Stephanie Insixiengmay looks at the new Arsenal centre back and looks at what she will bring to the side
While the Women’s World Cup was still going on, the transfer market was happening too. Back in early August, there were rumblings that Arsenal were interested in Spanish defender Laia Codina. The signing was met with a mixed reaction. This was mainly due to the fact that quite a few Arsenal fans weren’t sure what to make of a player who didn’t feature much for her previous club, Barcelona, during last season.
Add to this the controversy over the Spanish players (‘Las 15’) who had revolted against the Spanish National Team coach, Jorge Vilda, and Codina’s comments about players being ‘selfish’ when asked why she chose to play for the team under these circumstances, and it becomes apparent why some had mixed feelings about the signing (It should be noted that Codina’s comments might have been misinterpreted as she was just referring to players in general, and not just her Barça or Spain teammates).
All this aside, Codina has proven herself capable of playing at the highest level. And the most concrete proof of this is how she helped Spain win the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Although Codina might still be developing, she has proven herself to be a strong, smart, and versatile player who is well-versed in different systems.
Here’s a look at how she’ll use all of these traits to become a major asset for Arsenal.
Laia During The World Cup
Spain started off the tournament well, managing to get through their first two games with ease as they defeated Costa Rica and Zambia by a combined total of eight goals.
After Spain were thoroughly routed by Japan and lost 4-0, Jorge Vilda decided to make a few changes for their Round of 16 game against Switzerland. The area that saw the most changes was the starting XI. Vilda completely overhauled and benched many of the players who had played the team’s final group stage game. He then inserted a few players into the starting lineup. Laia Codina was one of them.
Though Codina’s start was initially shaky, due to an own goal, she would eventually grow into the tournament and become a stable force at the back.
Spain employed a 4-3-3 formation throughout the tournament. While the other defenders in this system would build out the back and progress play, Codina would stay behind to do the clean up work. If the opposition were to break on a counter, then she would be the last line of defense to stop their attacks. At times, Codina would drift to the left and take on more of a wide centre-back role.
In that wide role, she would almost function like a fullback as she stayed wide in possession. This was also done to support the midfield both in the build-up phase and in the transitional phase of attack.
However, Codina spent most of the tournament playing centrally. And by doing so, she became a tremendous asset for her team.
One of the ways she did so was by scanning the pitch to take in everything around her and then moving into position.
She’s constantly scanning, pointing, giving directions, directing the other players where to go.
Here she is doing just that against The Netherlands as she points to an open player, and directs Irene Paredes to make a pass towards them.
She also keeps her eye on the opposition, making sure that she’s level with them and to spring them into potential offside traps.
She also proved herself adept at reading plays and snuffing out attacking opportunities. In this particular sequence, she positions herself in the right place at the right time to intercept a pass.
Codina is capable of making smart decisions and being calm under pressure. Here she is breaking out of a Swedish press by calmly turning her back to goal and passing the ball back to her goalkeeper.
And though she might be the furthest player back, it does not prevent her from occasionally going forward. Here she is driving the ball past the halfway line and then orienting her body to avoid being pressed, and then passing the ball to her teammate.
In this instance, we see that Codina also possesses the composure and awareness to circulate play and to construct with patience. And knowing this is just as important as knowing when to drive play forward. She also possesses an adept dribbling ability and can use it to break out of pressure, albeit it’s a trait she rarely uses due to the demands of her defensive position.
Laia was also an asset to her team for set-pieces. The defender’s lone goal of the tournament came off of one, as she made up for the own goal she scored earlier in the same game
Despite this, Laia did not, however, need to contribute to build up play as that duty fell to the rest of her teammates. Spain had a variety of ways of doing this, including passing triangles, progressing the ball through their passing, and quickly switching the point of play.
Codina’s job for her team was simply to mop up any strays that fell behind and be her team’s first line of defense. She did what was asked of her and performed her role well. She played the part of the faithful soldier and helped her country secure their first-ever World Cup title.
Codina at AC Milan
Before playing at the Women’s World Cup and before her return to her previous club, Barcelona, Codina went on loan at AC Milan. The Catalan Club initially sent her on loan to give her more playing time. The loan would prove to be both beneficial to the defender and both clubs.
