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Praveen’s latest “The Arsenal Annals” column.
Whilst the Emirates Stadium faithful were still trying to get their head around Arsenal’s best winger Alexis Sanchez being played as a centre-forward, Arsene Wenger pulled off another baffling move: converting a destroyer in Francis Coquelin into an attacking threat.
With Aaron Ramsey nursing a hamstring injury and £35million summer arrival Granit Xhaka facing fitness issues and his not being the best tackler in midfield, the Arsenal manager made the French midfielder partner Santi Cazorla in the midfield.
Although this move seemed a no-brainer, Wenger’s brainchild was rather unconventional, with the defensively astute Coquelin figuring in the final third more often than the Spanish midfielder, who predominantly sat back.
The 25-year-old midfielder was a revelation in the 2013/14 season, a season that saw Arsenal desperately lack a solid midfield presence.
His tackling ability and knack for interceptions saw Arsenal supporters herald him as the second coming of Patrick Vieira.
However, his subpar passing range and minimal attacking contribution prompted the fans and the club alike to look for his upgrade, who could link the midfield with attack impeccably, shortly after Coquelin’s honeymoon period had ended.
Seemingly, Coquelin, in his latest incarnation, has been addressing his shortcoming, taking up a more advanced role.
Although the Paris Saint-Germain game saw him look a square peg in a round hole, he bounced back swiftly as he produced a solid performance in the 4-1 rout of Hull City few days later.
The Arsenal manager is no stranger to playing his personnel out of their favoured position to make them world-class players in their new position.
A certain Thierry Henry achieved some success after completing his winger-to-centre-forward transformation whilst a winger convert to fullback Hector Bellerin stands as the most recent epitome of Wenger’s genius.
Perhaps, the gaffer is converting him into a midfielder in the mould of Aaron Ramsey to facilitate two identical double pivots: Xhaka-Ramsey and Cazorla-Coquelin.
Perhaps, he is undergoing a minor transformation – adding a few more skills to his arsenal and honing his technique and reading of the game – as Mesut Ozil and Nacho Monreal did after the former’s stint as a left winger and the latter’s spell as a centre-back.
Perhaps, the longest serving Arsenal manager has devised a new counter-counter-attacking system that not only ably tackles the absence of an out-and-out centre-forward in the starting line-up but also makes the best out of the tools at disposal.
With Coquelin operating in the final third, the London outfit could nip the counter-attacks in the bud.
The fact that Alexis Sanchez, a player who excels at making runs in behind, operates as the centre-forward only makes Coquelin-in-the-final-third experiment more likely to succeed, as the Chilean boasts the ability to put the ball into the back of the net merely seconds after Coquelin had won the ball.
The presence of a tackles-loving centre-back in Shkodran Mustafi only validates Wenger’s decision to grant his compatriot Coquelin the license to roam further.
Whatever the reason may be, Wenger’s unconventional brainchild has been producing results so fruitful that no one lambasts him as much as his detractors do for playing Sanchez as the number nine.
Written by Praveen Paramasivam
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