The four worst words in the English dictionary, ‘like a new signing’. We’ve heard them in relation to Walcott, Wilshere, Ramsey and tragically/comically Diaby over the past 2-3 years. Yet for once, I think Wenger would be perfectly entitled to mutter the immortal words; but in true Wenger style, he hasn’t done so. But that is what Francis Coquelin is. He has returned from the wilderness, also known as the Valley to Charlton Athletic fans, to cement his role in our first team plans. It is not often a player, who has been cast aside with such little dismay by both fans and management, can come back to a club and make such an incredible impact; and yet that is what Le Coq has accomplished. His tenacity and sheer doggedness has seen him grab hold of this rare opportunity with both hands. Since his return, we’ve won 12 of our last 15 league games; add in the FA cup and it’s 15 of the last 18 domestic games. At 5ft10, he doesn’t strike you as an imposing figure and with a pass completion rate at a distinctly average 83%, you would be forgiven for thinking that he is merely a stop gap until Arteta regains fitness or an alternative, shinier new player arrives in the summer.
But what Coquelin lacks in the height and passing department he makes up in other areas. As I tell my girlfriend, it’s not always about size, and Coquelin is doing me the good favour of proving me right. He has won 67% of his aerial duels to date and in the FA Cup quarterfinal, he dominated in the air against United’s Fellaini. Considering Fellaini is primarily used as a target man, to be so comprehensibly beaten in the air by someone who is half a foot smaller than him proves that there is more to Coquelin than meets the eye. Similarly so, his passing whilst not always accurate has been assured and reasonably safe. His pass success rate has dropped on account of some of his long passing, but as a fan who often has his heart in his mouth when Flamini tries anything intricate or fancy, I’m not averse to Coquelin putting his laces through it. But what really makes Coquelin stand out are his limitations, more specifically his acknowledgement of his limitations.
It’s hard not to like someone who knows their limits, or put another way, it’s difficult to like someone who is unaware of their limitations. That mate who has one too many and offends every person in the bar or that guy who tries to talk to every 8/10 that he sees. Alex Song springs to mind, a player who was tasked with patrolling the Arsenal midfield, protecting our often maligned back four and acting as our safety net when our attacks broke down. He did none of these things. In fact looking at his statistics this season, he wins a measly 0.8 aerial duels a game compared to Coquelin’s 3.1. In fact, despite his affection for joining in on the attack, his pass completion rate stands at a shocking 76% behind Coquelin’s 83%; whilst a fair amount of that is down to long ball tactics, it is also Song attempting through passes that not even Ozil would dare try. No, it is Coquelin’s limitations that make him so valuable to this Arsenal squad. He rarely joins the attacks, preferring to either sit back between Mertesacker and Koscielny or covering for our fullbacks who have been incredibly effective at transitioning from defence to attack this season, Monreal in particular. He reads the game well and goes about his business with the air of an experienced pro. I can’t help but think if Arsene Wenger had purchased Coquelin from a foreign club for 20 odd million, as opposed to recalling him from loan, that fans would be fawning over him.
At 23 years old, Coquelin represents a player who is not only ready for Premier League action now but could potentially do the job for a further 10 years. People will point to his height, and on occasions, yes it will be a disadvantage; but when looking at the greatest defensive midfielders of the past generation, they weren’t all in the mould of Vieira. In fact Vieira’s national compatriot Makelele gives Coquelin all the motivation that he needs. On the news that Makelele was to be sold to Chelsea, Zidane said “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?” Club Captain Fernando Hierro echoed Zidane’s thoughts, “I think Claude has this kind of gift – he's been the best player in the team for years but people just don't notice him, don't notice what he does. But you ask anyone at Real Madrid during the years we were talking about and they will tell you he was the best player at Real.” Now before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, I’m not saying that Coquelin is the new Makelele. I am, however, suggesting that our team doesn’t need a towering 6ft4 animal who growls at children and replaces his bread in his sandwiches with shin pads; Coquelin with his awareness of his own limitations, his doggedness, discipline and desire to succeed and his acceptance that his role is to protect the back four puts Arsenal in a strong position to play the attacking football Wenger so strongly desires. He may not be the most fashionable option or the ‘next Vieira’ but if Wenger decides to forgo delving into the transfer market for the mythical DM, then I for one will not be too disappointed.
Statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com.