Arsenal recently missed out on the signing many fans had wanted the club to complete; Morgan Schneiderlin, as well as Arturo Vidal, who is set to sign for Bayern Munich for a whopping £35m+, but why did Arsene Wenger not go for either player? There can only be one reason, and that is Francis Coquelin.
By now, everyone knows the story of the Frenchman – an unsuccessful loan spell at FC Lorient in France, where he was used mainly as a right back meant that he was unable to impress, but it was a year prior to this that Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger saw his real potential, 18-year-old Francis Coquelin had just played for an hour in the Capital One Cup (then the Carling Cup) against West Brom, impressing in midfield with his tenacity and aggression both on and off the ball. But it was his engine and ability to run for 90 minutes which really caught the eye of long-serving manager Arsene Wenger.
Now a regular in the Arsenal first team, Coquelin puts his success down to his loan-spell at Freiburg, where he experienced a tough period of football, again, playing out of position: “[Going out on loan] has been really important for me,” Coquelin told Arsenal Player in February. “I have been out a few times in France, in Germany and in England.
“The period in Germany helped me a lot, it was a tough, tough experience mentally and that was a turning point in my career. I’m happy I went there and learned a lot.”
It seemed as though Coquelin’s career was dead and buried, a short loan move to Charlton was next and it wasn’t until December 11th and an injury crisis at the club which saw Arsene Wenger recall Coquelin on loan, and the Frenchman recalls the moment it happened: “It’s weird because the way it happened was so sudden, so I didn’t expect it.
“I trained with the team all week and on Monday I was going to see the Charlton manager with a few other people about a change of formation.
“He explained what he wanted me to do and told me I would be a big part of the formation. Then on the Thursday night, I was at home watching TV and got the call from Arsenal. That’s football and you just need to take it.”
Indeed Coquelin did take it, impressing from the moment he stepped on to the pitch, with his drive, passion and discipline in a usually free, flowing Arsenal midfield standing out; so much so that Arsene Wenger labeled Coquelin the ‘£40m man’, an impressive price tag for someone who has yet to play a full season for the club.
24-year-old Coquelin is operating in a position of extreme importance for Arsenal, an area which must always be marshalled, keeping the midfield compact and the defence comfortable. The Gunners are well known for their high pressing game, with Laurent Koscielny often stepping out of the first line of defence in order to come toward the ball, but with Coquelin sitting so deep in midfield, it was apparent that the French defender was able to step back and keep the back four tight; a luxury Arsenal have not had since the days of Gilberto Silva in midfield.
Some may argue Alex Song, for a period, was that man and added more going forward, but ill discipline in midfield is exactly what Song possessed. Arsenal have rarely, if ever, in the last 20 years had a midfield without at least 2-3 creative midfielders, meaning that the Cameroonian midfielder’s contribution in forward areas was not as key as it would have been in defensive positions, but his tendancy to step forward and join the attack meant that the team was often exposed.
Coquelin adds exactly the opposite, while he may not have what Morgan Schneiderlin or Arturo Vidal have going forward, he has exactly what both of them don’t, comfort in sitting in front of the defence for 90 minutes, tidying up play.
At Southampton, Schneiderlin thrived over the last two seasons because of the imperious Victor Wanyama, who allowed the Frenchman the license to roam in midfield, while Arturo Vidal had the likes of Paul Pogba and Andrea Pirlo to cover defensively in midfield, signing either of those two midfielders would not have made sense – if the idea was to replace Coquelin with either. It certainly wouldn’t be to replace Santi Cazorla, who has arguably been Arsenal’s best midfielder over the past season and a half, operating in the deep playmaker role.
Mikel Arteta recently signed a one-year contract extension, and despite rumours that Mathieu Flamini is on the verge of leaving the club, youngster Krystian Bielik is being developed and with both Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere able to operate in either deep lying or box-to-box roles, signing yet another midfielder is not where the club needs to be directing their attention to; although if another world class player came in, no one would complain.
Claude Makelele revitalised the defensive midfield role, proving pivotal at Chelsea for five years, but what was most impressive about the former Real Madrid midfielder was perhaps his age. The Frenchman joined the Blues at 30-years-old and continued to thrive in the role until he left the club, at 35-years of age. Francis Coquelin is 24; meaning he could potentially be at his best (which he has yet to reach) for the next nine to ten years – an unbelivable prospect.
Stability and balance are two factors that Arsene Wenger identifies as key to any team, and Francis Coquelin; a tough-tackling, level-headed midfielder who worked his way up from the bottom, provides exactly that, and will continue to do so for as long as the club can hold on to him.