Thursday, April 25, 2024

Tactics Column: Francis Coquelin rises from the shadows to take centre stage

Is Francis Coquelin “The Answer?” The prophecy that a holding midfielder will fall from the sky and drop straight into the line-up and cure Arsenal’s defensive problems has had no better candidate in recent seasons. Yet for all that Coquelin possesses as the antidote for Arsenal’s gung-ho style, there are question marks: namely that he is conspicuously too different.

The Gunners are a team who like to dominate with the ball, but can be a mess without it, thus the emergence Coquelin has been like a godsend. However, there is a feeling that paradoxically he works best in a vacuum – a system player – detached from the rest of the group so that he can concentrate on sweeping up loose balls and snapping into challenges just in front of the defence.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that in the games where his impact was found wanting – chiefly the two Monaco games – he has played in a double-pivot, alongside Santi Cazorla, as opposed to the sole holder in a 4-1-4-1 he initially shone in. Lee Dixon sums this up:

“He can do that job [in front of the back four] but it is when his role becomes something else during a game and that he has got to make a decision, that’s a different matter.He can just stand there and win the ball for you but when the game goes in your favour and you start getting some joy on the pitch, what does he do then? Does he start joining in? He has got to make those decisions, so it is not as easy as saying ‘he’s doing well, he’s the answer’.”

The truth with Coquelin is that at the moment he is somewhere in between being “The Answer” and a specialist destroyer. He needs space to develop into a more nuanced player, capable of adapting to subtly different scenarios. He certainly has the skills to do so because he was once earmarked by Arsene Wenger as a right-back (though later Wenger claimed he was unimpressed by his “reflexes” in that role) and then as a box-to-box midfielder. Yet by focusing on his beautiful limitations so to speak, Coquelin has become an effective player.

With every game, Coquelin’s confidence on the ball is growing. Against Crystal Palace, he delivered a near inch-perfect cross-field pass with his left foot (GIF: it spun back into play). Yet, there’s lots of room to improve in that regard when you consider his pass accuracy is 83% in the league compared to Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta who are both over 90%.  Sometimes he seems too bogged down in trying to quicken the pace of attacks by playing the quick-switch when one or two short passes to create the space would be better.

In any case, Coquelin’s more about what he does with his first touch, the way he feints to create space to pass the ball than outright playmaking ability. Nevertheless, in Arsenal’s system, it can be said that the holding midfielder is not responsible for dictating play from deep. Instead, it’s the centre-back, Per Mertesacker – who is fantastic at penetrating the lines – who is the playmaker.

As Pep Guardiola highlights in “Pep Confidential”, the diary of his first season in charge of Bayern Munich, the holding midfielder for Arsenal is almost a decoy in the build-up, tending to move up and across the pitch to create space for Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny to pass the ball through to the likes of Ozil and Cazorla. It’s this that Robert Pires alludes to when appraising Coquelin when he says that he’s “clever with his movement.”

Coquelin often drives into space without the ball to drag opponents with him and create gaps for the centre-backs to pass to. Indeed without Mikel Arteta, it probably best suits this Arsenal side because it means they are not as reliant on continuous ball circulation as they are when he plays (though by widening the pitch when they have the ball at the back, it can surely decrease Arsenal’s susceptibility to the high press).

Certainly, there seems to be a sea-change in Wenger’s regard for possession, seemingly abandoning the total domination he began with earlier this season in exchange for creating greater moments of combination between the front five. Coquelin provides the cover and the way he propels himself into tackles and then comes out cleanly with the ball is part of his visceral joy.

With Arteta, he was fantastic at pushing the team forward with his passing, shifting the opponent side to side to open space for the attackers, but not so good going backwards and chasing opponents. Mathieu Flamini often takes that weakness so far to the extreme that he almost drops back on top the centre-backs. Coquelin though sweeps fantastically across the pitch and has a fantastic leap, almost basketball-player like; winning duels against players he has no right to beat (like he did v Marouane Fellaini).

That sums up why Coquelin has been such a success; he’s unwilling to acknowledge his limitations, rather drawing on them to inspire Arsenal’s forwards.

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