KosMus: The Arsenal CB Pairing that Rule Time and Space

Until recently, I have always believed that a good defence consists of a centre back pairing of an organiser type and a wild ‘kuitenbijter’, a carve biter, type. One has the overview and organises their defence and the other one operates as the first soldier of the defence, with ferocious energy and an unrelenting desire to win balls in the air and on the ground, and defend the box area with whatever it takes. The former is usually calm and tall and physically very strong and the latter is simply an energetic, fast, beast of a defender.

We all know the Arsenal pairings we have come to love over the years. For me the dream couple was probably Campbell-Toure from the INVINCIBLES (see below) but Adams-Keown were also brilliant of course. I am sure those who go back a lot longer than me will come up with some other fine Arsenal CB pairings. 🙂

Arsenal "The Invincibles" XI

In recent years, we have struggled to get the CB pairing totally right. The BFG-Kos combo did come close to a King’s couple of CBs, as they fitted the above mentioned short role descriptions to a large extent. Especially if and when we played in a more compact formation and game plan, Koz and BFG made us look solid and in control for many a game. Unfortunately, the BFG’s extraordinary ability to read the game and organise his defence was occasionally undermined by his Achilles’ heel: his slowness in turning around his own axis and lack of recovery speed. And Arsenal are not the sort of team to sit back a lot and absorb pressure: we love a high line and hemming the opponent into their own half.

The downside of this style is of course the space left behind the highline which makes us prone to deadly counterattacks/balls over the top; and boy have we suffered from this at times in the past. Last season, I regret to say, the BFG was our weakest defender in for example the key seasonal games against Chelsea and Barcelona at home. This is what Wenger, who will never directly name and shame a player, had to say after the Barcelona game: “Barcelona is a great team, we knew that. Nothing new. We put a lot of energy in the game. Technically we were very average. Once we look like we dominated the game in the last 20 minutes we gave the goal away, similar to Monaco. Very naive. Two goals makes it realistically very difficult if not impossible. We will have to go out there and fight. There was room to score but we didn’t. And they are lethal. One thing we could not afford – and we knew before the game – was to let them counterattack”.

I had a feeling back in February that Per’s time as first choice CB would be up in the new season. We don’t really know what Wenger’s plans were regarding the first choice CB pairing for this season, but the bad injuries to first the BFG and then Gabriel, before the season even had started, forced his hands in the transfer market anyway. He had already bought Holding – ‘one for the future’ – in the summer, and the young Englishman impressed us all with some fine performances. He also gave Chambers a few  games to show him that he could be ready for regular PL starts, but Calum was not up for the task unfortunately.

Wenger then bought Mustafi from Valencia and rushed back Koz to make them his first choice CB pairing. And what a difference they have made. They have played five times together now, two CL games and three PL games, and conceded just two goals in total. Of course, it is still early days and we have to give it at least 20 games before we can say that KosMus are the perfect rulers of space and time, but the first signs are very promising.

And this is not just reflected in our fine, post-Liverpool, defensive record – to which Holding has contributed as well – but also in the style of play it has allowed us to play as a team.

Neither Koz nor Mustafi are the embodiment of Campbell or Adams; it is more like playing two perfect Koscielnys, or two beastly Toures, with both players happy to push up high and having enough confidence in their recovery speed and ability to intercept and deal with any counterattacks coming their way. Together they organise their defence very well, lead the team all over the pitch, and give away very few chances: they have been in control, sometimes in total control, in almost all games, except the PSG game perhaps.

It is fair to say they also get great help from the full backs and the deeper laying DM (Coq or Xhaka) for which they deserve massive credit.

There are promising signs that KosMus is the CB pairing for the future: the rulers of space and time Arsenal have been needing for so many years.

By TotalArsenal

34 thoughts on “KosMus: The Arsenal CB Pairing that Rule Time and Space

  • More importantly it’s about bloody time. These two look so secure together. I wouldn’t dare critisise the BFG but I did feel that on occasions his lack of pace meant Kos sometimes made some desperate tackles which often ended in tears.

    There is a coolness about Mustafi, which hopefully will spread throughout the team. He is not afraid to go forward either.

  • Hah, I don’t think it is that simple. Good CBs are hard to find, and putting a good CB pair together is even harder. Agreed re Mustafi’s coolness which may indicate he is more of a Campbell/Adams after all. Yet I think he is quite different from them in terms of type of CB..

