A couple of months ago, not even Francis Coquelin himself would have predicted he’d be a crucial Arsenal player in early 2015 – but the Frenchman has emerged as an impressive, dependable defensive midfielder capable of performing in the biggest matches.
Coquelin was on loan at Charlton in November and the first half of December, and while he had previously enjoyed loan spells elsewhere in Europe with Ligue 1 side Lorient and Bundesliga high-flyers Freiburg, his experience in the Championship was particularly crucial in enabling Coquelin to become a useful defensive midfielder for the Gunners.
Coquelin isn’t exactly a newcomer. He joined Arsenal in July 2008 and made his debut in the League Cup a couple of months later, before being handed further appearances over the next few seasons, either side of loan spells.
But even when he was only making occasional appearances, Coquelin always looked to be a calm, neat and tidy midfielder.
Since returning from his Charlton, he’s added tenacity, ball-winning ability and physical presence. Perhaps a spell in England’s second tier was precisely what was required for a player whose technical quality has never been in doubt.
“That was a good experience for me – the Championship is a tough league,” Coquelin said on his return. “Maybe technically the Premier League is a little bit better but in terms of power, engagement in duels and challenges, I think the Championship is a very tough league. It helped me come back to the Premier League.”
Coquelin’s improvement was most obvious in the 2-0 victory at Manchester City, Arsenal’s most disciplined tactical performances of the campaign.
Whereas the Gunners are usually determined to outplay opponents and dominate possession, they instead recorded their lowest possession share for a decade?in the Premier League, concentrating on sitting deep, breaking up play before counter-attacking quickly.
Coquelin was essential to that approach. With Arsenal playing a 4-1-4-1 system, he was given sole responsibility for protecting the back four – a difficult task against one of the division’s best playmakers, David Silva. He performed impeccably, however, and while Santi Cazorla was unquestionably the game’s star performer, Coquelin wasn’t far behind.
His statistics were extraordinary. He recovered the ball 10 times, made 11 clearances and won seven of his eight aerial battles – each of those the highest figures for any player in the game. He also won all three tackles, made six interceptions, and 33 of his 38 attempted passes were successful.
It was a commanding a defensive midfield performance, and all the more remarkable because this was a relatively inexperienced midfielder playing at the league champions.
Coquelin’s leadership abilities were also clear, too – at one point, towards the end of the first half, Arsenal found themselves unusually exposed as Manchester City counterattacked.
Coquelin made a vital near-post clearance as Jesus Navas crossed, and then turned around to bellow at his team-mates and remind them of their defensive responsibilities. It was quite something, given his place alongside considerably more renowned players.
Those near-post clearances became somewhat familiar, as Manchester City attempted to work around Arsenal’s deep defensive block by attacking with width.
“He can do the job, easily – he just had to be disciplined,” said Arsenal’s record goalscorer Thierry Henry, on his much-hyped debut as a Sky Sports pundit for that victory.
“And if you’re playing in central midfield, that’s the type of game you enjoy. If you’re a centre back or a right back and you have protection, it becomes an easier game.”
Coquelin followed that performance with a string of good displays in different circumstances – he was again impressive in a more understated manner in the 5-0 victory over Aston Villa, for example. With Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere unavailable through injury, Coquelin has come to Arsenal’s rescue at precisely the right time.
Coquelin can still develop. He’s shown a tendency to dive into tackles – one late lunge in the FA Cup victory over Hull is particularly notable in this respect – and he can still improve his positioning when Arsenal have possession, helping to make the angle for simple pass, something Arteta specialises in.
That will come with time, however. Arsenal made one notable addition in the January transfer window, signing Brazilian centre back Gabriel from Villarreal – but Coquelin’s emergence into a first-team regular might turn out to be an equally significant development.
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