Ask any Arsenal fan what the club’s priority should be in the summer transfer window, and the answer will likely be ‘a holding midfelder’, someone to lighten the burden on Mikel Arteta, Abou Diaby and Mathieu Flamini.
Out of nowhere, it looks like Gunners youngster Francis Coquelin – a box-to-box-cum-full-back-cum-midfield-enforcer – seems to fall into that category.
With an integral performance during Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Manchester City three weekends ago as the most defensive element in a midfield triplet, Coquelin has thrown his name into the hat as a serious contender to step up into this role for the Gunners.
The type of midfielder Arsenal – and, in reality, every club that has European ambitions – need is becoming an ever-rarer breed; convincing Claude Makelele impersonators were once ten-a-penny, but few remain at the top end of the beautiful game. Those that do – Javier Mascherano, Thiago Motta, Javi Martinez and Sergio Busquets, for example – are already plying their trades with Europe’s biggest clubs.
And in truth, the role has evolved since the Chelsea midfielder left the Premier League in 2008. With the extra man now more commonly in the pocket ahead of midfield rather than behind it, defensive-mids have to be productive, influential and confident in possession too. The game has become too quick for sideways passers. A concern that should particularly resonate with Arsenal, being the most technically-demanding side in the Premier League.
So once again, holding players that fit those unique requirements, midfielders who blend monolithic physicality with quality on the ball, such as Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic and Yaya Toure, are hardly in copious supply – even if you have the money to spend. And one need only take a quick gander over the other side of North London to consider the consequences of buying a knock-off; Tottenham have spent £42million on Paulinho, Etienne Capoue and Moussa Dembele as potential midfield anchors, but all are now surpassed in the pecking order by academy duo Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason.
Likewise, City’s Fernandinho and Fernando, signed as more conservative partners to Yaya Toure, cost the club £46million, but their performances have rarely reached the worldly level one would expect for such lofty price-tags. Indeed, defensive midfield seems to be a particularly tough and unforgiving role in the basket-ball-esque tempo of the Premier League.
Coquelin still has some way to go before proving he’s the long-term solution to the dearth of defensive quality in Arsenal’s engine room. Despite the impressive show against the Citizens, he still lacks the experience other options on the market – such as Southampton’s Morgan Schneiderlin or Real Madrid’s Sami Khedira – could offer the Gunners. Likewise, the depths of his physicality are limited to just a 5 foot 10 frame, so he may soon find himself being bullied by the Premier League’s many midfield powerhouses – especially as the increase of his importance to the Gunners brings a higher level of focus upon him.
Working in the 23 year-old’s favour however, is his understanding of Arsenal’s philosophy, engrained within him through his many years within the Emirates fold. He also has the platform that options on the market won’t, in proving his suitability to the Gunners between now and the end of the season.
So whilst some may view the Frenchman as a gamble – or rather, Wenger’s refusal to take one in the transfer market – does he constitute a greater risk than the £30million-rated Morgan Schneiderlin, a midfielder impressing in a more progressive role for Southampton that’s never plied his trade at Champions League level? Or Sami Khedira, who has spent the best part of the last two seasons sidelined with injury? Or £25million prodigy William Carvalho, who offers physicality in abundance but lacks technical quality?
In my opinion, no. And their potential transfer fees could be spent on further extending the depth in quality of the squad as a whole.
Coquelin’s name may not yet be mentioned in the same price brackets as those he’s inevitably going to be compared with just yet, but the confidence of a new contract and continued expose to first team football – particularly in the Champions League – could well bring bring him to a similar level. Why spend unnecessary fortunes in the transfer market, when the solution is already offering himself for free?