The January transfer window has been responsible for some great business from Arsenal in the past, most memorably for me in 2009 when we signed Andrey Arshavin, who I’ve written about before, but it has also seen us be quite wasteful. This January has seen us discard a player who should’ve been one of the last players on the list to go in my opinion. Francis Coquelin.
The Frenchman, who spent nine years at Arsenal (including loan moves away from the club) signed for Valencia last week for a stupidly low fee in this market of around £12m. Which by itself shows how out of the loop Arsenal are in terms of transfer negotiations, bearing in mind Coquelin wasn’t one of the many players in the last year of his contract.
However, the business side of the deal is the least of my concerns. This season, a player who was held in such high regard a couple of years ago was hardly given a chance in the Arsenal midfield. Yes, he has picked up a couple of injuries this season, but playing Coquelin just 11 times this season (only four of those appearances were starts) is baffling to me. Especially when you take the form of other Arsenal players into consideration as well as the fact that just a couple of days after signing for Valencia, he was handed his debut, starting against Deportivo La Coruna who currently have his now-former teammate in Lucas Perez on loan.
His La Liga debut saw him play very well as he completed 90% of his 50 passes, won a couple of headers, made three tackles, an interception and three clearances to help Valencia to a 2-1 win. Off the bat, this shows why we needed to keep the ‘Coqblock’ and use him more this season. Most importantly he was the only proper defensive midfielder in our squad and was the only midfielder who would tirelessly hunt down the ball when out of possession.
Furthermore, when you look at our record away from home this season in the Premier League being (three wins, four draws, five losses) it’s clear that we need a more robust player to break up play in midfield and win us the ball back. When we look at Coquelin’s breakthrough season when he formed that great partnership with Santi Cazorla and compare to our central midfield options now, it’s obvious where our current issues are. (I’ve used per 90 metrics from squawka’s comparison matrix for this as the amount of game time across the board is quite varied).
Here we can see the proof that Coquelin is our most effective ‘policeman’ as Thierry Henry once called him. His defensive numbers are far superior to his now-former teammates and that isn’t a coincidence. Being the only midfielder of a true defensive nature it’s pretty obvious he’d stand top of the table for those stats as he’s been the only one of the midfielders above to properly perform that role.
However, the one thing we’ve seen with the absence of the Frenchman is the use of Granit Xhaka in that role. Playing in every single Premier League game this season Xhaka has failed to hit the heights of last year and one reason for this could simply be the fact that he is being asked to do a job he just isn’t cut out for. Xhaka is very much a midfielder who can push you up the pitch with great passes and vision, but what he isn’t, is a defensive midfielder.
With both of Arsenal’s current systems (3-4-2-1 and 4-2-3-1) having just two central midfielders, most of (if not all) the time Xhaka looks to be the obvious choice to be the more defensive player in the pair. However, with Xhaka’s first thought being to create and look up the pitch to find onrushing wing backs or Mesut Ozil, he seems to lack the concentration to be the more defensive of the pair.
Also, with his lack of pace and agility he leaves us very vulnerable on fast breaks as we saw against Liverpool which may make a three-man midfield a better option for when he’s on the pitch to give him more protection.
Time and again this season we’ve seen the Swiss international either get caught quite high up the pitch which luckily hasn’t cost us too often, or finding himself having to recover possession after losing it himself in the first place courtesy of a dodgy pass.
Don’t get me wrong, when Xhaka is on form he is very impressive, as he showed towards the back end of last season, but this year he just keeps showing why Arsenal need a natural defensive midfielder whose sole purpose is to protect the defence and win the ball back.
With that being said, I think it might be fair to look at the stats between Coquelin and Xhaka when it comes to doing the job of a defensive midfielder in the Premier League. (I won’t include Coquelin’s Premier League stats for this season as he’s only featured in seven games, making one start. The stats being used here are totals unlike earlier).
As you can see, there he is, the one natural defensive-ball winning midfielder we had at the club who we should now look to replace. The one thing that demonstrates the polar opposites between the two are Coquelin’s stats from his breakthrough season in 2014/15. In every defensive department he offered more than Xhaka despite playing 316 less minutes than the Swiss has played so far this season.
In his breakthrough back in 2014/15 we saw what we would become accustomed to from him almost instantly. Tracking down runners and stealing the ball from them, perfectly timed slide tackles and top class interceptions. Despite him delivering those three aspects almost every time he played for us, it’s fair to say the game he’d be most remembered for is Manchester City away in that season. Going up to the Etihad with the odds against him as much as they were against us as a team, Coquelin had a masterclass of a performance which set the benchmark for his defensive work.
It’s not just the defensive side of the game where Coquelin is impressive though. For some reason, on the ball, Coquelin was massively underrated by Arsenal fans (mostly on twitter), and as you can see above his passing stats from 2015/16 match Xhaka’s from his debut season. However, it’s not just the stats that prove this though as many times he’s escaped tight situations with quick feet, most memorably in last year’s F.A. Cup final where he also threw in a few stepovers as well as showing that he does have the ability to play important forward passes.
A couple of games that highlight that side of his game are Stoke away from last season and his last start for us which against West Ham in this seasons’ Carabao Cup quarter-final. Against Stoke along with doing his usual job of breaking up play his risks paid off as an inch-perfect pass through to Bellerin who assisted the opening goal of the game.
However, against West Ham, with the midfield pairing being himself and Mohamed Elneny, Coquelin looked to be the more creative of the two even though the opposite might have been expected. Our first clear cut chance of the game came through the Frenchman when he played a defence-splitting ball for Sead Kolasinac who played the ball to now-Everton player Theo Walcott in the middle of the box. He later played a nicely floated diagonal ball to Mathieu Debuchy who, like Bellerin and Kolasinac, was able to play the ball across the box with Danny Welbeck scoring this time.
However, regardless of him showing another side to his game, there’s no doubting Coquelin’s best role which was highlighted most when he first broke into the team consistently alongside Santi Cazorla in that much-loved partnership. With Coquelin being the ball winner, and Cazorla being the more creative yet still disciplined creative midfielder, the balance between the two was perfect.
With that being said, the fact that we were able to find the perfect balance in midfield shows that Coquelin could have remained an important player in our starting 11. But with Cazorla’s injuries we saw how stupid we could be in the transfer window. Rather than finding a player similar to the Spaniard to keep balance in midfield, we allowed Coquelin to fall out of the team which saw us lose the edge only Coqblock could bring to the middle of the park.
Nonetheless there was one solution I thought could work for Coquelin this season, but instead, Arsene Wenger’s stubbornness got in the way. Rather than rewarding Xhaka for average performances in a disappointing season, Wenger could have tried out a pairing of Coquelin and Wilshere. Since re-emerging into our first team, Wilshere has been outstanding and with the ability to drive us up the pitch with his dribbling as well as displaying a varied range of passing. In order to try to regain a balanced midfield, Wilshere could have taken on the ‘Cazorla role’ which he wouldn’t have been foreign to having played slightly deeper for Bournemouth last season as well as picking up numerous man of the match awards for England from a similar position.
But now with Coquelin gone, it’s a mystery of how long it’ll take us to find a replacement for him as well as Cazorla and defensive midfielders from years ago like Alex Song, Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira. But hey, that’s Arsenal for you.