Recalling Francis Coquelin was Arsenal's best winter business
A recent Sky Sports poll saw Gabriel Paulista voted as the best Premier League signing of the January transfer window. The Brazilian joined Arsenal from Villarreal for £10.3m last month, though his topping of a poll ahead of Juan Guillermo Cuadrado and Wilfried Bony perhaps merely highlights Gunners fans’ presence on social media. The acquisition of Gabriel will further swell Arsenal’s defensive ranks, but some may argue their best signing came back in December.
"For me, the best they’ve done is bring (Francis) Coquelin back from Charlton. Maybe if he hadn’t come back and played the way he did recently, Arsène (Wenger) would have gone and bought a defensive midfielder. He has been amazing, Arsenal don’t look like they will concede, they can score and he gave everyone the protection everybody was talking about," compatriot and former Arsenal hero Thierry Henry said on deadline day. Glowing praise from the club’s record top goalscorer.
Coquelin was recalled from his loan after it was confirmed Aaron Ramsey would be sidelined with a hamstring injury following the 4-1 thumping of Galatasaray at the beginning of December. The decision to bring the 23-year-old back to the Emirates was met with skepticism, however. Many a supporter assumed he would be drafted in as backup to the first team and nothing more, with the general consensus being that the Gunners would move for another central midfielder once the transfer window reopened.
Asier Illarramendi and Morgan Schneiderlin were among the midfielders linked with a January switch to North London, but as Coquelin’s form improved, talk of Arsenal signing a new player in his position quickly began to die out during the month. The Frenchman made his first Premier League start of the season in the 2-1 win at West Ham and since then has become a regular feature in the Arsenal starting XI. The Gunners have won 4 of the 5 games he has started in the Premier League this term and conceded just 3 goals.
Of all players to have made at least 2 Premier League appearances during his recent run of starts, only 11 have gained a better WhoScored rating than Coquelin (7.91) in England’s top tier. Considering he registered only 325 minutes of league action for Charlton prior to his return to North London, the swiftness in which he has adapted to the Premier League despite a lack of game time has been impressive.
Arsenal's surprise 2-0 win at Manchester City midway through January was made possible by Santi Cazorla’s man of the match display, but it was the performance of Coquelin that granted his teammates the chance to counter and hurt the defending champions. Only Cazorla (10.0) and Nacho Monreal (9.50) gained better WhoScored ratings than Coquelin (9.01) in the victory, his highest rated league performance in an Arsenal shirt this season.
He followed that up with an impressive showing in the 5-0 thumping of Aston Villa. Once again, his display was overshadowed by Cazorla, as well, perhaps, as Mesut Özil and Olivier Giroud, though a WhoScored rating of 8.41 highlights how effective he was alongside Ramsey in front of the defence.
In the victory over Lambert's men, Coquelin made more tackles (5) than any other player on the pitch and enjoyed the best pass success rate (93.6%) of every Arsenal starter. Winning the ball effectively and recycling possession is a defensive midfielder's primary duty and he is performing the role with aplomb.
It's no coincidence that the Gunners are more stable defensively with Coquelin in the side. His energy and efficient shielding of the backline means those in the centre of midfield alongside him - lately Ramsey and Cazorla - can press forward and support the frontmen, allowing Arsenal to rediscover their identity as a fluid and destructive attacking unit.
This improvement in the offensive side of Arsenal's game since Coquelin's reintroduction to the Gunners starting XI is particularly notable given that in their last 5 league games, they have averaged more goals per game (2.4) than they had in their previous 18 (1.8). Wenger had hinted that Jack Wilshere could play a deeper role, but the England international lacks the positional discipline to cover the space in front of the defence.
Mikel Arteta, as good as he is on the ball, does not have the legs to shield the back four. His average of 1.6 fouls per league game - more than any teammate - indicates an ageing midfielder struggling to keep up with players that are more mobile than him. As a result, he resorts to desperate measures to halt opponents. This may hinder opposing side's momentum, but also invites pressure on the defence.
Mathieu Flamini has also begun to show his advancing years and a series of sub-par displays in the middle of the park have meant Coquelin has now quickly established himself as first choice in the middle of the park following the culmination of his loan spell at The Valley.
Averaging more tackles per game than any Arsenal player (2.8) denotes the amount of work he does in the middle of the park and it's this facet of his game that will be essential if Wenger's side are to secure a top 4 berth once more this campaign. Having averaged less possession against both City and Villa, Coquelin's ability to break up play has been essential to Arsenal's game plan.
The Gunners have developed a statistically calculated WhoScored strength of 'counter attacks' and this aspect of their game, which made the win over City possible, will be crucial when they make the trip to White Hart Lane in Saturday's North London Derby.
Rivals Tottenham have begun to find their stride under Mauricio Pochettino. Spurs implemented an effective counter-attacking game when the two teams met at the Emirates earlier in the season and this time around, the onus will be on Arsenal to sit back and hit Spurs on the break, with Coquelin expected to be imperative for the visitors this weekend.
He has to remain composed, however. An average of 1.3 fouls per game in his 5 Premier League starts this season suggests his inexperience still rears its head on occasion and in a heated encounter, any indiscipline could impede Arsenal, especially with Christian Eriksen in such fine free-kick taking form.
"You would not have expected Francis in our line-up, but he is doing really well," teammate Per Mertesacker said of Coquelin ahead of the upcoming derby between Arsenal and Spurs. A backhanded compliment, perhaps, but the Frenchman has effortlessly come into the side and provided some much-needed steel in a pivotal area of the pitch. From stop-gap to regular starter, Coquelin has repaid the faith shown in him by Wenger at a time when a holding midfielder was deemed a necessity.?
How big a role do you think Francis Coquelin will play in Saturday's North London Derby?