This story first appeared in the April 2016 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
Name: Francis Coquelin
Squad number: 34
Born: Laval, France, May 13, 1991
Previous clubs: Laval, Lorient (loan), Freiberg (loan), Charlton Athletic (loan)
Joined Arsenal: from Laval on July 22, 2008
Arsenal debut: v Sheffield United (H) League Cup, September 23, 2008 (won 6-0) Arsenal honours: FA Cup winner 2015, Community Shield winner 2015
Rewind a decade and you’d find GILBERTO forming the shield in front of the Arsenal defence.
Nicknamed ‘The Invisible Wall’ because of his understated ability to screen attacks, win back possession and provide the platform on which the team’s more attack-minded players could flourish, the Brazilian played an important role in Arsenal’s success at the start of the 21st century. Part of the ‘Invincibles’, he played 244 times for the club, adding to his 2004 Premier League winner’s medal with two FA Cups, won in 2003 and 2005.
Gilberto left Arsenal in 2008, and the former Brazil international - who won the World Cup in 2002 - feels Francis Coquelin has established himself as Arsène Wenger’s first choice defensive midfielder at a vital time.
“I think since myself and Patrick Vieira left the club, Arsenal haven’t had a similar player to us,” he begins. “They have had good players over the years but they’ve all had a different kind of playing style, with lots of technique. Francis has the technique to play the game according to his quality.
'I think his role is one that Arsenal really need someone in. In fact, most clubs need a player like him, or like myself or Patrick Vieira.” So what capabilities does he believe a defensive midfielder needs to possess?
“It depends where you are and the way you or your team plays, plus who your manager is. For example in Brazil, the kind of player that I was and that Coquelin is doesn’t mean anything for many people. I still believe it’s very important to have someone who allows the other players to go forward and decide the games.
“Some teams that don’t have that particular player find a way to adapt themselves but I think having that defensive midfielder will continue to be important for clubs like Arsenal. Even Barcelona have their own version in Busquets. They had Mascherano before in that role and Brazil now has Luiz Gustavo doing that job. I think it’s an important role for any team.
“It’s important because we allow the other players with more technique than us to play forward. We protect the back four but can also help the guys up front when needed. When you don’t have that kind of player, the kind of guy who knows the importance of doing that job, I think there’s a missing ingredient in the team.
“Now Arsenal have that. I hope he keeps doing well. He has a lot of quality and he’s still a really young player. Of course he still has a lot to learn, and if he continues to do that, he will carry on improving. That would be great for the team.”
For a long time, Francis’ breakthrough at Arsenal looked unlikely. He spent a frustrating 2013/14 season at Freiburg in the Bundesliga, often played out of position on the wing. Then came a six-week loan spell at Charlton Athletic in the Championship between November and December 2014. Gilberto feels Francis’ mental approach during that period was crucial in setting the foundations for the success that has followed.
“It was important for him to keep his focus and never lose it,” explains Gilberto, who scored Arsenal’s first goal at Emirates Stadium. “Once you get to such a level, you pick up some more responsibilities and the pressure becomes more intense. If he keeps his concentration and carries on working hard, plus not neglecting his role in the team, he will keep doing well.
“He’s young and that improvement will come on a game-by-game basis. The more he plays, the more he will keep on improving himself. You must analyse yourself in every game. If you are positive in this way, learn from your mistakes and improve on what you have done well, it’s what you must do. In our training sessions we work hard to always improve.
“I hope he never loses his focus because in this position you must understand what you have to do and forget about the headlines, forget about being the most popular player in the team,” Gilberto concludes.
"For quite a long time people didn’t realise what I was doing on the field, until I got an injury. I think for Coquelin it’s a bit easier because people will understand a bit more and give him more importance for what he’s doing.”
Five moments which have defined Francis’ career:
September 23, 2008
It seems hard to believe now that Francis Coquelin made his Arsenal debut nearly eight years ago, but the 17-year-old Frenchman’s bow came in a 6-0 win over Sheffield United in the League Cup in 2008. He replaced Fran Merida in the 70th minute and his first 20 minutes of first-team football were described as ‘tigerish’ by the Arsenal commentary at the time.
The match was already won, with the Gunners leading 5-0 thanks to doubles from Nicklas Bendtner and Carlos Vela plus Jack Wilshere’s first goal for the club. But Francis did set up a chance for fellow sub Henri Lansbury before snuffing out a rare United attack, and he was on the pitch to see Vela complete his hat-trick.
