Had I told you 12 months ago that the site of a grimacing Francis Coquelin signalling to the bench would invite hastily penned obituaries for an Arsenal title challenge, you would have dismissed me as a mad man. On November 29th, 2014, Coquelin partnered Johnnie Jackson at the heart of the Charlton midfield as they went down to a stoppage time defeat at home to Ipswich Town. Just shy of 365 days later, he hobbled out of a challenge with West Brom’s Claudio Yacob and his subsequent diagnosis was greeted with something close to grief.
In the ensuing days, the hole left by Coquelin’s prolonged absence has become a playground of pique for Arsenal fans to fit into. As Anam wrote earlier this week, his absence is not just about the individual quality of the player, but his importance to “the chain.” Coquelin has started every single Premier League and Champions League game that he has been fit for since New Year’s Day. The Gunners’ midfield has coalesced into a very delicately balanced sequence. Its impaired cohesion since Aaron Ramsey’s injury is a reflection of this truth.
Many a squad player has gathered cobwebs in the last 6 months because the chemistry of the team has not been interchangeable in certain areas. Coqzorla does not function as smoothly without Aaron Ramsey moving in from the right to offer a third body in midfield. Ramsey ghosting in from the flank makes less sense without Hector Bellerin motorbiking up and down the right hand side. In terms of replacing Coquelin, the question for the manager is one of balance as much as it is quality.
Some of the aforementioned combinations emerged swiftly last season, almost by accident as a result of injury crises. Wenger will hope that the dice tumble in a similar fashion this year. But what of his options? Personally, I think I would persevere with Flamini alongside Cazorla at the base of the midfield. Flamini is the closest facsimile of Coquelin that Arsenal has in their squad and his presence potentially keeps the team’s most symbiotic parts ticking over as normal.
Aaron Ramsey may view this as an opportunity to stake a claim for a central role again. But were I Ramsey, I would enjoy and relish the free role on the right. For Aaron to come back into the centre, he is either going to have to hone his instincts and play more conservatively, or else displace Cazorla. I can’t see a Ramsey – Flamini partnership (Flamsey?) working because that pairing lacks a distributor. Ramsey would need to buddy up with either Arteta or Chambers, two players that represent a flight risk as they straddle opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of career trajectory.
Wenger has already admitted that Cazorla is no longer an option for a wide berth. Ramsey vacating the right flank would presumably see Chamberlain start there. A team featuring Flamini, Ramsey, Chamberlain and Alexis lacks technical security, it’s too chaotic with the ball and lacks balance. If you add Walcott into the mix as the central striker you’re left with too many stimulants and not enough sedatives. It would put too much pressure on Mesut Özil to be the team’s technical Tambourine Man.
The void left by Coquelin’s injury has also seen the return of a pastime curiously favoured by Arsenal fans. The championing of a centre half for the screening midfield position. In fairness, it’s a transformation that has been traversed successfully by Arsenal players of yore. Gilles Grimandi, Emmanuel Petit and Gilberto Silva are such examples. However, I think there is a tendency to over simplify the demands of the defensive midfield position, which makes it tempting to believe that most centre halves are up to the task.
The thought process seems to manifest itself thus, “can run, can kick people, can pass a ball sideways without tripping over his own tonsils.” Though these attributes undoubtedly help, the role is a bit more nuanced. You’re responsible for a large chunk of grass, laterally speaking, charged with patrolling the entire pitch from left to right in front of your defence. Your positioning, both tactically and your actual body position, are also quite different compared to a centre half. Most of the time you are defending space and closing gaps, rather than stifling opponents in possession.
You need to take the ball from your defenders with your back to goal and be able to play the ball under pressure, whereas centre halves have much more time on the ball. Thomas Vermaelen was the poster boy for the “CB = DM” equation, despite the fact that his frustrating weaknesses (lack of awareness, a tendency to charge out of position) would probably have been more exposed in defensive midfield than they were at centre half. As an aside, Vermaelen is a player I find endlessly confusing. He seems a very able footballer, but I can’t think of a single position that suits him.
Recalibrating into a defensive midfielder is about attributes rather than positions. Just as many players have made the transition from more advanced roles. Gilberto, Petit and Grimandi did so not by dint of being grizzled centre halves that could run a bit and liked getting stuck in. if anything, they each played the ‘good cop’ centre back role, covering for more aggressive colleagues, diligently plugging the gaps they left as they vacated their stoop in search of prey. Calum Chambers fits this mould more closely and having had some grounding as a screening midfielder, he will likely provide back up to Flamini over the coming weeks.
It will be fascinating to see whether Wenger has the urge to splurge in January. The evidence suggests that, for some time now, the manager has lusted after a top class centre forward to complete this team. He courted Suarez, Benzema and Higuain to no avail. I think he will still look to pounce on that top bracket striker if and when one becomes available. In August 2014, when Olivier Giroud’s ankle cracked at Goodison Park, Wenger accepted that needs must and he settled on Danny Welbeck. Not so much with an air of reluctance as resignation. (The club tried to negotiate a loan deal).
Welbeck was not the class of forward the manager truly sought, but circumstances dictated that he could not wait for the porridge to cool to the perfect temperature any longer. I have the impression that his machinations in the defensive midfield position have been very similar, but he has held on grimly to Arteta and Flamini whilst waiting for his Goldilocks moment in the market. How Coquelin’s injury alters his approach, if at all, will be fascinating. Will he “settle” on another Welbeck, buying a certain player more out of need than want? Arteta and Flamini’s contracts expire in the summer, assuming neither renews terms; there is an imminent need for squad filler in the position anyway.
In the past, we have seen similar situations bring future planning scuttling into the foreground. Wenger expedited the transfers of Per Mertesacker and Nacho Monreal forward after injuries in their respective positions. Both players were earmarked to join the club later than they actually did. Time will tell whether the manager precipitately pulls an iron from the transfer fire, whether he forges another internal solution or whether Arsenal just kind of bumble along and await Coquelin’s return.
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