism was there in the first season. The first week I saw him you could tell he was a great player and now it is all coming out in his second season. I am really happy for him.”
Per Mertesacker (February 2014)
“I would say we have different qualities. One is more mobile, one has more height. It fits absolutely well together because these days the centre backs are not just tall and just have to deal with long balls.
“I’ve played with many good centre backs with different qualities, but Laurent, he’s one of the quickest players I’ve ever played with, one of the most mobile players, and he anticipates well, so he has real strengths to be a good partner.
“For me it’s easy to play alongside him. Hopefully he’s going to say that to you as well when he speaks about me! We both take advantages from each other so that is the main key.”
Bacary Sagna (June 2014)
“For me Laurent is one of the best defenders in the world. I’m lucky enough to have played with him at Arsenal and he’s a complete player.
“He brings a lot to the France team too, I think he’s ready to play in any situation. It’s not a problem for him. We saw against Ecuador that he played on the right, for Arsenal he plays left.
“In my opinion he’s two-footed and it’s the same for him on either side. It’s not a problem for him because he’s a quality player and they can adapt to anything.”
Santi Cazorla (December 2014)
“Laurent Koscielny for me is a great defender and there are very few players like him in the world. Of course I could give you more names of very good players at Arsenal, but I think Alexis, Mesut and Laurent are three good examples.”
Wojciech Szczesny (December 2014)
“Koscielny is as good as you are going to get in England. I think, when he is fit and plays with Per, they make a great couple of centre backs, so having them together is great for us. Hopefully he can continue to play and be clear of injury.”
Sol Campbell (July 2015)
“Laurent Koscielny has become one of Arsenal’s most important players and the statistics show that when he’s in the side they concede fewer goals.”
Hector Bellerin (November 2015)
“He’s one of the top centre backs in the world right now and has improved a lot in the last four or five years. He has a very good technique, knows when to play the ball and he scores a lot of goals as well. He already has two or three this season, which I think is important for a centre back.”
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