  • Agreed T A but we are talking about the manager who has not always had a knack for top quality centre backs. I am thinking Stepanovs, Cygan, Squillaci, Silvestre etc etc

  • Peter Simpson and Frank McLintock weren’t especially tall, but they were both intelligent and read the game as well as anybody…
    They prospered in an era of tall, physical centre-forwards, where the English game was very much ‘get it wide to a winger’ and put high crosses into the box, so you had to be strong in the air to be a competent centre-half…
    Mustafi and Koscielny remind me a little of them, where neither are in the stopper centre-half catagory, but both are intelligent readers of the game who snuff out danger before it develops or deal with it with the minimum of fuss if it does develop.

    Martin Keown remains the best defender I have seen in an Arsenal shirt in recent times, some 20 years, I consider him superior to both Campbell and Toure on an individual basis…

    Steve Bould was also a fantastically skilfull technician at the art of defending, again I would say that he was superior to both Toure and Campbell, individually…

    Just my opinion of course…

  • Mind you, I also remember Ian Ure and Terry Neill, so I’ve seen quite an interesting mix of players filling those positions at the heart of an Arsenal defence…

    Terry Mancini for example was an interesting incumbent of the the Arsenal centre-half fraternity at a time when ambition and Arsenal were total strangers…

  • Great subject and analysis T.
    I loved Mustafis stats from spain when we were linked, not having seen him play really. Sounded like an extremely dynamic defender. I voiced here that i was worried that he’d be too similar to koscielny to be a perfect pairing. I was and am still a bit concerned about such a high line. I will say that on sunday, koscielny seemed the conservative one, hanging back more, almost the mertesacker role, but not quite, of course.. only in comparison to mustafi.
    I think there was a stat that Mustafi had many more interceptions than per and laurent combined last season. I found it hard to believe, but now i can imagine it.

    To take all the bias out of this– if i watched that performance sunday of a defender for a different team, i would be so impressed that I’d be tipping him to be the best cb in England, and world class soon enough. But, Because he’s our guy, I’ll try to hold back my enthusiasm. But it’s based on more than a few good blocks or plays. His long passes are adventurous but accurate, and his runs forward dangerous.. in the good sense. We will see if they turn out to be too risky, or too often.

    Most of all, i cannot imagine what chelsea and man city were thinking. I was worried chelsea would steal him at the last minute, (you remember my fretting here), because their cb situation is worse, and he is also a Perfect Guardiola player for city’s needs..

    Do you think Arsene would’ve pulled the 35 mil trigger if gabriel was healthy, and kos coming back soon? I myself thought the real price would be in the 20-25 m range, because media always inflates price action. I didn’t think Arsene would spend 35 mil on a defender.

    We may be thankful for years to come for that stoppage time injury in preseason to Gabriel.

  • I am indebted TA, to those with long memories like Kev and Retsub, to broaden the comparison debate. Otherwise the post would have an ‘all agreed’ one, because you cover all the positives yourself. 😀

    I can only add a little from observations. For example, I have seen Mustafi come right across to the left side to plug a hole, and Kos is equally comfortable switching to the right side to restore the balance. I am not sure if many other combinations would be quite so comfortable?

    However, much of it, as others, including yourself TA, is down to the style of play that we have now adopted. If you look at the whole of the outfield players, there isn’t one .. with the possible exception of Monreal, that hasn’t benefitted from this unity in the team. Even the Monreal being left to cover too much space has been resolved to some extent by team mates plugging the gaps, as described above. This is not a criticism of Monreal, btw, any more than I would criticise Bellerin for not being in two places at once. He is quick, but not omnipresent.

    Elsewhere, I don’t think the ‘new’ Theo would exist in the turgid, tiki taki play of recent years. Nor would Iwobi emerge in the same way without the free flowing movement up front. Alexis is really a given, because he always had a striker’s instincts, some not so good ones. Now, with freedom to roam, rather than be tied to the wide role, pulled back defending, and his only predictable option was of turning inside to get where he wanted to be, are distant memories. Ozil too has moved on from him being the director behind the scenes, quietly hoping others would tune into his eye for a space, which all those key passes and assists were manufactured. So now he sees the spaces where he can still pull the strings, without necessarily being the chief puppeteer.