There were several benefits to Codina’s temporary move to Milan, but perhaps the two biggest were her learning different systems and different styles of play. Unlike Barcelona, the Rossonere were not a team that liked to have possession. Instead, they often ceded it. As a result, Codina had to learn to adapt to this system. Whereas she had more control in the Blaugrana’s system, due to their possession-based approach, she had to learn to be more proactive while playing for Milan.
One of the ways she did so was through aggression. Here she is stepping to Juventus’ Arianna Caruso. As a result of this, Caruso gets nervous and passes the ball out of bounds. Getting to players psychologically is just as important as getting the better of them physically.
Codina often had to cover wide swathes of the pitch as Milan’s wide players pushed high in attack. The defender had to control acres of space in transition which allowed one of her other strengths to come through: her recovery pace. Fellow defender, Becky Sauerbruun, once called this her “oh-crap speed” and Codina uses this to outsprint her opponents to the ball. She also has good upper body strength, and outmuscles them too.
Here’s an example against AS Roma, where she manages to keep pace with Annamaria Serturini, a fast winger, and blocking a would-be shot from the player.
Laia also rarely made tackles but when she did so, they were well-timed. In the words of another Milan player, Paolo Maldini, “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake.” Codina seemed to live by this philosophy, as she didn’t make too many tackles and when she did so, she didn’t make very many mistakes.
In build-up, Codina would split wide from her team’s backline, at times coming close to the touchline. Laia mainly did so as a left-sided centre-back, which was her preferred role. She would also use the sidelines as another weapon, forcing players to lose the ball or head out of bounds.
As was noted before, she would, at times, take on a wide centre-back role, mainly out of necessity.
That particular role allowed Codina to contribute offensively in a variety of ways. It allowed her to make overlapping runs down the channels, or to help overcrowd central areas. She could also run up the pitch and deliver unexpected pressure in the opponent’s box.
One of the other ways she did this was through her passing and in particular, long balls. Codina often evaded pressure and got her team’s offense going through long balls that were lobbed off with pinpoint accuracy. This also allowed her to engage in progressive passing, affording her responsibility for Milan’s construction and line-breaking.
The most remarkable aspect of Codina’s game though, is her fearlessness. Laia is willing to throw herself to the ground to make many last-ditch tackles and has shown she’s willing to put her body on the line for the sake of the team.
Here’s an example of this in the Supercoppa Italiana game against AS Roma, where she threw herself onto the ground and used her head (literally) to prevent Roma from breaking on the counter. And by doing so, she prevented her club from potentially losing the game.
It was the truest example of what the Italians call ‘grinta’ i.e. defending with sheer grit, guts, and determination. Codina has the rare distinction of combining Spanish flair with being well-versed in Italian grit and tactics. She is able to combine the beauty of being a technically gifted player while also not being afraid to get down and dirty.
And that should make her a valuable combination for any team she plays for.
A Ball Playing Centre-Back
As per TransferLab, Codina is best described as a ball-playing centre-back. The defender has an overall rating of 89 in this area. While that might seem like she was taking a hit due to her defending ability, the rating is more due to Codina not playing on a regular basis. This was due to the fact that she was behind Mapi León and Irene Paredes in Barcelona’s pecking order.
Despite limited playing time, Codina has shown enough quality to have solid numbers across the board, most notably when it comes to carries, pass accuracy, and progressive short passing. However, she does have a low rating when it comes to 1v1 duels. Again, this is due to playing time more than anything else. As was demonstrated above, Codina is more than capable of defending players one-on-one.
If Codina does have any weaknesses, it’s that she can fall into the trap of committing herself too early, whether that was by jumping too early or by misreading a play and then scrambling to make up for it. However, this appears to be more a question of consistency than quality.
She also needs to work on her discipline. At Milan, she received a total of six yellow cards and three reds. This was mainly due to her having to be more proactive in Milan’s defense.
At times, her decision-making was questionable, as was her positioning. This was partially due to her youth and inexperience, and the fact that she often had to cover a lot of space, as well as being put in tough spots due to Milan’s defence. It led to her occasionally mistiming her challenge and sometimes being carded or sent off.
