(This article was written before Arsenal´s match against Crystal Palace on February 21)
In 2015, Francis Coquelin has recorded the most interceptions in Europe and the most tackles in the Premier League – delightfully surprising statistics for a player who appeared on his way out of the Emirates when he was loaned out yet again. With a contract expiring in the summer of 2015, the month long loan to Charlton Athletic seemed like the first step in his eventual departure. However the Arsenal injury crisis forced Wenger to recall the Frenchman by mid-December and none of us have looked back since. After a few solid substitute performances, he made his first start in 23 months against West Ham United, kept his place for the Man City clash at the Etihad and was instrumental in Arsenal’s crucial 2-0 victory. With a new contract under his belt and the player going from strength to strength, we might just have an organic solution to Arsenal’s long-drawn search for a quality defensive midfielder.
When Arsenal signed Francis Coquelin from Stade Lavallois in July 2008, he was expected to be groomed as Alex Song’s under-study and eventual replacement. Coquelin was a regular for AFC Reserves for the duration of the 2009-2010 season and a part of the 2009 FA Youth Cup winning team with Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs among others. At the start of the next season, he was sent to FC Lorient for a season long loan to gain important experience and match time.
Even after making his first team league debut at the start of the 2011-12 season and with a few impressive performances over that season and the next that led to a new deal, Coquelin was unable to cement his place in the side. Mikel Arteta, bought in the summer of 2011, became Wenger’s preferred DM, with either Wilshere or Ramsey (and later Mathieu Flamini) partnering him, and Coquelin was loaned to Freiburg for the 2013-14 season.
But like he’s said, the magic of football intervened and the 23 year old finds himself a crucial part of Arsenal’s first-team setup. Luckily for us, Coquelin seems to be coming into his own at just the right time. With Arteta looking to be out till mid-April at least, much of the responsibility of holding the fort between the Gunners defence and midfield will fall on him. Injuries to Wilshere and Ramsey in addition will also mean that he might have to play as the lone player at that base of midfield.
If we compare him to a few of his current colleagues in that position as well as similar players from other clubs, the conclusion looks very promising. Granted that he has played fewer games than the rest, but since his start on December 28th, Coquelin has a 42% rate of possession, the highest in the league, ahead of even Chelsea’s Matic.
Fancis Coquelin: Possession won statistics
Statistics can always be manipulated and made to prove a point, more so when it comes to defenders. It is easy to be impressed by big numbers and percentages without taking into account the performance or style of the entire team – a team that is weaker will always need their defenders working, tackling and clearing more as compared to an overall stronger team. Even so, Coquelin’s recent stats are impressive, especially for someone who has only made 35 starts for Arsenal since his arrival in 2008.
Over recent years Arsenal has been in desperate need of a Patrick Viera/Gilberto Silva sort of player. Alex Song had the physical qualities, but wasn´t disciplined or consistent enough, preferring to attack and leave large gaps in front of the Arsenal backline which could then be exploited by the opposition. And the less said about poor Abou Diaby, the better. Coquelin on the other hand seems to possess all the required qualities as well as pace and youth. This article on Here Is The City has comparison stats between Coquelin and Song that show just how much of an improvement the Frenchman is on the guy he has eventually replaced.
If you compare Coquelin´s role to that of Nemanja Matic or Morgan Schneiderlin, it is evident that it is different, and at times more difficult. Chelsea have a defensive, combative style of play, while at Southampton, the team play a very pressing, energetic game focused on quick winning back of possession. Arsenal on the other hand have a very fluid style which needs the entire team including the defensive players moving forward if required, turning defence into attack within a few moves. Gibbs and Bellerin to give two examples are attack minded full-backs that love to bomb forward, leaving only the two centre-backs and DM/s as protection. This means that tackling, breaking up play and re-distributing the ball are important qualities for anyone who plays at the base of that midfield. And Coquelin seems to have those in plenty. An excellent tackler of the ball, he also seems to have an eye for a through pass and a knack for pressing and winning back possession. All of these qualities were evident during the Man City win where Coquelin was a key controller of his team’s play and offered a perfect option in the more conservative, defensively tight game Arsenal played that day.
This overall Squawka comparison is probably the best indicator that we have the real deal on our hands. For people who never rated Coquelin, the urge to demand someone like Matic, Schneiderlin or Bender has been strong. But as it appears our three options for that role have performed better so far this season, and none more so than the young Frenchman. Per game, he averages 3.15 tackles, wins 4.25 aerial duels and 4.25 interceptions, blocks 0.68 and is involved in 4.11 clearances. In all these departments he seems to be heads and shoulders above the rest.
Where he does seem to be weaker is in passing and possession where Arteta considerably outshines the rest and Flamini surprisingly comes in second. In pass completion rate, it is again Arteta and Flamini that lead the pack. However Coquelin’s 84% is only 3 below Matic and 5 below Schneiderlein. The assists that Song provided for Robin Van Persie were no doubt instrumental for that season but with Arsenal no longer having one player focal attack and employing a much more cohesive game, Coquelin isn´t expected to become a passing and assisting wizard.
But given that a defensive midfielder is one who protects his defence while breaking up the opposition’s attacking play, it would be useful for him to improve in the areas of intelligent possession and ball distribution especially with the quick passing and the one-twos employed by Arsenal where the midfield players in particular are very fluid and interchangeable.
It works to reason that Arsenal would be better off playing a two-man base against the top teams so that the defensive protection is stronger, while against weaker opposition, Coquelin seems to be competent enough to handle weaker teams alone. The summer will probably bring in a CDM/DM (I for one hope so), but let’s not be so hasty so as to dismiss Arteta. While age isn’t on his side and he can’t handle the pace anymore, his reading of the game, his intelligence and composure, and his abilities of passing and possession make him an asset. This means that he not only complements Coquelin’s physical attributes but adds a bit more to the partnership. For so many years we have been demanding a better balance between youth and experience, and now that we finally have it, many are quick to want to throw it away. I feel that Arteta is a good bet to stay on for another season and him alongside the Frenchman in the important games would add that needed stability to the team formation. There is also a bit to be said on playing Wilshere there once fit, his qualities (so similar to the Frenchman) may be a strength when utilised properly and with focused efforts to that end.
On the other hand, injuries and depth are key words in the battle for silverware. An injury to Coquelin (God forbid!) would leave us without viable options. The wise thing to do would be to get in a good cover in the summer, one who has potential, quality and a certain level of experience but doesn’t expect to start all games. This would ensure that we have sufficient replacement and as well as tactical flexibility depending on injuries and opposition, and also future first-team regulars. The arrival of much talked about Krystian Bielik is promising in the long-term.
Francis Coquelin also seems to have the right attitude, the grit and determination to get stuck in and not be bullied, the desire to keep improving, as well as the ability to fit into the team-work ethos evident in the current team and squad. It is still early days and time will tell whether we have a player for the one position Arsenal fans have been desperate to fill, but if these last few months are anything to do by, the prospects are very bright on the no-nonsense Le Coq.
“We’re all fighting for each other and the spirit is good in the team, so everyone can say what they think. With every player we’ve got going forward, you need a man with a defensive mind as well. If I can give the team a good balance — because we’ve got quite a few players going forward — hopefully we can get back to keeping clean sheets soon. We had a few disappointing results, for example at Southampton and Tottenham, but overall we’ve had good performances. Arsenal are a big club with quality players so when you get a chance, you have to take it and show what you can do.”
“I want to give him credit because he kept his work rate and focus in training at a very high level when he didn’t play.”
– Arsene Wenger