    I think all of this has come together because AW could visualise how a player’s talent could be developed, at a time we have sufficient funds to complete the jigsaw. Think back to players that might be listed as ‘mistakes’, but in this reincarnation they would have been a smash hit. I am thinking here of Arshavin in particular? He would have been inspirational in either the Ozil front running role, or Carzorla’s deep lying scheming? But I am sure there are others that have come and gone?

    The problem is, this same eleven cannot play all the games we have to play, as highlighted in the previous post. But once you take away any of the cogs in this on field wheel of movement, it will have a knock on effect. Giroud is probably the biggest killer to the free flowing play we have at the moment. It is therefore, my contention at least, that tinkering with just one or two players will bring the worst outcome for all concerned. If you play Giroud, then play a team to his strengths, not Alexis’s. What are they? Well I think he needs a sidekick to draw defenders away from the left side of the goal mouth … and that is not Alexis. He needs play to be stretched, not others converging towards the middle when Alexis moves away from it.
    That is just one example how the dynamics of this current playing style can be affected. But there are others. Iwobi’s quick feet are not easily replaced. Ozil will certainly be missed. Keeping the balance right in midfield is another area where it can have a knock on effect on the freedom of our FB’s to join in the attack, and that in turn affects Theo’s pace as being useful? But bringing it back to the duo of of this post, that too will affect the stability of the defence if either Kos or Musttafi are replaced, and that too can affect the confidence of the ‘keeper?

    Plan B, and variations of it have got to happen. That is obvious. But what I have just highlighted above is the dilemma AW faces, and probably why he stretched that 11 (or 12) to near breaking point last time? We may all have a view on changes, but unless they work in practice it too easy to be wise after the event. This October might decide just how close we come to winning the title, or why it will unravel later on in the season. My advice is don’t rush to make judgements, on players or the manager. They are the ones who will give their all, but it may not be enough in some circumstances.

  • Cheers Kev

    High praise for Keown. Indeed a great defender and he did the shirt proud. I reckon Sol is the best defensive Gunner I have seen. The complete package.

  • Fine comment Johnnie and all agreed. What a player Mustafi seems to be. Well observed that Koz is often staying back now which will suit him fine now he is getting a bit older..

  • Allezkez

    McLintock and Simpson what a dream team! I once went to an evening match a Highbury and Terry Mancini was sitting opposite me on the tube with his kit bag on his lap.. He was playing. Terrific in the air, diabolical with the ball at his feet.

  • Another good one, TA…

    At some point in our coverage the announcer referred to Mustafi as “Mustafa” which immediately brought to mind the Aldous Huxley character Mustafa Mond, the “World Controller” from Brave New World. So, King of the Kosmus and World Controller plus one or something… Together, I think, they look very, very (very) good…But I’ve always loved Koscielny and I kinda had a feeling about Mustafi when I saw the video of him dancing with the BFG… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JihqELmrBuE

    What’s been really impressive beyond the covering for one another and the individual elements has been the vocal presence of the new player. I especially loved the “negotiation” he had with the ref (Madley) as he covered Vokes on Sunday much as Kos won the battle with Costa a week earlier with referee Oliver. This is critical and I’ve noted the newsflash about Mustafi saying he speaks 5 languages. Not bad for a kid of just 24 years old and quite a contrast to Gabriel whose struggles with English are a rumor of the opposite sort, not to mention his getting sent off in falling for Costa’s mind games a year ago. In fact, if the BFG can come back from his injury I worry that Gabby’s long term role at the club may well become very difficult. He should get a chance, alongside Holding (and ahead of Martinez in goal) in the EFL cup, however. but it always seems difficult for a 5th CB… (Xhaka also looks like a player who could play at CB if we ever had a real crisis in that area.)

    Like others, I thank the old-timers for their notes on players before my time. I’ve only been around for the leaner times so I know about the Swiss Misses (Senderos and Djourou) and the Squill & Syl missteps more than about the more glorious pairings… Cheers…

  • Morning Seventeenho 😀

    Yes the vocal presence of Mustafa is great. And entering the private space of the ref was a ‘stroke’ of genius. Very few would dare to do this but it demanded respect. I think Gabriel fits this style of defending well so I am not too worried about him. However, the BFG may struggle to get back into the team this season.

  • You might be right about the BFG and his injury…I found it interesting, however, that he (not Kos) was named Captain before it (the injury) occurred. 3rd & 4th CB spots will be heavily dependent on who does what in the domestic cup runs, I think. Gabby & Holding are looking solid thus far…

  • Yeah that is true. Wenger made the BFG the nr1 captain and I can only think it was a gesture of goodwill and encouragement to Per. There is also a thing with captains not often staying very long any more at Arsenal once the armband is handed to them…

    I like to see more of the pairing between Holding and Gabriel: a very decent back up option until the BFG is back.

