Arsenal don’t even play the best football in the league anymore, and by god does that frustrate the manager. It’s a baton that was begrudgingly ripped from Wenger’s hand a while ago now, either by Guardiola, Klopp, even Brendan Rodgers depending on who you ask, like a disgruntled Miss World having to give up her title.
The last few years of the Emirates have seen orchestrators, left-pegged geniuses and ladies’ men alike. In Arsène Wenger’s divine quest to win the “right” way, any dream will do; the club welcome pretty players from La Masia speedsters comfortable on catwalks and free-roaming, deep-lying playmakers with Eastenders heart-throb haircuts, to formerly tricky wingers now resigned to winning coffee machines in marital bets in the absence of international caps, and weirder still, Danny “Goals” Welbeck. Even the target man of the team, the typically big, hard bastard up top, is a physically flawless human, humble when he nets back-heels from 20 yards. It’s a nice team. Nice players your girlfriend would Google, who play nice football every now and then, when they’re cut to shreds by nastier bunches from up north.
Francis Coquelin didn’t exactly fit in with the furniture when he was recalled from then-Championship Charlton. It seemed unlikely that a 23-year-old on his third weary loan spell out of North London could really add much to a faltering Arsenal side, but sure enough, the Quasimodo of London Colney made his name simply by standing out from the pack. Unafraid of a crunching tackle and seemingly happy to man-mark as many players as he could at once, Thierry Henry christened him “the Police Officer”. He seemed to solve an old case in his first week on the job too, adding much needed grit to the spine of the side and mopping up for the midfield’s indiscretions.
Cult heroes are born from such petri dishes. The forgotten underdogs with faces worn from temporary accommodation while freezing on a lower league bench, returning to run marathons around proper players like David Silva, whether or not they touch the ball all half. That’s what the Premier League is about, to some people at least. The ones who try, come on. The ones who outrun their lack of talent every Saturday. The ones who point to vacant patches of pitch after the ball goes out of play, shouting at their teammates, to look like leaders at least.
That’s what earned Francis Coquelin a legion of followers, combined with extraordinary Squawka stats that told of his tackling and interception numbers. Stats don’t tell the whole story, but when Arsenal looked utterly effortless Coquelin looked the opposite, and actually, it worked nicely. Cazorla dictated play, Coq broke it up; Coq made the tackles, Cazorla the passes; Cazorla bombed forward to support the attack, Coq swarmed his own half to win the ball back. A needle player and a destroyer in perfect balance. Until Santi Cazorla’s injury hell began.
Midfielders measured by tackles (Y-axis), interceptions (X-axis), forward passes (size) and key passes (opacity). pic.twitter.com/rpCBVsvGpb
— FIRST 11 (@FlRST11) April 10, 2017
These past few seasons have been testing times for Arsenal’s midfield. Jack Wilshere went on gap year to the beach. Back from injury came peroxide prince Aaron Ramsey to the heart of the side, with mixed reviews on whether he should be playing further forward, and how to cover the space when he does make that marauding run. Mohammed Elneny was brought in from Basel one January, an enigma of a player who barely ventures vertically with the ball, but may well leave London having scored his only goal at the Nou Camp. Fellow former Baselee Granit Xhaka followed, a tough-talking, key-entrusted, chiseled regista with the promise of being able to dictate play and break it up.
And while impressive at times, Xhaka would look like a top footballer week after week if he wasn’t instructed to roam around the pitch like a dog off the lead at the woods. Arsenal moved to a back three to compensate for the fluctuation of Xhaka, Ramsey, Elneny, hell even Joe fucking Willock, and the positionless mess of the Gunners. Cazorla was on his penultimate legs already, but rose-tinted memories of that away match at City has crystallised his legacy.
Francis Coquelin has struggled to cope with the loss of Cazorla. His perfect foil gone, Coquelin has been tried alongside each of Arsenal’s other midfield generals, to varied results. With Ramsey, there was no one controlling the game. With Xhaka, the attacking drive unfortunately fell to Coquelin. With Elneny, neither of them were brave enough to pass forwards, forming a cowardly rugby centre-pairing rather than a title-winning pivot. We haven’t even seen Coquelin play alongside Wilshere properly, well, not since the pair won the FA Youth Cup nearly a decade and two great English ankles ago.
Coquelin’s boundless enthusiasm could only go so far in the second half of his Cinderella story. The Frenchman couldn’t outrun his lack of talent forever.
He wasn’t happy when I called him back. He played at Charlton and he thought I just called him back as cover. He was in between a bit the playmaking position and a box-to-box player, he is not that, he’s a sitting player who can win the ball. He restricted his game to that and you make success in life with what you’re good at. You don’t have all the qualities but you have to express what you’re good at and he’s good at that.
Arsène Wenger, 2015
It’s Wenger’s style to let his players do the talking, let expressionism lead the way. Coquelin was fine when better players than he were the ones with burden to express, but since taking a lead role and a bumper contract at the Emirates, he’s struggled under Arsène’s lack of direction. Attempts to convert him to a Kanté-type box to box midfielder proved fruitless. Ramsey has been quietly excellent for a while now, and Xhaka, while up and down still, is either a pivotal service provider or a necessary evil to control possession to the Wenger boys. The problems with the Arsenal midfield are still there, but Coquelin seems far too limited an answer.
Ultimately, it’s a shame that Coquelin’s Gunners story ends here. Arsenal’s all-action attack thrived with Francis anchoring, because the side enjoy chaos. They don’t rehearse, they just play. Coquelin was a useful tool to throw into the mix, when given specific instruction. It’s a shame because he could’ve been a bit-part Casemiro for the club had things have been different.
And of course, it’s a shame for the romance of it all. For an underdog ultimately failing. For a former club favourite to be lambasted for his lack of talent, despite that not really ever being his fault. For all those crunching tackles, interceptions and for all those flawless shadowing jobs performed on players much mightier than Coquelin himself. For a career propped up by a Spaniard’s crutches. For the fact that Arsenal fans won’t ever see that pairing again.
Farewell, Francis. You were the anti-Arsenal, anti-hero that the club never knew they needed. Beautiful football is forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser players to light the flame.