Laia tends to look more comfortable when she can be the active part of a backline or partnered with a more protective centre-back. Paredes filled this particular role for her as they marshaled the backline of Spain. Whether she’ll have the same partner at Arsenal has yet to be seen.
How She’ll Fit In at Arsenal
Arsenal recently completed the purchase for Laia Codina to shore up their backline that’s been ravaged by an injury crisis. The Gunners have employed a variety of formations but the one consistency for them has been the use of a back four.
In this particular instance, we see how they’ve used a 4-1-4-1 formation against West Ham. The Gunners lined-up with Rafaelle and Lotte Wubben-Moy at the back, while Leah Williamson dropped into the midfield to take on a defensive midfielder role.
In this instance, Codina could either marshall the backline or play the same role Williamson did, given both her passing and dribbling capabilities. The 4-1-4-1 was a very defensive formation for Arsenal and they ended up tying West Ham 0-0.
More recently, Arsenal employed a 4-2-3-1 against Linköping for their UWCL qualifier. The team’s defense became a two at the back at times with Wubben-Moy and Amanda Ilestedt the furthest back.
In this formation the two centre-backs went wide to receive the ball from the keeper, while the fullbacks took a higher position in the middle third of the field. The fullbacks stayed high to not only create overloads in the channels but also to make runs behind the opponent’s defenders if necessary.
The goal was to stretch the opponents through width and create more space to pass the ball and move it throughout the final thirds. Free space in football means more time and Arsenal used theirs wisely as they dismantled Linköping 3-0. Had Codina played in this game, she might’ve functioned in a wide role, and contributed to the team’s win in this way.
If Arsenal did have any weaknesses during this match, it’s that they looked rather disjointed at times. This was mainly due to them playing a few of their players together for the first time. Laia too, is a new signing, and has been summoned by Arsenal for their UWCL qualifiers but she wasn’t even on the bench against Linköping.
And while Codina perhaps could have played Ilestedt’s role, she was ultimately not needed. It was also perhaps better to play a Swedish player against a Swedish team, given her familiarity with the opponent.
It’s also worth noting that Codina is a defender with her own, unique set of characteristics. She is not, in fact, meant to be a like-for-like replacement for Leah Williamson. Nor for Rafaelle, who departed North London to play in Orlando. Instead, she’s simply meant to be Laia Codina.
She does, however, bear some similarities to the two defenders.
And as this comparison shows us, Codina and Williamson have close numbers when it comes to progressive short passing and adjusted pass accuracy. It’s also worth noting that Wubben-Mooy is currently the highest ranked of Arsenal’s available centre backs.
Leah Williamson is also known for her anticipation, her ability to read the game, and for well-timed ball interceptions. She also loves to go to ground and has great leadership qualities. And as was noted before, Codina is also capable of these things.
Nevertheless, Williamson is much better at winning 1v1 duels and making tackles than the Catalan defender. Laia has some work to do if she wants to reach that level. Codina is better at winning aerial duels than Williams though, which could make her a valuable asset for Arsenal’s set-piece play.
The chart above also compares Codina’s numbers to a few other centre-backs, including Mapi León, Rafaelle Souza, and Wubben-Moy. As you can see, Codina still has a ways to go if she wants to reach their level.
However, pressure makes diamonds, and playing consistently for Arsenal might give Laia what she needs to become a truly valuable gem.
Codina has shown that she is a technically gifted, tactically disciplined defender who possesses a diverse skill set. She’s also shown that she’s capable of playing and winning at the highest level. There’s no doubt that she’ll bring the same qualities to Arsenal as she’ll help shore up their defense.
While Codina might elicit mixed feelings from the Barça faithful, she is still held in high-esteem by Milan fans. This is because she gave her all for the team as she knew the importance of the shirt she was wearing. And she did so for a team that she was just on loan to.
Imagine what she’d be willing to do for a team she permanently signs for. Codina has shown that she can rise to any challenge if she’s given the chance to do so. She’ll no doubt do the same for Arsenal and might win over a few hearts and minds while doing so.
Header image copyright IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / Julieta Ferrario