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The Second Coming of Francis Coquelin

Francis Coquelin’s reappearance in Arsenal’s midfield in Wednesday’s 6-0 Champions League victory over Ludogorets may have signaled the start of a very long reign.

If not messianic – because the team did not need saving – Coquelin’s performance came close to perfection.

In his first start since injuring his knee against Chelsea on September 24, the Frenchman regained his high level in defensive interventions. He made 13 ball recoveries, intercepted seven opposition passes, and succeeded on eight of 11 tackles. All those were game highs, according to FourFourTwo Stats Zone.

The catalyst and distributor

We’ve come to expect such defensive influence from Coquelin since his near-miraculous emergence in January 2015. Perhaps more surprising was his passing acumen. Against Ludogorets, Coquelin led all Arsenal players with 51 completed passes, on 55 attempts. No Arsenal starter had better passing efficiency.

Coquelin always seemed to choose the correct option, even the not-so-obvious ones. Two passes in the second half stood out. He intervened brilliantly and returned Kieran Gibbs’ cleared cross to the left back, keeping alive the possession that led to Arsenal’s third goal. That’s at the 4:10 mark of this video.

The second (at 5:24) shows his vision and execution. Coquelin spots Mesut Özil open on the left and finds the German with a perfect cross-field pass.

Combine those two contributions, winning the ball and distributing it effectively, and you have the perfect midfielder for Arsenal’s current setup.

That’s not to detract from the quality and performances of Coquelin’s midfield teammates. On the contrary. I’d argue that the quintet of Coquelin, Santi Cazorla, Granit Xhaka, Mohamed Elneny, and Aaron Ramsey are, as a group, the best midfield in club football. No other team boasts a five-deep central midfield of that ability.

The contingent gives manager Arsène Wenger a range of options, as Tim Stillman explored in his Arseblog column this week.

What Coquelin provides is a foundation both solid and vibrant for Arsenal’s attacking talent to thrive. His instinct upon winning the ball appears to be to get it forward.

With equanimity: Despite completing the team’s most passes against Ludogorets, he didn’t figure in any of the team’s top five passing combinations. He found Özil eight times; Gibbs seven; Cazorla and Shkodran Mustafi five; Theo Walcott, Alexis Sanchez, Laurent Koscielny, Hector Bellerin, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain four.

One of many cogs in the tactical wheel

Many of these interactions begin with Coquelin higher up the pitch than a typical holding midfielder would be. He’s serving as a midfield marauder, with Cazorla as a deep-lying playmaker behind him.

This is an interesting shift from Wenger because it makes the midfield more proactive and interchangeable, given the personnel. Ramsey, Elneny, and Xhaka can all perform the role of Coquelin, though, as Stillman observes, with slightly different styles.

Meanwhile, Elneny and Xhaka can slot in for Cazorla as the deep playmaker. Yes, the aesthetic would be subtly different, but none of those shifts would alter the overall approach the manager seems to be taking.

The direction is to press opponents early in matches. Alexis often initiates the pressure on the ball, with Özil and Walcott closing down the first passing options. That’s when Arsenal surrender possession in relatively open areas of their attacking half.

When transitions happen in a more crowded attacking setting, often it’s Coquelin who steps up, prevents the opposition from escaping, intercepts the pass, and quickly finds a teammate in a threatening position. Such a contribution led to a stinging shot from Theo Walcott on Wednesday evening.

Then, when the pressing has resulted in a lead for Arsenal, the team can solidify its defensive shape and try to hurt opponents on the counterattack. Coquelin is an ideal linchpin for this approach as well.

The bone of contention

Still, Coquelin, like every central midfielder since Patrick Vieira, provokes debate among Arsenal fans. When Wednesday’s team sheet came out, for example, Twitter erupted with consternation that Coquelin, and not Xhaka, got the starting nod.

Maybe this is because Coquelin did not carry a huge price tag. Perhaps he doesn’t exude the silky skill some expect of an Arsenal midfielder. Or folks have forgotten how he and Cazorla combined to such successful effect in 2015. Or they don’t like the apparent improvisation that created that partnership. Others might not recognize how much he’s improved from that excellent year, even.

What’s clear, though, is that Wenger holds none of these opinions. The manager is a first-hand witness to Coquelin’s abilities and attitude, both of which he deems important to this version of Arsenal.

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