Between the time of January 2015-May 2015, a lot went down for the French midfield enigma that is Francis Coquelin. He was recalled from Charlton to play for his parent club due to a complete shambolic stature of midfield injuries meaning he jumped into the starting lineup in the very next game. What followed was the reason why many started writing about how the defensive midfielder had made the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson eat his words.
In his autobiography, the great Scot had mentioned Coquelin from the 8-2 battering of the Gunners by his side as, “He was completely out of his depth. I had hardly heard of him and he barely played again”. This quote was often used in papers to showcase the magical rise of a man from nothing to overnight rock in the Arsenal midfield and rightly so. With his injection of pace, solidity and discipline, the Gunners conquered the great Top 4 trophy whilst beating the likes of Manchester City 0-2 at the Etihad in a rare solid performance.
Later towards the end of the season, Arsene Wenger was famously quoted saying, “The world has changed. The appreciation today of the quality of a player is just down with the money you spend, if we had bought Coquelin at Christmas for £40m, everyone would say ‘what a signing’. I am sorry he didn’t cost any money, he is still a good player”. Give the man a chance to defend his players (and his decisions) and he won’t refuse.
Ever since Gilberto SIlva’s departure in 2008, the Arsenal faithful have been crying out for a solid central man who can rally the troops and look after the defence while the creators do the business. Up until last year, Francis Coquelin appeared to have finally filled that void. However, in February 2016 Arsenal were sweating on his fitness as they would for any critical player of theirs, and his return was hardly the second coming of a prodigal son. He lost his form and started making ill minded decisions. The red card vs Spurs, his complete absence on the ball vs Leicester and the problem was it carried onto the current season as well. For the man listed as the ‘police officer’ by Thierry Henry, it seemed like the Premier League’s finest had caught up with him.
In about a year and a half, every team in the League and even in Europe knew how he operated and just how to rile him up. With the introduction of Granit Xhaka into the Arsenal lineup, it became even easier to get the Arsenal players booked for dissent and it worked perfectly well for Coquelin. The minute he gets his yellow of the game, you know his work rate is pretty much irrelevant anymore. You see, he cannot operate at his best without flying into pressing positions and even small tackles because that’s what made him so good defensively. He would foresee the player getting the ball and react first. But after his recklessness caves in, say goodbye to the policing and hello to punishment.
A lot of talk has been about the absence of Santi Cazorla and how that exposes his inability to bring the ball forward and thus getting even more isolated and frustrated during games. However, Xhaka has been doing well enough to spray the passes from deep as well as cover his tracks when he is not looking to book his next vacation with a red card. During this time of uncertain starters in midfield, one Alex Chamberlain has stepped forward and done magnificently in both roles-destroyer and creator.
In games vs Bayern where nearly everything was a huge negative, his tenacity and directness in central areas was the reason many Arsenal fans still believe the team could make Top 4. He has enough strength to see off challenges and pace to burn on any counter attack. Add to that his box of tricks and you’ve got yourself a pretty complete player as long his injury concerns are well attended to. As compared to the Frenchman, Chamberlain brings about a more cool and composed nature into the midfield given there is more than enough trust when he’s on the ball. Arsene Wenger has largely been averted to signing super powerful defensive midfield rocks only because they lack the ability to hold on to the ball and recycle it. The ‘Ox’ ticks all the boxes on that list and thus needs to continue featuring while he can.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain vs Hull City (H) pic.twitter.com/Ba5u8kbgVa
— Arsène Respector (@Deckenbauer) February 11, 2017
Just before the game vs Chelsea last month, the manager said this about the Englishman: “He has so many qualities which make you think he can play on the flanks because he’s powerful, has pace and can dribble. But the position where he really looks like blossoming is in the middle. I like his game”. In the video above you can see why he power and pace make him such a deadly option in the centre, much more so than the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Coquelin. He offers more than both of those players combined and then some. And if you need more convincing, just imagine Hazard doing what he did to Coquelin to Chamberlain. Yeah, I can’t picture it either.
The Arsenal midfield has long been criticised for lacking a decent beast in it and while Xhaka may grow into that role the next season, Wenger has to realise he has an ace in the hole with him right now. If in fact Sir Alex is going to be eventually proven right about the real usefulness of Coquelin in the coming months, the Gunners could do worse than give their 23-year old ‘Ox’ a continued run in midfield.