18 January 2015

Coq's out, lads! Francis Coquelin took this one by the scruff!

We haven't seen such a complete, confident, determined, disciplined performance from Arsenal in some time, and to think that at its center—both literally and figuratively—was a man dubbed one of the Bundesliga's "flops of the season" a year ago during his loan-spell with SC Freiburg beggars belief. None of this is to say
that we can now put away the chequebook and blithely entrust our defensive midfield needs to the man, but it was indeed refreshing to see someone on the pitch who could deliver the bite, the tenacity, the snarl, that we've so often lacked. He may not be Vieira's heir, but he laid to rest a number of questions that lingered after similarly confident performances against lesser sides. I hereby suggest that we continue to doubt him rather than laud him.

For one, City went in without Yaya Touré, who is away at the African Cup of Nations, and the Fernando-Fernandinho double-pivot posed far less of a threat going forward than the Indomitable Ivorian. Neither one of the Brazilians offered as much in attack or in defense. As such, Coquelin's performance must come with a hefty grain of salt or two, and it still remains to be seen whether he can deliver against an opposing player who more-thoroughly outclasses
him. However, even with that important caveat, Coquelin still did have to contend with Man City's 65% possession and the threats posed by Agüero, Silva, Jovetić, and Navas, none of them slouches.

Seven aerial duels won (best on the pitch). Six interceptions (bested only by Monreal). Eleven clearances (again, best on the pitch). By the numbers, Coquelin was one of the best performances on the pitch, earning an 8.78 from whoscored.com, eclipsed only by Monreal and Cazorla, each of whom have far more experience at this level than does Coquelin. And yet he turned in a confident, steely performance against one of the most-fearsome onslaughts on offer. Absent those numbers is how often he simply closed down an opponent or passing lane, denying City space to operate or create chances in the first place. He read the game very well, an element of his performance that might undermine his statistics (for what they're worth) but that might be far-more important. Tackles can make for great highlight clips, but you have to see the tackles he doesn't have to make because he denied the pass by virtue of where he chose to stand.

He may not be the second coming of Vieira, but he seems bound and determined to make the most of his chance, and there's something in that. He's 23, but he's bounced around a bit. Usually, a loan offers a young player a chance to get some playing time in order to develop. In Coquelin's case, though, he seems to have suffered. Perhaps it was because he was played so far out of position (Mr.Özil, it would please the court if you would stifle the sarcastic comments). Coming back to Arsenal and being offered a chance, if only because of injuries to Wilshere, Arteta, and others, Coquelin might be driven by a hunger deeper than that of those who have enjoyed a more gilded experience.

Speaking after the match, Arsène was visibly pleased with his performance, saying:
I took him from France at the age of 16. Today he is 23. He has gone through some difficult periods, but he’s a learner from his experiences. I’ve always kept faith in him, because I told him three months ago that he needed to play somewhere. He accepted to go down to Charlton and had convincing performances. Now he’s come back, I’ve played him and he’s done very well.
Indeed he has. Even if we attach such asterisks as "Touré would've changed things" or "Arsène set us up to play more conservatively", it was still largely if not entirely up to Coquelin to deliver the performance. With Alexis, Cazorla, Ramsey, and Oxlade-Chamberlain around him, Coquelin frequently found himself alone in shielding our back-four against one of the most-expensive and lethal attacks in European football, one that was bound and determined to keep pace with a Chelsea side that had won by a 5-0 scoreline the day before. City, perhaps more than any other Prem champion of recent vintage, has to know the importance of goal difference, yet, they couldn't find a single goal against a squad they had decimated in our last visit.

Some of that is down to Coquelin, perhaps enough of it for us to dare to dream of bigger fish to fry. Francis, what do you say? Do you have it in you to turn in such performances week in, week out, or shall we continue to court someone like Carvalho instead?

Readers, what do you think? Was this a one-off from the Frenchman, or could Coquelin convince us of his quality in the longer term? Your thoughts in the comments below...