It was a comprehensive win for a young team that also featured Kieran Gibbs and Aaron Ramsey. Arsène Wenger was impressed with them all, saying, “I believe every one in his position has done very well. I’m not as surprised as you because I see them every day. They played with the belief and the spirit we want them to have.”
Although he had to wait one day short of a year for his first Arsenal start – in the same competition against West Bromwich Albion – Francis’ Arsenal career was underway.
Winning the FA Youth Cup
May 26, 2009
Francis lifted his first trophy as an Arsenal player on May 17, 2009, when the Under-18s clinched the Premier Academy League. Five days later the young Gunners beat Liverpool 4-1 at Emirates Stadium in the first leg of the FA Youth Cup final. While not quite a formality, Arsenal simply had to get the job done at Anfield on May 26 – exactly 20 years to the day the first team won the league title there – and they did it in style by winning 2-1.
Steve Bould’s team had reached the final in impressive fashion, beating Manchester City 6-2 on aggregate in the semi-final and Tottenham Hotspur 3-1 in the previous round. And it was quite a side – as well as Coquelin and Wilshere in midfield it featured several players who are still in the game, including Henri Lansbury (Nottingham Forest), Kyle Bartley (Birmingham City), Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (MK Dons), Luke Ayling (Bristol City) and Gilles Sunu (Ligue 1 side Angers).
Francis continued to feature for the Under-18s the following season alongside forays into the first team, often at right back. The midfield berth he now calls home was still some way off yet for the youngster…
Returning from Charlton Athletic
December 12, 2014
Perhaps some Arsenal supporters had forgotten about him, or written him off, but Francis was learning all the time during loan spells abroad and in the Championship between 2010 and 2014. His brief stint at Charlton Athletic in late 2014, during which he made five appearances, is probably the best known, simply because of what came after, but his travels actually started nearly six years ago now.
With his first-team chances limited at the time, Francis opted to spend the 2010/11 season on loan at Lorient in France. He made 25 appearances, scoring one goal, and impressed enough for manager Christian Gourcuff to want to keep him for another season. Yet Francis headed back to the Emirates, before embarking on another loan spell at Freiburg in Germany for the 2013/14 season. That didn’t go so well, and looking back now, Coquelin admits that it was the lowest point of his career.
“I met some great people, but football-wise I didn’t really enjoy my time at Freiburg. I can say I took some great things from it though, and learned a lot. But it was probably my worst time of my career. I played out of position, on the left wing, and I had a stinker every game!”
But his time at Championship side Charlton was a much more positive experience, indeed he was reluctant to return at first, having been recalled following injury to Mikel Arteta.
“The Championship is a tough league," he said. "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."
He returned to Arsenal on the Friday, and the very next day he played against Newcastle at home in the Premier League. The second chapter of his Arsenal career had begun.
Performance v Manchester City
January 18, 2015
Although initially Francis was none too impressed to be recalled early from Charlton, within two weeks he was in the Arsenal starting line-up, and he didn't relinquish his shirt all season.
"He’s a very good balance between defence and attack. He’s important for the team. Imagine for 10 seconds Vieira and Coquelin together in midfield, in this moment or 10 years ago. That would be fantastic"
His first Gunners start for nearly two years came in a 2-1 win at West Ham on December 28, 2014 and he had really found his feet by the time the Gunners travelled to the Etihad to face Manchester City three weeks later.
At very short notice the Frenchman had formed an effective midfield partnership with Santi Cazorla and the two worked tirelessly in front of the defence to restrict City’s passing options, with Coquelin snapping into tackles and using the ball effectively. It was notable that, after Olivier Giroud had put the visitors 2-0 up, it was Francis who was shouting at his team-mates to focus, even as they were celebrating the goal.
Arsène Wenger admitted that even he was surprised at how Coquelin had grabbed his chance. “I think he has gone through a lot of doubt, questioning himself, certainly at many times being discouraged that he didn’t get a chance. Now he has a chance he doesn’t want to let it slip away. But he is a winner and he wants to win – that’s why he is so committed.”
Francis himself said: "I'm not saying it was my best performance individually, but in terms of what was important for the team, I would say the Man City away game is one that I am proud of."
The 2-0 win proved to be a turning point for both the club and Francis - ever since then, when he's been fit, he's generally been selected.
FA Cup final
May 30, 2015
Defensive midfielders never get the glory. The 2015 FA Cup final is remembered for Theo’s opener, Alexis’ thunderbolt, the vision and inventiveness of Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil… even for Per Mertesacker scoring with his shoulder. But that does a disservice to the man who made Arsenal tick that day.
