“Five-four is a hockey score, not a football score.
“In a three-against-three training match, if the score reaches 5-4 I send the players back to the dressing rooms as they are not defending properly.
“So to get a result like that in a game of 11 against 11 is disgraceful.”
So said then Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho in the wake of Arsenal’s 5-4 victory at Tottenham Hotspur in November 2004. It is certainly true to say that the two North London clubs have not always been associated with defensive parsimony and rigour in the modern era. In the years that followed that famous clash, notable north London Derby scorelines included: 4-4, 2-3, 3-3, and a pair of 5-2 Arsenal wins.
In more recent times however, both Spurs and Arsenal have some of the best defensive numbers in the division. Mauricio Pochettino’s side had the joint best defence last season; they along with Manchester United conceded just 35 goals. Arsenal only conceded one more, despite shipping four at Southampton and three at Liverpool, Man United and West Ham. No team has kept more Premier League clean sheets than the Gunners since January 2015.
This is extremely reductionist, but the performances of Laurent Koscielny and Toby Alderweireld at the heart of each defence have been a big part of this respective improvement. In fact, the two both have a legitimate claim to the mantle of best centre back in the league. John Terry is still an influential presence for Chelsea, but at 35 years of age, is winding down. Vincent Kompany was once the undisputed holder of this tag, but has been hampered by a succession of injuries. Chris Smalling is solid, but not quite as classy as the Arsenal and Spurs men and still prone to the occasional mistake.
Trying to judge which of them is the better is like contemplating the length of a piece of string, and Koscielny and Alderweireld are probably more alike than they are different. They embody the modern prototype for centre-backs; mobile, front-footed, technically assured defenders who are happy in one against one scenarios. Both play in teams that commit bodies forward and play a high line, and only a certain type of defender can cope with this environment. There are many defenders who look fantastic in defensive teams, but find the transition to playing in an offensive side extremely difficult.
The Belgian is possibly the more polished footballer of the two, in more ways than one. Schooled at the famed Ajax academy, he was assured of a footballing education that few other clubs can match. He then played under Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid, though he only made ten league starts at the Vicente Calderon. Following a loan season at Southampton under former centre back Ronald Koeman, he joined Spurs on a permanent basis to work under one of Europe’s brightest coaches in Pochettino. Koscielny is much more of a self-made man; the Frenchman was still playing for Tours in Ligue 2 at the age of 23. Since joining Arsenal for £8.5 million in 2010, he has developed into one of the most complete defenders in Europe.
Alderweireld is four years younger than Koscielny, and more versatile having played at full-back and holding midfield during his time in England. This season is only seven games old, but last season’s stats shows there is little to separate them from a defensive point of view. The Spurs man just edged out Koscielny in tackles won per game (0.84 to 0.79), blocks per game (0.82 to 0.87) and clearances per game (7.74 to 5.88). The difference in tackles and blocks is negligible, but when it comes to clearances there is a notable contrast. What constitutes a ‘clearance’ is subject to some debate, but perhaps these numbers show Alderweireld is more inclined to put his foot through the ball while under pressure.
One area where Koscielny is dominant is interceptions (3.82 per game to 1.74), an aspect of the game where he really comes into his own. The Frenchman is wonderfully adept at stepping in front of his man and cutting out attempted through balls. During his early days at Arsenal, this proactive, assertive style of defending got him into difficulty and did appear rash at times.
However, as he has matured these errors in judgment have got less and less common. This side of his game may not have completely receded though, as last season he committed more fouls than Alderweireld (0.94 per game to 0.24). However, it should also be considered that Koscielny was playing in a more dysfunctional side and this may have left him more exposed. It will be interesting to see if this number drops with Shkodran Mustafi alongside him, and Granit Xhaka in front.
In the air, Koscielny won marginally more duels (64.37% to 60.20%), but Alderweireld was more dangerous with his head in the opposition’s penalty area. Both defenders scored four league goals, but three of Alderweireld were headers compared to Koscielny’s one. They are threats from set pieces, but operate in very different ways. The former Southampton man makes a more traditional near-post run to try and meet the corners with his head, whereas Koscielny is fond of loitering around the six-yard line looking for knock-downs and the second ball. Rather like his fellow countryman William Gallas, Koscielny is quite useful at swivelling and turning home close range efforts (see here, here and here).
With the ball, Alderweireld has a little bit more in his locker, with his long-range diagonal passing something of a trademark. The statistics bear this out, with his average pass length six metres longer than Koscielny (25.32m to 19.61m). Unsurprisingly, given that he is rather more ambitious with the ball, Alderweireld’s pass completion rate is slightly lower (80% compared with Koscielny’s 87%). The Frenchman is more than capable of stepping out with the ball and passing through the lines (such as in the build-up to this Theo Walcott goal against Manchester City), but tends to keep things fairly simple. Long range passing is a specialism of summer signing Xhaka, so this might be something Arsenal do more often.
Overall, there is very little to separate the Koscielny and Alderweireld; what side of the north London divide you sit on will go a long way to deciding who you rate higher. The two face each other on November 6th at the Emirates, and though the pair won’t be in direct confrontation, their performances will be something to keep an eye on.
Featured image: All rights reserved by Emrah Partal