FEATURE: The Irresistible Rise of Francis Coquelin

Jeffrey Gamby Boulger dissects an incredible six months for Arsenal’s Francis Coquelin and ponders whether the sky really is the limit from the most unexpected of stars.

The 2014/2015 Premier League season is drawing ever nearer to its conclusion and with just five games to go, a first league title since 2010 is tantalisingly close for Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea off the back of a recent 0-0 draw with rivals Arsenal. The result leaves them 10 points clear at the summit above the Gunners and Manchester City, and means they will win the Premier League should they beat Leicester City and Crystal Palace in their next two games.

With six Chelsea players in this season’s PFA Premier League Team of the Year, former Ligue 1 star Eden Hazard was also crowned the PFA Player of the Year. And with the unexpected and sumptuous rise to prominence this season of Tottenham forward Harry Kane, which has seen the 21 year-old Englishman score a fantastic 30 goals this season so far as well as being crowned the PFA Young Player of the Year, one could be forgiven for thinking the young striker was the only surprise package to emerge across the channel this campaign.

But while Chelsea’s towering midfield enforcer Nemanja Matic was rightly included in the Premier League Team of the Year, Frenchman Francis Coquelin’s surge into the spotlight this season simply cannot go unnoticed. The defensive midfielder may have been overlooked in his breakthrough season for a place in the Premier League XI and a Young Player of the season award, but one can only imagine that had he been a starter for Wenger since the beginning of the season, that 23 year-old Francis Coquelin would certainly not be far from any of the host of aforementioned awards. Based on his breath-taking defensive midfield performances in 2015, Francis Coquelin is now firmly in Arsenal’s medium-term plans and will surely be a contender for Didier Deschamps’ EURO 2016 Les Bleus squad.

The Frenchman’s somewhat belated breakthrough seemingly took everyone by surprise, including Arsene Wenger and the rest of the Arsenal squad. The iconic French manager is regarded as a true architect of football, and is hugely respected for his service to the English game, having achieved monumental feats along the way, including being the only manager to ever record a season undefeated in the Premier League.  His ‘Invincibles’ team of 2003/2004 is still widely regarded as the finest Premier League XI of all time. But in recent years with imposing, physical players such as compatriot Patrick Vieira and other exquisite talents like Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp leaving or retiring, the Arsenal team has become bloated with supreme technical quality, but they have lost the presence of a genuine midfield enforcer to apply the balance they require to allow their flair players freedom to perform and to ensure that extra layer of defensive protection in front of the back four.

There has been criticism over the last 10 years from fans and pundits alike that Wenger’s sides have lost their physical edge, and they have protested over the Frenchman’s apparent stubbornness to abandon his Arsenal blueprint by dipping in to the transfer market to make big money signing in the defensive midfield department. Along with Vieira, and ‘Invincibles’ teammate Gilberto Silva, the likes of Alex Song and Mathieu Flamini have all come and gone, with the latter since returning after a stint in Italy with AC Milan.

But the absence of a prominent figure, a genuine defensive shield, has continued to plague Arsenal in recent seasons. Song is talented, but lacked concentration at times and left in a big money move to Barcelona and while Flamini has looked an adequate option upon his return, he is not a player of the highest quality and is a little too aggressive with a penchant for receiving bookings. As a result, Wenger has often relied on more technically gifted, but less physically imposing players like Spanish midfielder Mikel Arteta or more recently a triumvirate of the wonderfully talented Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere to occupy midfield.

However, with Arteta suffering a long absence this season due to injury, former prodigy Jack Wilshire’s succession of ankle and foot problems curtailing his campaign yet again, and Ramsey’s own personal revelation last season outlining his attacking importance, this has been the season when Francis Coquelin was handed an opportunity to finally make the defensive midfield role his own. And so far the young robust Frenchman, so often a peripheral figure during his tenure at Arsenal, might have just inadvertently provided Arsene Wenger with the very piece that he has been missing to perfect his winning formula. 

Far better suited to the role of a genuine defensive player in the Arsenal midfield as supposed to the left midfield position he was forced to inhabit during a loan spell at Fribourg, Coquelin is not necessarily the technically gifted player that Wenger has so often tried to shoe-horn into this position. Young, athletic and robust in the challenge, the Frenchman has proved a revelation this season. Adding an element of steel to the midfield, he allows the supreme talents of Mesut Özil, Ramsey and Chilean Alexis Sanchez to operate further up the field with confidence as he performs as a shield in behind, and alongside him Cazorla can join the attacks from his deeper starting role.