Coquelin was the platform on which arguably Arsenal’s greatest cup final performance was built. He gave the midfield control that had been lacking in the rollercoaster win over Hull 12 months earlier.
Aston Villa struggled to get past him, and couldn’t contain his team-mates once he had released them from his deep-lying holding position. “It’s a great feeling,” he said after the game. “I think the whole team has been tremendous and the last six months have been amazing for me. To end it with a trophy is just great.
“It’s hard to believe,” he added. “Six months ago I was at Charlton and today I’m winning the FA Cup. Football can go so quick and I’m really pleased to get this trophy. It was a big day in my career.”
It was Francis’ first silverware since he’d lifted the Under-19s European Championships trophy for France, when he was their captain and was named in the Team of the Tournament. At last that promise was being fulfilled.”
The verdict from Arsene Wenger…
On the first time he saw him play…
It was the first time he came for a trial while he was with Laval in France. He was recommended by Gilles Grimandi and so we gave him a week on trial. I was quite impressed by his ability to win the ball because I think a player needs one strong point.
At the time his strong point was this ability to fly into people and come out with the ball. It’s a very difficult quality to find. In the same week he got injured because he gave so much on his trial. He had a big hamstring problem but I kept in my mind that he had the needed quality to be a defensive midfielder.
On his versatility…
He played at right back as well when he was younger, and did very well there. He played there a lot for the youth teams, but I always saw him as a central midfielder.
on why it took him eight years to break into the first team…
After that week on trial, he lost his way a bit because he felt that he could be a more offensive player. He lost his most important quality. It’s important in life to know who you are and what your important qualities are. You can’t suppress that because you make your success on your important qualities. He lost that for a while, but when he found it again he became the player he is today.
The verdict from the players…
Johnnie Jackson (Charlton captain), February 2015
“While he was with us, I was thinking ‘You can do just as good a job, if not better, than Mathieu Flamini for the team.’ So I was surprised that (Arsène) Wenger initially overlooked him.
“I’ll be surprised if Arsenal sign someone for that role now they’ve seen Francis can do it. “He will almost certainly get the chance until the end of the season to show he is the long-term option and can save Wenger £30m in the transfer market.”
"His job is to win the ball and give it to Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil. Per Mertesacker is now a much better defender because he has the midfield protection"
Aaron Ramsey, April 2015
“He’s been really good. He’s very aggressive and doesn’t give the opposition much time on the ball, and that’s why he wins so many tackles. Then he wins the ball and makes us tick over.
“It’s been really good to see his development this year, he’s had a superb couple of months now so hopefully he can continue that.
“It is quite comforting knowing that one of the midfielders is behind you in position, thinking more defensively. It is something that he does really well.”
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, May 2015
“At the moment Francis is the first person I’d put on my teamsheet, When I’m playing alongside Francis, there’s nobody better to play with. “He brings that security and confidence that you have someone like that who can pick the ball up, intercept balls that should never be intercepted, win tackles that you don’t think he can win, and he’s also a quality player on the ball as well.
“You can never take away his technical ability and that goes unnoticed at times because he just does his job, but he’s probably one of the best technicians in our side as well.”
Mikel Arteta, May 2015
“I think Francis has been probably the nicest surprise of the season. Because he had to go on loan and I think he was not really happy to do that, but he put a really good impact into it. The way he has adapted to the game and the way he gave something to the team that we were missing.
“He has been great, he is giving balance, he has competed as well as anybody else in the team. He is being very consistent. He will be here for a good few years. I always liked Francis and I like him a lot now.”
Thierry Henry, August 2015
“The signing of the year for me was the return of Francis Coquelin from his loan spell at Charlton. Francis is not Lionel Messi. He doesn’t do step-overs or nutmegs. He’s not there to create. He’s there to destroy.
“His job is to win the ball and give it to Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil. Per Mertesacker is now a much better defender because he has the midfield protection. Francis is doing the same job for this team as Gilberto Silva did for Arsenal’s Invincibles.”
Robert Pires, November 2015
“I love this guy because he has very good spirit and he loves fighting. He’s French but he has an English mentality and in his position you need that. “In my time we had Ray Parlour and Coquelin is the same.
“He’s a very good balance between defence and attack. He’s important for the team. Imagine for 10 seconds Vieira and Coquelin together in midfield, in this moment or 10 years ago. That would be fantastic.”
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