  • TA, It’s always hard for me to determine the correct balance between (team) size and (team) speed.

    We looked very suspect at set pieces the other day and I always think having Giroud at the near post and the BFG at the far post makes things much more solid. Maybe against teams that are definitely set out to PTB and try and nick one from a corner…We look very good against teams playing more open with (relative) midgets like Alexis up front and Kos-Mus at the rear.

    Surely we’ll start to see some greater levels of rotation once the football gets going again…

  • 17, I cannot remember us looking suspect at the back for a while now. But yeah, having those two makes a difference of course. We play the game in the opposite half a lot now so there are no many opportunities for the opposition to pump balls into our box. Long may it continue! 🙂

  • The ‘Breakdown’ is a good view, as it concludes with a highlight piece on Mustafi.

    It also has a different view on the goal. Suggesting that Ox and Kos may have kicked the ball at the same time? But for a definitive view on it being off side, I recommend the ‘Bitesize’ snap shot.
    Stop the 2m50s recording at 2m17s, and you will see the Burnley player(No2) on the right(camera view) of the Burnley goal is still well inside the 6 yard box, but with one foot possibly just over the line … whereas Kos, who is ahead of Ox, has got one foot just inside the 6 yard line. all this after Theo headed the ball. Ergo, not off side.
    Now if you follow it on, Kos got slightly ahead of the ball, which is why he is trying to hook it back from behind him. Ox on the other hand, had a stretching, but straightforward kick at the ball. No way of telling that if it had not have made contact with Kos’s boot, or hit his elbow, whether it would have gone into the roof of the net or over the top. Probably the latter if it went from boot and had missed the elbow. A second referee has also concluded that the rule says ‘ If not deliberate, no matter how fortunate the result of the contact, no foul can be given’.
    Clear enough for me.

  • Retsub, that was a funny period, post the 70-71 Double team and its subsequent early break up. Frank McLintock joined QPR and that team narrowly missed out on winning the League, Liverpool pipped them on the last day of the season as I’m sure you’ll remember, 1973/74 I think?
    Terry Mancini, or Henry as he was called had previously been at QPR when they got promoted and we signed him because our defence was a shambles at the time.
    I guess, to be fair to him, that he did help settle a raw 17 year old David O’Leary into the senior game in 1975/76.
    I was at Burnley in 1975 to see O’Learys debut, little knowing that that was the first of some 722 games that he’d play in an Arsenal shirt.
    It certainly was a different game in those days…

  • I believe Martin Keown is the best defender we’ve had, he is better than Campbell. Both players are tall, but keown is a lot more dynamic, while Campbell is a bit on the rigid side. Keown is also more vocal than Campbell and acts as the leader of the team.
    Both players are very good, but I will pick keown for these reasons.
    I will only pick Koscielny ahead of keown, When it comes to reading the game, he is by far the best defender that has ever played for arsenal, technically the best, and He is the best in one against one situations. The only thing is that he is not intimidating as others.

  • I have one question thou,
    If you were the manager, which position will you like to strengthen in this arsenal team?

  • Interesting question Steve, but it is probably the wrong one to ask because it is too limited in many cases.
    Let me explain my thinking: If you say you want to strengthen say the right wing? The answer might be Griezemann? However, if you ask the question, which player would you like to sign? Then that opens up options for a multi talented, multi positional player, like Mahrez, Pogba, or Stones?

    One CB I would not sign, on the basis of what I saw on Sunday when watching Lyon v ASSE would be Nkoulou. He got away with so much grappling in the penalty area, and would be a disaster in the current mood in the EPL. However, I did also see the young Tolisso play. He is still pretty raw, but has good instincts in very much the Arsenal style. AW will not sign him though. Not because of issues with the Lyon President, but because the player named two other clubs in the same breath as Arsenal, which suggests ‘his dream’ is a bit fickle.

    But back to the question as asked …

    RB probably …..
    We have several player who can play in that position, should Bellerin get injured. Debuchy looks like he wants out. Jenks has claims, but falls short, imo. A M-Niles could develop into one, going down the same route as Bellerin in converting from a winger. Holding, Coquelin, and Mustafi in an emergency, so it appears we are well covered. But Bells holds that position because he is acknowledged by most for being the best there is, and we would notice the difference!

