20 May 2014

The vindication of Koscielny

It's been a long time coming, but redemption takes time. Of course, the last two seasons have offered absolution enough as Laurent Koscielny has become a bedrock of Arsenal's defence. By now, we're all familiar with his accomplishments as a defender, and his partnering with Per has provided a solid platform for the squad as whole. The clean-sheets, the stability, the tackles and clearances...all of these have become standard fare for Gooners. However, as with the trophy-drought itself, there has always lurked on the edge of our consciousness a lingering doubt—one that might finally have been exorcised, even if not fully expunged, from our memories.

First, of course, we must deal with the harrowing, horrific debacle that threatened to overshadow, even derail, Koscielny's Arsenal career. I speak of course of the 2011 League Cup final, when a shambolic miscommunication between Kos and Szczęsny saw the ball squib to Martin to score the winning goal, thus denying us our best chance at silverware since 2007 when we lost in the same competition and by the same score to Chelsea. If we had known then that we'd have to wait another three years for a glimpse of glory, the pain might have been too much to bear. As it stands, I'd imagine that a handful of Gooners turned their backs on the club, if only briefly, rather than suffer the pain of such setbacks.

Of course, that wasn't Kos's only gaffe of the season, just the most glaring. In a season that saw him draw 10 yellow cards and one red, it might have seemed at times that he was out of his depth; even the occasional solid performance was more than offset by the miscues and miscommunications. By the time he and Szczęsny gifted the League Cup to Birmingham, one could hardly be blamed for wondering aloud if Kos should be sent packing. Even some of these concerns could be chalked up to his adjustment from Ligue 1 to the klieg-lights of the Prem, it was difficult at the time to foresee the player that he has more recently become.

The concerns persisted as other gaffes continued to afflict him. An own-goal against Blackburn, for example, suggested that he lacked the discipline and focus required of a top-shelf centre-back. However, there were emerging signs of his growing confidence, tenacity, and skill, whether it be his dominant display against Marseille in the Champions League or his last-gasp winner against West Brom that earned us a third place finish in 2012. Indeed, his penchant for scoring timely goals is a quality that has elevated him from reliable, dependable defender—a bit of a hum-drum, lunch-bucket designation—to a squad-defining, almost talismanic figure. We'll return to that in a moment.

He patrols the middle half with intensity, seeking out and homing in on attackers and the ball with a single-minded focus. Should an opponent launch an audacious counter, hoofing the ball forward, you can almost set your watch by the fact that Koscielny will outrun his man to the ball. On the rare occasions that he's beaten, he'll more often than not make the tackle anyway. He's all but eliminated the errors that bedeviled early in his time at Arsenal, replacing them instead with confident, even domineering performances.

I mentioned goals. Koscielny's last two seasons are defined by goals prevented, of course, as measured by the clean sheets he and Per have played a part in, but also by goals scored. A late equalizer at the Etihad in 2012. In 2013, another away-goal at Allianz Arena to secure victory but not progress in the Champions League.. The late goal at St. James's Park to secure fourth place in 2013. However, the ghost of Birmingham still lingered as the trophy-drought persisted into its eighth season. For all of his feats and all of his development, a cloud would always seem to hover over him, just as it's loomed over the club itself.

It feels altogether fitting, then, that the stroke of genius that vindicates the club also vindicates the man. Down a goal but knocking at the door, it was Koscielny who delivered the equalizer and turned the tide against Hull in the FA Cup. With it, Koscielny didn't just put us on equal terms, he paved the path to victory, in the process purging the painful memories of past seasons. Once he was able to shrug off the pain of his injury, it was as if the clouds had parted. Had he been stretchered off, the significance of his strike might have left the pitch with him. Instead, he fought through it, just as the rest of the squad fought through the doubt, the fear, and the pressure that plagued it.

It may have been Ramsey's goal that delivered victory, but, in my mind, it was Koscielny's goal that offered the catharsis we all craved. After he scored that goal, Koscielny thumped his hand to the crest. There was no theatricality to the gesture, no sense that he was playing to the crowd or the cameras, just a man who was proud of what he'd done for his club. May it not be the last.

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