Has Francis Coquelin played too well for his own good at Arsenal?
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Last year as we sat beneath the late summer sun, sipping ice-chilled lagers and chatting football with our pals, Arsene Wenger was busy trying to solve a welcome, but puzzling problem.
How on earth was he going to fit Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Alexis Sanchez, Danny Welbeck and Olivier Giroud into the same side?
To most of us it seemed unrealistic; a pipedream. Nice in theory but just too attack-minded and too risky for the Arsenal boss to contemplate. At least one, if not two of his star forwards would have to be sacrificed for the balance of the team – especially in the big games against fellow top four contenders.
Predictably, injuries ruined all hopes of seeing that quintet all at once during the early months, but Wenger kept fantasising.
Even with his new 4-1-4-1 formation looking disjointed for weeks on end, the Frenchman gave it every chance to click. Intuition told him it was the right shape, but something (aside from those on the treatment table) was missing from the recipe. He was one unknown ingredient short.
At Christmas, as the latest injury crisis worsened, that key component unexpectedly tumbled out from the back of his pantry. He’d almost forgotten it was there, but Wenger’s panacea was staring right at him.
On December 28 at Upton Park, Francis Coquelin started his first Premier League game in almost two years, alongside Mathieu Flamini. He played excellently, beavering industriously and outshining his compatriot. It was a display that promised he could handle solo duties at the base of Arsenal’s midfield.
Since then, playing as the chief defensive midfielder, this previously unheralded backup player has been the cornerstone of Arsenal’s impressive revival – a period that’s seen them win 14 of their last 16 matches.
Statistically, Coquelin has been a machine. For every 90 minutes of Premier League action since late December, the player recalled from a loan spell at Charlton Atheltic in mid-December has won 3.63 tackles, 3.87 interceptions and made 4.86 clearances per game on average. Those numbers have smashed those of Flamini (1.95/2.96/2.08) and Mikel Arteta (1.8/1/1) to smithereens.
While those two have plenty of useful qualities between them, mobility doesn't feature. Against the biggest, best and fastest opponents, neither boast enough physicality to shine – a problem at the heart of Arsenal’s struggles in the matches that mattered last season.
Coquelin’s emergence changed things dramatically. From nowhere, the side had a midfielder who combined aggression and discipline with youthful athleticism.
Now, if a ball runs loose, they have a player with the pace to get there first. When a team-mate needs bailing out, the youngster can make the recovery. He can turn 40-60 duels into 50-50s.
Tailor-made for the lone sitting midfield role, Coquelin has made an undeniable difference, allowing Arsenal's notorious handbrake to be released.
Ozil, Cazorla, Alexis, Ramsey & Co. are free to express themselves in central areas without fear of leaving the back four exposed. A player behind them of Coquelin’s speed and ilk is just what they needed.
But here’s a thought: has the young Frenchman played too well to keep his place for next season?
What Coquelin has done is provide total clarity for his manager. Wenger now knows the exact type of footballer he requires to get the best out of those spearheading his optimum XI.
Had the rookie’s influence been OK but not especially striking, he may not have found out this season that five creative talents could indeed fit into his Arsenal team without sacrificing stability.
But having seen first hand the impact a conditioned and defensively astute young footballer can have on the team’s dynamic, the Gunners' boss is now crystal clear that one good man will suffice.
And herein lies the issue: does Arsenal’s long-serving manager truly believe that Coquelin is the best man available to do that job long-term, and to help steer his side to the next level?
As brilliant as his young compatriot has been, it's no foregone conclusion. Wenger admitted he had been "surprised" by Coquelin's progression at the beginning of March, having expected him to leave.
"I will wait until the end of the season to see how well things go and where we are," said the Gunners' chief. "I think he analysed well what he is good at – defending in midfield.
"He restricted his game to that and you make success in life with what you're good at. You don't have all the qualities but you have to express what you're good at. He's good at that."
A new four-and-a-half year contract shows the respect Wenger has for his heroic renaissance man (who will have a big part to play from now on, no matter what), but he is still a player that just a few months ago was still considered a reserve. It would be remiss of the Gunners not to consider other options.
Although pugnacious, Coquelin is also under six feet tall and will never have the physical stature of a Patrick Vieira or Gilberto Silva. That’s not essential, but it’s a factor that can’t be ignored.
Matched up against Monaco’s Geoffrey Kondogbia on that fateful Champions League off-night, he and the other Gunners midfielders visibly lacked presence. It seemed as if they were crying out for a bigger, more dominant player in the middle of the park.
A player who's taller and just as good on and off the ball is Southampton’s Morgan Schneiderlin.
Proven at Premier League level and considered a higher-calibre footballer than Coquelin in their homeland, the Saints' middle man is able to race around the pitch breaking up play with just as much relish.
Unsurprisingly, he's been on Arsenal’s radar for some time, though he could have been playing for Tottenham Hotspur this season had he got his own way last summer.
Most importantly, Schneiderlin is a big-match player too. At Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge, the France international was the Saints' most influential player, governing the engine room emphatically.
Coquelin deserves all the praise he gets. He has seasoned the first team beautifully since the turn of the year, earning his place as bona fide first-choice player. Beyond that, he has also opened his manager’s eyes, and helped him solve that summer conundrum.
In their most important match of the season, away to Monaco, it was telling that Wenger picked Ozil, Cazorla, Alexis, Welbeck and Giroud together from the start. With his young French midfielder stationed behind them, he had confidence in the team's balance, and so it proved in an impressive 2-0 win.
Wenger has seen the future. Sadly for Coquelin, it's possible he’ll try to buy an upgrade with a higher spec.