Perhaps it is his inherent skillset that allows him to excel in a defensive role, but Coquelin has made huge strides this season. Breaking up play well, disposing the opposition, and building up the Arsenal attacks, the young Frenchman adds stability while not slowing down or interfering with Arsenal’s style of play. More mobile than perhaps some of the high profile transfer targets endlessly rumoured to be the missing link in the Gunner’s midfield, Arsenal’s home-grown player could well have been the solution all along. With proficient technical ability to match his propensity for a tackle, possibly most beneficial to Arsene Wenger this season is how he does not shy away from the physical encounters. His incredible ability to read the opposition’s attacks make him one of the highest ever interceptions per game maker in the Premier League.

His emergence this season is in contrast to other French imports that have entered the Premier League this campaign and struggled. For example, compatriots such as Tottenham’s Benjamin Stambouli, have not been able to match Coquelin as the already polished midfield anchorman that he has presented himself as. One should note however Coquelin has spent far longer in England to adapt to the English game than a player like Stambouli, and has been able to adjust and learn over a long period of time. Taking advantage of the loan system in the lower divisions of English football to hone his craft and gain valuable playing time, Coquelin actually started this season at English Championship side Charlton Athletic, making three starts and a further two substitute appearances, before he was recalled amid injuries in the Arsenal squad. He made his 2014-15 Arsenal season debbut in the 4-1 victory against Newcastle on the 13th December.

Arsene Wenger has often quoted the importance of loaning younger players to allow them to experience first team football, and this is a shining example of the rewards both for club and player that can be reaped from such a strategy. The player himself praised the manager for giving him the opportunity to play first team football and has continued to display a positive attitude that has also garnered his improvement this season.

It must however be conceded that Coquelin is not yet the finished article and certain elements of his game require addressing. With 8 bookings this season in all competitions the player’s discipline, so often the failing for defensive players and the tell-tale sign of the truly gifted in this position, could be improved and he has been caught in possession a little too often for an Arsenal player. Now Coquelin’s role is to make the difficult tackles, which is something, which will inevitably see him pick up his fair share of cautions, but they often come far too early in a fixture, which then restricts his ability to breakup play for the rest of the encounter. But that will surely improve as he matures.

With at least 31 more tackles and interceptions this calendar year than any other Premier League player (113) his statistics make impressive reading as he ends the season in rich form and is fast proving himself the vital lynchpin in the Gunners’ team.

Indeed, with such imperious form in only 18 appearances so far this season since his late-coming into the squad, with three coming as a substitute, one can wonder what kind of influence the Frenchman cold exert with his place in the starting XI from the beginning of the season. With his tigerish performances quickly establishing him as such an important member of the squad, it will not be long before the young Frenchman is seriously considered for a place with Les Bleus under Didier Deschamps.

Here however Coquelin is perhaps slightly unlucky in that the midfield is not an area Les Bleus are lacking in quality already and thus he faces fierce competition. Normally operating in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation there is normally only room for one traditional defensive midfielder in Deschamps’ line-up. In a 3-1 loss to Brazil in March, Deschamps opted for a midfield triumvirate of Southampton’s Morgan Schneiderlin, Newcastle’s powerhouse Moussa Sissoko and PSG’s ‘Duracell bunny’ Blaise Matuidi. Against Denmark three days later, it was Schneiderlin again and the ever impressive Geoffrey Kondogbia lining up at the base of the midfield in a 4-2-3-1 formation. There is also of course Yohan Cabaye who can operate as a deep lying playmaker, and with further options like Lyon’s Maxime Gonalons and even Chelsea’s Kurt Zouma appearing there this season as he continues his own rapid development, one can begin to see the uphill battle that Coquelin will face if he is to breakthrough in his preferred position for Les Bleus.

However, time is on his side. Of all his challengers only Kondogbia and Schneiderlin pose creditable long-term opposition with Cabaye approaching 30 and arguably better utilised further forward, Maxime Gonalons mostly overlooked and Matuidi often employed in a wider role to make use of his rampaging runs. It is a similar case with Sissoko who can also operate as a more attacking force meaning that if Coquelin can keep on improving at the rate he has this season, then actually, there is a realistic opportunity for him to make a name for himself wearing the colours of his country. Indeed, having already been capped at every youth level for France, with a total of seven appearances (no goals) for the U21’s, he will not struggle to fit in to an international side set-up at all.

His impressive form will not have gone unnoticed either. Arsenal are currently enjoying a fine season, presently sitting in third place in the Premier League, level on points with second placed Manchester City with a game in hand and on course to defend their F.A Cup trophy with a place in the final on the 30th May. It serves to make Coquelin’s extraordinary journey this year all the more impressive, that he has been able to shine in such a well performing team and this certainly bodes well for his future, for both Arsenal and France. 

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