Chelsea may have left Arsenal on Sunday afternoon with the Premier League all but in the trophy cabinet, the ten point lead the Blues have at the summit making it comfortable enough for Jose Mourinho to tease the Gunners over their decade-long barren run in search of the title, but the Portuguese, as he lavished overwhelming praise on centre-half John Terry, would be aware his team had been given a tough examination. There was enough from the 0-0 draw to suggest Arsenal will run Chelsea’s would-be champions to the limit next season.
That judgement is largely owing to a run of form that saw Sunday’s point become their 37th out of the possible 45 on offer since they won 1-2 at West Ham on 28th December. That day Francis Coquelin made his first start of the season for Arsenal and since then the Frenchman has been hard to displace, playing in all of the following fifteen games in a run that has seen Arsene Wenger’s men lose just twice. Nobody in the Premier League has been in better form over that period.
For so long the key behind Arsenal’s potential return to the company of genuine challengers for the title has been the lack of solid defensive midfielder and Wenger’s refusal to sign one, in the mould of Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit or Gilberto Silva whom provided the solid base to his recently successful teams, seemed to be one of the most frustrating examples of outrageous oversight in the modern game. Yet now in Coquelin, the 23 year old who was playing on loan at Championship club Charlton as recently as December 6th, he could have stumbled upon the answer without even having to open the chequebook.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Coquelin’s introduction to the team, where he makes most of his appearances sitting alongside the more advanced Aaron Ramsey in the engine room, has changed their season. Up until the game at West Ham they had conceded 22 goals from 18 games but in the following 15, with Coquelin shielding the back 4, they have shipped just 10.
Furthermore it has allowed Wenger to find success in a new found pragmatism on show in the bigger matches, which began on December 21st at Liverpool, where Coquelin played just 8 minutes, where they registered 35% possession in the 2-2 draw, their lowest share of the ball since records started being collated in 2003.
They would also see less of the ball in the win at West Ham, seeing 42% of it, which started Coquelin’s run in the side and it was all in the prelude to the brilliantly engineered 0-2 win at Manchester City where again the Gunners would register 35% of the possession. The rigid discipline on display was a far cry from the 5-1, 6-0 and 6-3 thrashings Arsenal had suffered at the hands of Liverpool, Chelsea and, in the same fixture, Man City last season and Coquelin was superb, shackling David Silva and allowing Santi Cazorla to thrive in the area ahead of him.
Not long after the game at City he was signing a four-and-a-half year extension to a contract that looked more than likely to not be renewed when it expired this summer. Responding to the query of whether Coquelin can be a long-term solution, Wenger said, “yes of course, like anybody else, of course. I will wait until the end of the season to see how well things go and where we are. He does the job well.”
With his game now full of bite and spirit he certainly does do the job well. Patrolling the defensive midfield vicinity like a hound, and an added maturity that even Wenger admitted had taken him by surprise back in March. With Coquelin charging around, opposition attacking midfielders rarely get the space and time on the ball required to hurt Arsenal and he hunts the ball down constantly at a rate of 3.4 tackles and 3.8 interceptions per game.
Some of the doggedness has perhaps had to be toned down after he picked up four straight bookings over the Christmas period, but it has only added to the intelligence of his play and positioning. He has made a total of 113 interceptions and tackles in 2015, 31 more than any other player in this calendar year, and in doing so he has picked up just 2 yellow cards in the league since 4th January.
The amount of fouls he has given away, 21 from a total of 18 Premier League appearances, is also testament to his reading of the game and anticipation of the ball. On the ball he is also a reliable passer, a handy trait to have in a Wenger team.
Mourouane Fellaini, in such good form Jose Mourinho had to devise a special plan in training to handle his threat when his Chelsea side met him last Saturday, Phillipe Coutinho and on Sunday Cesc Fabregas, Coquelin has managed to handle the best playmakers in the league during his renaissance adaptation to the league. Whereas Chelsea have Nemanja Matic, inducted into the PFA Team of the Year on Sunday, as the midfield rock of protection to the defence, Arsenal could now possibly have the same for next year in Coquelin; one of the most unexpected breakthroughs of the season.
There will still be a lot to learn, as the 1-3 defeat to Monaco in the Champions League warned the whole of Arsenal’s squad, but there has been more than enough in Coquelin’s campaign to indicate Wenger was right to keep faith in the player he took from Stade Lavallois as a 16 year old in 2008.
An unsettled series of loan spells to Lorient, Frieburg and then Charlton has followed as he looked set to conform to Sir Alex Ferguson’s prophecy, in reference to Manchester United’s 8-2 demolition of Arsenal in 2011 that “he was completely out of his depth. I had hardly heard of him and he barely played again.” Now he is playing again and many more people are beginning to hear of the 23 year old.
“One day you are unknown – the next you are a bit bigger” says Coquelin, and the possibility for Arsenal and Coquelin is to now go even bigger.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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