Arsenal star Francis Coquelin could turn out to be Arsene Wenger’s most important midfielder since the days of Gilberto Silva in the heart of the club’s greatest ever team – the Invincibles.
The Frenchman is the lynchpin of the side, he protects and adds balance, allowing the creative likes of Aaron Ramsey, Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and co. to do their absolute worst to opponents.
Let’s look at it statistically and pit him up against the rest of the Premier League’s best in his position: N’Golo Kante, Nemanja Matic and Eric Dier. Each of them as important as each other to their respective teams being able to flourish in attacking positions.
Coquelin, on average, wins 2.39 tackles per game, only bested by top of the league Leicester City’s Kante, who wins just over three tackles per game. It’s a telling statistic. The two side’s who have a balanced midfield, with those in the middle able to stop the threat of the opposition flourishing in the final third, are two of the top four in the country, fighting for the title.
Look deeper at it and again, only Kante beats out Coquelin in terms of number of interceptions per game, breaking down their opponents’ attacks. The Foxes man averages just over four per game, while his compatriot is second just 1.5 tackles behind him. This ties into closing down space, Kante is capable of getting around the pitch with ease because of his high energy levels, similar to Coquelin, they are both able to cover plenty of defensive ground which means their teams are rarely, if ever, left vulnerable. It’s something that Gilberto used to do so, so well for the Gunners.
But what about actually keeping the ball at their feet and distributing it to the attacking flurry of players?
None come better than Coquelin in this department. His average pass completion per game sits at 89%, better than Matic (88%), and Kante & Dier (82%). Again, it’s something that the best do so well. They understand they are not the most gifted in the final third, so they keep their long passing range to a minimum – Gilberto into Pires, Kante into Mahrez, Coquelin into Ozil and most recently, Matic into Fabregas; it was a combination that worked so well last season, a title-winning combination that outdone the rest of the league.
Coquelin is never vulnerable and while he has his limitations in taking players on, he understands that to achieve the best results, his on-the-ball contributions must be kept to a minimum. He tends to keep the length of his distribution short and sweet, much like Arsenal’s greatest ever Brazilian once did, never flamboyant in his play.
Despite his relatively small frame, the Frenchman has more than enough natural athleticism to contest with even the biggest of opponents. On average, the 24-year-old wins 56% of his aerial duels, bested only by Dier with a win percentage of 58. If opponents are unable to break the disciplined Coquelin down on the ground, they may try to do so by lumping the ball up, it’s not a problem for Arsenal’s key man though.
Football isn’t just a game of statistics, however. Coquelin provides something to the Arsenal team that arguably none of the other midfielders, perhaps with the exception of forever-injured Jack Wilshere, can. A fighting spirit. He is a born fighter, and is often seen screaming and shouting at his teammates when he’s unsatisfied. Against Liverpool, the Frenchman was missing and Arsenal conceded what could have been a valuable goal because of Joe Allen’s late run into the box in the dying embers of the game. Would that space have been left uncovered if Coquelin was featuring? It’s unlikely. What about against Southampton in the crushing 4-0 loss? Cuco Martina opened the scoring in acres of space in the midfield, space that was left uncovered by Mathieu Flamini and Ramsey. Would that space, subsequently left wide open for the remainder of the game, have been there if Coquelin had been on the pitch? Again, it’s unlikely. He knows where to be and exactly when to be there.
The ex-Charlton Athletic loanee is not the glamorous player who will score, assist and create moments of magic, but every time he breaks up an attack from the opposition, the crowd cheer and his importance is understood throughout the ranks.
Without Coquelin, Ozil couldn’t do what he does, without Coquelin, Aaron Ramsey couldn’t do what he does, it goes through the entire team, with the balance and stability that the Frenchman provides, Arsenal can’t be Arsenal to their full capabilities.
A new addition in Mohamed Elneny provides the Gunners with an extra dimension to their midfield game and how they build it – hard in the tackle, the ability to run for hours and more comfortable on the ball than the Frenchman’s usual midfield partner is in Ramsey, the 23-year-old Egyptian provides an interesting option, perhaps a more solid and reliable one. That is, of course, until the ambidextrous and multi-talented Santi Cazorla makes his return, leaving the north London side with even more options to utilise.
All that said, however, it all comes down to whether the Gunners prove they do have the mettle and fight within them to go on and win the Premier League. If they do, Coquelin could be looked back at as one of Arsenal’s most important midfielders of all time, and he cost just £1m.