Last week, Francis Coquelin signed a new contract with Arsenal. The Lazarus like resurrection of his Gunners career two years ago is well documented. Having rocketed from a loan spell at Charlton to first team prominence within a few weeks, Coquelin last extended his contract back in March 2015, just 3 months before it was due to expire. The Frenchman has remained one of the manager’s most trusted lieutenants in the ensuing two years, hence another contract extension and doubtless another salary bump.
Coquelin was initially a sorely needed body in an injury hit midfield when he was called in from the cold of a loan spell at Charlton, but he quickly became one of the first names on Arsene’s team sheet. So, how has his game evolved, if at all, since that unlikely renaissance in the winter of 2015? Well, for a start, almost by accident, he formed a complementary double pivot with Santi Cazorla, an odd couple pairing that began to gradually forge an understanding. The relationship started out fairly simply. Coquelin provided the grit and Cazorla the gloss.
With his dynamism and his love for the pistols at dawn aspect of the midfield, Francis was the iron fist inside Santi’s velvet glove. Coquelin’s passing range was something of a problem, with his initial possession stats in the 75-80% range- an unacceptable tally for an Arsenal midfielder. Over time, the Frenchman worked on this flaw. Though still no Andrea Pirlo, he at least began to pass the ball competently.
As Anam has written many times, Coquelin became more of a ‘decoy’ in possession, taking attention away from more, ahem, accomplished swordsmen in the Arsenal midfield. Coquelin’s role has evolved significantly since he broke into the team, not least in his partnership with Santi. Initially, Coquelin sat in front of the back four, moving laterally across the deeper areas of the midfield to protect the full-backs and shield the centre halves.
Over time this has changed and Coquelin is now engaged further up the pitch. Firstly, because it makes more sense for the likes of Cazorla and Xhaka to sit deep and receive the ball from defenders. But Coquelin’s skillset can be very useful in more advanced areas for Arsenal. He sets the tempo for Arsenal’s pressing game, closing opponents down high up the pitch and forcing turnovers. As a result, the team has improved in attacking transitions, even if there is still some work to do in that area. Coquelin also has the mobility to cover defensive areas when the team is out of possession too.
As we see for Özil’s goal against West Ham in December, Coquelin forces a turnover deep into Irons’ territory and with West Ham’s defence not set, Arsenal are able to capitalise before they reorganise. In a strange way, Coquelin’s usage has evolved from defence to attack. The games in which he is most useful see him engage the opposition high up the pitch. Last week, Wenger referenced the speed with which Coq releases the ball as one of his greatest attributes.
When winning the ball high up, the fact that he cannot pass imaginatively is less of an issue. In the opponents’ half, he is stationed closer to the likes of Özil and Alexis, at which point Coquelin takes a back seat in case the move breaks down and he is required again. He catches flack for his lack of positional awareness, but his role is no longer confined to a particular zone, nor is his role exclusively defensive per se, his job is to win the ball and move it on swiftly.
With a player like Özil in the midfield, Arsenal have a deficit in terms of off ball rigour. He does not really press opponents, nor is he especially adept at regaining possession. Coquelin’s role is effectively to be the anti-Özil. The German’s main attribute actually involves running away from the ball and absolutely not engaging opponents so that he can find crevices of space. Coquelin’s job is to balance the midfield by being the high octane yin to Özil’s gliding yang.
He’s more of a ‘balancer’ than a ‘defender’ nowadays. (He started 7 of the run of 8 consecutive league games without a clean sheet before Christmas). If the likes of Cazorla, Xhaka and Özil are thoughtful artisans, then Coquelin, Alexis and Iwobi give the recipe a little spice, injecting tempo into Arsenal’s approach. We know by now that Arsene is a data junkie, meticulously pouring over the numbers of each and every player. When discussing Le Coq’s contract, Wenger alluded to statistics to illustrate his admiration.
“He has the best defensive statistics [at the club], his defensive numbers are outstanding. He has improved a lot and he is one of the players with the quickest speed in terms of passing – the time between him getting the ball and passing it is one of the shortest.”
A lot of the manager’s trust in Coquelin probably stems from data. Francis likely ticks all of the boxes that Wenger looks for. Basically, I think Wenger likes him so much because he does exactly what he is told. “We want to move the ball faster than anyone and he’s part of that,” the manager explained. Slowly, Arsenal have become a team more focused on selective pressing of opponents and they lead the Premier League for interceptions, with 363 this season.
Coquelin averages 2.9 interceptions per game according to whoscored.com. That is far in excess of his midfield colleagues most of whom barely average a single interception per match. Only defenders Nacho Monreal and Shkodran Mustafi boast better averages in that respect. In his Breakdown of the Swansea game, Adrian Clarke highlighted Arsenal’s passiveness out of possession as the principle reason for their slow start to the game.
The team warmed to the task a little more in the second half, engaging Swansea players in their own half. The third and fourth goals were a direct result of interceptions in the Swans’ half from Monreal and Xhaka respectively. Had Coquelin been available, there is a good chance that the Gunners would have been a little quicker to apply this sort of pressure on their opponents. A midfield three of Ramsey, Xhaka and Özil arguably lacks a little injection of forcefulness, especially with Giroud completing the spine of the team at centre forward as opposed to Alexis.
It is true that Coq is not everyone’s favourite player and that he divides opinion. Despite his high position on occasion, he offers little to the party once he has forced a transition- like a champagne cork that has popped, he is instantly rendered redundant in that scenario. But Arsenal are one of the few teams that operates with a two man central midfield and the Frenchman has the mobility to cover plenty of grass.
Shortly after Coquelin broke into the team, I wrote a piece explaining that a good ‘DM’ bends to the will of the team and performs the functions that it most requires. That is why Arsene Wenger loves Le Coq so much. He has been willing to follow instruction and alter his role as the evolution of the team has dictated. The manager probably reasons that to harbour an aesthete like Özil, he needs a vandal like Coquelin.
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