The resurrection of Francis Coquelin has been one of the revelations of 2014-15, not just for Arsenal, but for the Premier League. Rarely does a player rise from a Championship outpost such as Charlton Athletic on loan to become one of the most important components of a top Premier League side. But what does Coquelin’s rebirth tell us about Arsene Wenger’s attitude to the defensive midfield position? For years, supporters have implored him to spend big on a shielding midfielder to supplement the backbone of the team.
For years, he has refused, instead relying on existing internal solutions. The manager has been accused of not holding the role in very high regard and of adopting a ‘make do and mend’ approach. The likes of Arteta, Grimandi, and Denilson have been remoulded or young players such as Alex Song have been entrusted with the position. Already we can see that, when it comes to his holding midfield player, the manager does not really have a preferred type. Assessing the history of players he has used most prominently, Wenger has opted for different moulds.
What is revealing is that he rarely ever buys a ready-made specialist, with the possible exception of Lassana Diarra. Mikel Arteta and Denilson were recalibrated from the number 8 position in midfield. Emmanuel Petit, Gilberto Silva, Gilles Grimandi and even Song were converted centre halves. Mathieu Flamini and Francis Coquelin were both utilised as marauding full backs. In Arteta, Denilson and Petit, he had the deep lying playmaker. In Diarra, Coquelin and Flamini, he used energetic, all action ‘DMs.’ In Gilberto Silva he had ‘the invisible wall’ that went about his business unnoticed. Song was a destroyer who thought that he was a playmaker.
When it comes to defensive midfield, Wenger seems to just work with whatever he finds, so perhaps Coquelin’s rise to prominence shouldn’t surprise us too much. Flamini’s Bildungsroman tale of 2007-08 has many of the hallmarks of Coquelin’s recent rise. What is also notable is that, for Wenger, the defensive midfielder is usually the last piece of his puzzle. Emmanuel Petit was one of the last components of the 1997-98 double team. With the exception of goalkeeper Jens Lehmann, Gilberto Silva was the last prominent arrival in the ‘Invincibles’ side. He was signed in 2002, when the germ of that team had been together for a few years already.
Flamini provided the missing link in the 2007-08 setup, with its complementary midfield, consisting of Hleb, Fabregas and Rosicky. Arteta, Denilson, Grimandi and Song were asked to grow into the role following the departures of more prominent players. In recent seasons, the manager has hovered the sword of Damocles over the heads of Xabi Alonso, Yann M’Villa and Morgan Schneiderlin, before electing not to strike. So why do these ‘happy accidents’ keep occurring in the Arsenal engine room? Well, I think the reason is two-fold.
The first part of the answer reveals itself when you look at the players that have enjoyed longevity in the position. Alex Song failed because he began to believe he had outgrown the unglamorous demands of the position. The destroyer function was no longer befitting of ‘Songaldinho’s’ capabilities. Emmanuel Petit basically became a flouncing pain in the manager’s arse with his serial complaints about referees and a banjaxed knee he refused to have surgically repaired.
Lassana Diarra was impatient and petulant, a fit of pique over his Euro 2008 prospects saw him flounce out of the door. A little temperance would surely have seen him minding the Gunners midfield for a good five years. For a man with such a large cranium, Diarra seems to have very little evidence of a brain. Denilson ultimately did not have the character to develop in the cutthroat environs of the Premier League.
Now let us look at the success stories, or at least, those that Wenger would consider to be his success stories. Gilberto Silva and Mikel Arteta are different types of defensive midfield player, but it is in character that the two men are akin. Both are quiet, unassuming, humble and fastidious professionals. These are character traits that go hand in glove with the role. It’s a firefighting position and one has to put the concerns of the team over and above one’s own ego to flourish in it.
When quizzed about Coquelin’s revival recently, tellingly, Wenger said, “He restricted his game and you make success in life with what you’re good at. You don’t have all the qualities but you have to express what you’re good at and he’s good at that.” The manager suggested that Coquelin’s chances had suffered previously because he believed himself to be a more sophisticated player. Basically, his renaissance has been down to the casting aside of ego. This is a key point, Arsene Wenger rated Gilles Grimandi very highly for this reason too.
Upon his retirement, Wenger immediately offered Grimandi a role at the club and remains one of the manager’s most trusted scouts. There were rumours that he was considered for the assistant manager role when Pat Rice retired. Earlier this year, Gilberto Silva revealed that Arsene had offered him the opportunity to start his coaching badges at London Colney. I don’t think any of us would be surprised if the same invitation were extended to Mikel Arteta once his time comes. Neither Grimandi nor Gilberto had / have any experience in a coaching or technical capacity.
Wenger obviously sees their collective mindedness on the field as an asset that will serve them well in coaching. Herein lies the second reason that Wenger rarely parachutes a custom made defensive midfield player into the team. A good defensive midfield player bends to the will of the team. He recognises the team’s strengths and is malleable enough to service them. As supporters, we have probably fetishized a mythical DM to come and transform the will of the team, rather than submit to it. Historically Wenger’s teams settle into a pattern and become cognizant with their own strengths before a defensive midfielder blossoms.
This is often why that player forms the last piece of the puzzle, because his success depends on the team already being shaped and defined. So Coquelin’s success is as much one of timing as it is of form and momentum. He has come into a team that is growing together and beginning to understand one another. Per Mertesacker referred to this recently when he mused that, “Automatisms – when you know players better, especially your partner – are a big part of a footballer’s life.”
This explains why Wenger does not prioritise a ‘type’ of defensive midfield player. Because the best ‘type’ is simply the one that fits the emphasis of your team the best and that doesn’t become clear until that emphasis is defined. Coquelin has recognised this and he would do well to keep the manager’s point about humility in mind. He hasn’t transformed the team per se, what he has done is to recognise its strengths and, in Wenger’s mind, he has transformed himself accordingly. Many defensive midfielders before him have either gotten itchy feet or inflated pride. For Coquelin to continue his ascent, his humility will need to remain intact.
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