02 December 2013

All hail Koscielny on his 100th appearance!

On Saturday against Cardiff, Laurent Koscielny turned in another masterful performance, marking his 100th appearance with the club. When we look at the confident, even dominant player he's become, It's hard to remember the gangly, error-prone player who first joined came to Arsenal in 2010. From those early days, he had shown flashes of his talent, whether it was his willingness to go in for a tackle or his ability to score a goal. It's hard to believe how quickly he has risen—just a few years ago, he was a second-string center-back in France's Ligue 2. Now, he's shouldering his way into the conversation as one of the Prem's best center-backs. With many competitors aging—Terry, Ferdinand, Jagielka, and Vidic are all on the other side of 30—and others, such as Kompany hampered by injury, Koscielny is well-positioned to make a case for himself.

Of course, before we get ahead of ourselves, let's remember a few crucial areas that have dogged him: discipline and own-goals. In seasons past, for as well as he's performed, he's been involved in some truly awful situations, many of which had led directly to dropped points. His disciplinary record has, in past years, been a sore spot, as he's been seemingly unable to avoid senseless fouls that lead to spot-kicks and being sent off. The current campaign started off in similar fashion when Kos was sent off against Aston Villa, drawing two yellow-cards in the 3-1 loss. The difference between those bookings and previous ones, however, is worth discussing. Dragging down Edin Dzeko in the box is inexcusable. Both yellow-cards in the Aston Villa match came on what looked to be legitimate tackles. Beyond that, his only disciplinary problem occurred in France's first-leg with Ukraine when he lost his temper during a scuffle. We'll just sweep that one under the rug for now as it was an issue for Deschamps to deal with. Ahem. To date, then, he hasn't seen red since that mugging of Dzeko. Aside from the second-yellow send-off against Aston Villa (part of a refereeing performance so poor that the ref was dropped from the following week's matches), Kos's disciplinary record is spic and span.

A related issue has been his involvement in own-goals or other howlers that have allowed teams to score, such as an own-goal in a 4-3 loss to Blackburn in 2011 or that horrific miscommunication with Szczesny that led to Birmingham defeating us in the 2012 League Cup (same season, for what that's worth). His last such flub, though, ended up as fairly innocuous, coming as it did in that epic 7-5 win over Reading in last year's League Cup. Since then, there's been nary an own-goal to be found. The trade-off, such as it were, may come eliminating goals altogether, as he hasn't scored since his game-winner against Newcastle to clinch 4th place last year. That might just count as a better-than-even trade. After all, a defender's highest priority is to defend. Scoring is icing on the cake, but for a defender to score an own-goal can be a huge strategic set-back, not to mention a demoralizing one to boot. If Kos goes a full season without scoring, and such is the price of eliminiating those own-goals, then so be it.

Of course, reducing errors is just one way of improving. Kos's improvement stems from much more than that. In the past, he was aggressive to the point of recklessness when he went in for tackles, apparently heedless of his opponent's position or proclivity for diving. While he may have succumbed to this as recently as the Aston Villa match, he's become much more astute positionally and in timing his tackles, resulting in increased his interceptions and clearance rates. He's therefore been involved in ten clean-sheets already this year, and our goals-against average when he's on the pitch is a paltry 0.58. He's not alone in deserving credit for those last two stats, of course, but it's no accident that he's part of it. He's been instrumental in shutting down some powerful offenses such as Dortmund, Liverpool, and Napoli, and it's because of him that Szczesny said "Yes, I am keeping clean sheets, but I have not had many saves to make". I'm not sure that the stats support this, but I'm going to trust Szcz's impression of the situation. He added that "if one of [Laurent or Per] is not nominated for Player of the Month, I will be amazed." The way that Kos has been playing (along with Per), this would only be the beginning of many more clean sheets to come.

Congrats, Kos, on reaching that 100th match. May you be around for hundreds more!