There are certain obvious signs that your career may be heading in the wrong direction. Your boss, wrongly, thinks your name is Warren. Your Thundercats mug is mysteriously and comprehensively smashed. Some joker writes ‘I bum all types of goats’ on the bonnet of your Ford Focus. Or, at the age of 23, you get sent out on loan to Charlton.
And yet, despite looking like just another Arsenal youngster who will spend his late twenties at a mid-table Norwegian club, Francis Coquelin has been unexpectedly magnificent. It’s no coincidence that since he made his first start at the end of 2014, Arsenal have won 12 out of the 14 league games they’ve played. In the first 15 games of the Premier League, where Coquelin didn’t feature at all, they won just 6.
But it was only the crumbly bones and twangy muscles of Arsenal’s first choice midfield that even brought Coquelin back to the club. Before then, Arsene Wenger seemed quite content to protect his defence with the elegant, but drippy, Mikel Areta and everyone’s favourite thigh-raker, Mathieu Flamini. Defensively speaking, it was the equivalent of throwing wet Quavers at the men who are burgling your house.
But since Coquelin’s emergence, Arsenal’s midfield has looked surprisingly balanced. His alertness, energy and relentless ankle-nibbling have freed the likes of Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey to do the more familiar Arsenal thing of bombing relentlessly forward – the only difference being that there is now someone behind them who can sniff out danger like Nigel Farage can sniff out an egg to the face. His natural instincts to gobble up space and break up an opposition’s momentum have been one of the driving forces behind Arsenal’ s best run since their Invincible 2004.
As well as his own performances, Coquelin clearly fills his team with the kind of confidence they haven’t had since Ian Beale’s second marriage. Now Arsenal have won their last 4 away games by a single goal – exactly the kind of games where they’d normally crumble like, yes, an Ian Beale marriage.
The most recent of those away victories was exactly the kind of grinding, clanking 1-0 win at Burnley that would make the Arsenal of four months ago do a little pants-wee. Tellingly, during that win Coquelin was everywhere Burnley didn’t want him to be, winning 100% of his tackles and making 11 interceptions – a record for any Premier League player this season. In comparison, Scott Arfield in the Burnley midfield won just 27% of his tackles during the game, and was made to look like a man who had forgotten how legs work.
The sniggering that accompanied Coquelin’s recall to the club has fully evaporated. Now, the sneers from Chelsea fans about Arsenal being roughly one Nemanja Matic short of a title winning side are starting to look a little wobbly. In 2015, Coquelin tops both the charts for most tackles won and most interceptions made. Matic features in the top ten for neither.
Of course, no one is saying Coquelin is at Matic’s level just yet. Aside from being a massive slab of gorilla fists, the giant Serb is also rather crafty with the round thing. Coquelin, for all his qualities, sometimes passes the ball as if he’s trying to kick a jellyfish into a wheelie bin.
But in terms of impact he has to be regarded, alongside Harry Kane, as the most important ‘non-signing’ of the season. In precisely the same way Spurs needed someone reliable to score their goals, Arsenal needed someone to suck up the space and danger ahead of their occasionally Mertesackery back four.
Like Kane, whether Coquelin is capable of turning this incredible moment into a prolonged career of incredible moments, remains to be seen. Arsenal will still need to invest in footballers who enjoy the thud and thwack of defensive duties. But, when Wenger is pondering which players to add to his squad in the summer, he’ll have a new, far higher and substantially Coquier benchmark.
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