Yes Coq? No Coq?

by & filed under News Review.

Morning folks. Apologies for the late post, but things have gone apoplectic at work and my boss has turned into a swearier Malcolm Tucker. The show must go on however – I have my priorities right, I know which way my bread is buttered.

The general consensus amongst large sections of the media, along with much of our fan base, is that a central midfield addition should be at the top of Arsene Wenger’s shopping list this summer, along with the mystical – and mythical – world class front man, a packet of hob knobs and a fresh set of string vests. I am very much of the view that we will not be signing a midfielder this summer, but this made me consider whether we need one at all?

Francis Coquelin has been lauded for his performances in 2015, with his introduction coinciding with our upturn in form. The populist view from the non-existent straw-poll I conducted seems to point to a player to play with Coquelin, or to cover him. Whilst this is understandable, given both his performances and the paucity of proper cover in our squad, I can’t help but feel we would be causing far more concern to the likes of Chelsea if we were to make a ‘first XI’ signing at the expense of Coquelin.

To revert to my initial statement that I can’t see us signing a midfielder, this comes down to how Arsene views our midfield – does he look at our options qualitatively, or quantitatively. Wenger often mentions ‘numbers’ in a position as he did only yesterday, referencing his wide options. In terms of quantity, there is no debate – Coquelin, Arteta, Flamini, Ramsey, Wilshere, Santi and Chamberlain are all vying for a midfield role; with my fear being that the manager will see the number of players he has covering two positions and be happy with his lot.

Aligned with this, Arsene has often tended to view midfielders as a homogenous ‘one’, without pocket holing players into a nuanced role. This can be positive, as it engenders versatile players and flexible systems, but equally we have suffered as a result of lacking someone more specialised in the holding midfield role in particular. For all his deficiencies, which I will touch on, Coquelin highlighted what a player of his ilk can offer, with our upturn in results being testament to that.

I can’t imagine this will be a popular stance, but an upgrade on Coquelin is required if we are to truly push on next season. This isn’t necessarily a criticism of his ability as a player per se, but more a misalignment between his skillset and the way Arsenal – and our rivals – set out to play. The much feted midfield destroyer is a dead-duck if you have serious ambitions about winning the big trophies – think Xabi Alonso, not Lee Cattermole. If you were to analyse the teams that have won the major prizes throughout Europe over the last couple of years, I struggle to recall one who plays with a ‘destroyer’ in the conventional sense. Busquets, Alonso, Schweinsteiger, Matic – first and foremost they are ball players – distributors from deep. They all possess tackling ability and immaculate positioning, but they perform a far greater function for their sides than protecting the back four without the ball – they protect them with the ball too. They provide a constant, safe out-ball for defenders under pressure; with these players’ ability to receive the ball under pressure crucial to easing periods of sustained strain.

This is where Coquelin falls short. For all his defensive capability – which is considerable – his unwillingness to receive the ball under pressure is hugely restrictive and can prove costly in big games. The match that highlighted his deficiencies most brutally was at White Hart Lane; where we were under heavy swathes of pressure and defending exceptionally deep. The pressure was exacerbated by the lack of cool head to receive the ball from the back four and dictate play from deep – be that driving forwards or slowing the game to halt Tottenham’s momentum. This game, more than any, was where we missed Arteta. Despite proclamations of his legs being ‘gone’ – where exactly to, I don’t know – his skillset remains hugely important to Arsenal’s midfield.

Coquelin isn’t a bad passer – at times, when he’s given space he is very good indeed – see the FA Cup final. The dichotomy is that when the team are under severe pressure, he is both our most valuable and most ineffective asset. His energy and ability to snap into tackles, along with the discipline to remain the most deep-lying midfielder is important, but his inability or unwillingness to be the main outlet from defence remains a critical blockage to our chances of competing at the highest level.

In recognition of Coquelin’s weaknesses, Wenger took drastic action, with the net result playing Santi Cazorla in a deep lying midfield role. Whilst he performed magnificently, it robbed us of our best central midfielder – Aaron Ramsey. Santi had to utilise his unsurpassed ability to receive the ball under pressure and mitigate for Coquelin’s inability to do so, but the manifestations of this move are far reaching. For instance, were Ozil to get injured or need resting, Santi is our only convincing deputy for the number 10 role. Shifting Santi further forward would then leave us with an unbalanced midfield partnership of Coquelin and Ramsey.

Furthermore, it is no coincidence that Arsenal’s most dominant period in some time was with a Ramsey-Arteta pivot. This illustrates the blueprint we should be adopting, which would allow Ramsey to also play in his best position.

Beyond this, Coquelin can’t play every game and given Arteta’s increasingly paternal cheerleader role and Flamini’s ever-increasing gut, someone else needs to be able to perform that role.

In light if this, a 25 year old Mikel Arteta would be the best signing Arsenal could make this summer – a ball playing, deep-lying midfielder who can receive the ball under pressure, whilst offering the requisite protection to the back four and one who doesn’t need babysitting by Santi Cazorla. Sadly those players aren’t widely available and those who are tend to be in high demand. In terms of names, the most similar to the one I’ve described above is probably Ilkay Gundogan, who possesses the right skillset. The concerns with him are his injury record, his rotund backside and his new contract at Dortmund.

It may seem I have been harsh on Coquelin, who has performed admirably over the last six months. He has an important role in our squad and would certainly get plenty of game time, but his limitations restrict Arsenal going forwards and backwards. I fear he will continue to do so, unless we find that 1989 Arteta.

Until next time x

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