    However, back in the real world, until contracts are signed, I would be looking for a viable alternative in our creative/attacking MF/STR department? Two years time, not a problem. But right now? Mmmmmnnn?


  • Best Arsenal CBs I have known:

    1. Sol – had it all in one
    2. Adams – classic Leader
    3. Keown – beast 1
    4. Koz – beast 2
    5. Toure – beast 3

  • A few months ago I read somewhere (maybe even here?) about how the role of a CB has changed over the last decade. I also remember Steve Bould once giving an interview saying that the game completely changes once every 7 years or so and needs adjustment from the players.

    Campbell and Toure were a great partnership, though I will second Allezkev’s and Steve’s appreciation for Keown. I don’t know if he was the best, but his determination and relentless pursuit of a striker made him my favourite. Perhaps I didn’t appreciate Adams as much because it was already later in his career that I saw him, and being new to football Keown was the more eye catching.

    So how has the defensive game changed? Much like Walcott (and probably numerous others like him) getting caught out by the tactical shift the game took towards a single striker, I suppose it caught out certain defenders too because it went from being a case of tracking and battling with a man, to needing a greater appreciation of space and tracking runs from deep (or getting out to block shots) I feel Senderos especially had huge potential, but got caught out on this evolving aspect of the game. Perhaps if he had a more senior figure like Adams playing regularly next to him, it might have helped.

    Also, the changing interpretations of the offside rule probably threw off many young defenders. Do you play offside but then risk leaving the striker open for ‘the second phase’ and a possible tap-in.

    With Kos and Mustafi, I think their reading of the game is really good and in this day and age that helps them immensely, even if they aren’t the most dominant in the air. They don’t meet the standard definition of the defensive pairing (defensive little and large) but much like it’s been maintained that two good midfielders can always play together even if they don’t fit the mould of defensive and attacking, the same probably applies to defenders. They are also both very tenacious, and though at times it might appear reckless, their fearlessness is an asset. Kos had to battle in Ligue 2, and Mustafi is already very well travelled, opting to push himself and take chances. I think they have the right tenacity (and age profiles too) to give us a solid defensive footing. The PSG game was so tough in the first half, and yet we hung on. That in my mind, was the making of this run, and of this defensive pairing.

    Side note. Mustafi also seems a bit of an odd duck. That gif of him dancing with the BFG after the world cup is hilarious. His celebration pulling Mesut’s ear (who seems to collect these slightly odd friends wherever he goes – Khedira, Flamini, and Mustafi), and of course his antics with the ref the other day. Hilarious, and good to see defenders with some personality too.

  • Shard, the centre backs are now evolving from the BFG type to a ball playing type like Mustafi.

    I remember clearly that Sol, Kolo, Adams, Keown and Kos are ball playing defenders, and they have all scored for us.

    Wenger is still ahead in terms of his footballing philosophy, as he knows this will be evolving to our stage, and borrowing Gerry’s line, if you ask me which position should we add this season, I will say Wenger has every position well taken care of.

    The game is evolving for other teams, but somehow we are so ahead of time that we still play like how we used to do 20 years ago.


  • Arsenals best centre back? I guess it’s all a matter of opinion. In my view Tony Adams had it all

  • Not my line JK. It was Steve that asked that question.

    I think who the players is, and the talents they bring, are a tad more important.
    p.s. Best Centre Half I saw play ‘live’ was George Curtis in the 60’s ,,, for Coventry City 😀
    To give an idea of his character, he was reportedly trying to demand to carry on with a heavily strapped up leg … after it was diagnosed as a likely fracture!

  • Well said Gerry. In my opinion, every position is well taken care of for now. It is very difficult to spot a position that the players are currently not doing well. I was thinking about that, so I had to throw in the question here.
    Griezman is top top quality but there are a few things that are against him coming to Arsenal, One is we already have too much left footed attackers, Two is, from the way the market is now, Griezman prize will be in the region of 70 to 85 million pounds, which wenger will definitely not do, and Steve is against that too…lol.. I will love to see wenger to sign dembele from celtic, He is fast, skillful, very very strong, dynamic, good goal scorer, tall enough, very young(20years) and still has room for further development, he will definitely bring a good balance to the team, and he will still allow us to play the way we currently play with dynamism, quick passing, pace and good pressing high up the pitch.

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