Just over a year ago, Francis Coquelin came off the Charlton bench to play against Leeds. Our DM destroyer had just joined The Addicks on a month’s long loan and many of us, me included, thought we would sadly not see him back in an Arsenal shirt.
Many of us had liked him a lot but we were just not sure whether he would be tough enough for the PL. It also looked like Arsene was trying to move away from a typical DM towards a more well-rounded, multi-functional midfielder in the deeper midfield role (Arteta, Ramsey). Francis had previously spent a considerable time in Germany playing for Freiburg but, by all accounts, this was not greatly successful.
He did not get many chances to play for Arsenal before his short loan spell at Charlton, but an injury to Ramsey and other midfielders made Wenger recall him in December 2014, and after a few appearances as a sub, he played the full game against West Ham at home – his first start in almost two years. He took this opportunity with both hands and feet and never looked back. Since this game, he has established himself as a first team starter and led the league in defensive interceptions made, one-on-one duels, and placed second in tackles made. What an astonishing transformation!
It truly is a small miracle how our French midfield beast has taken his opportunity to shine and impress us all so much over the last twelve months. I can watch any match he has played in again and again, and just concentrate on his game; that is how good he is. He is the ultimate protector of our defence and perfect ball feeder for our more attack-minded midfielders. Although I see him mostly as a typical DM, a position he (and I) cherishes a lot, Francis also has good all-round football skills to make him quite the complete package. Slowly, he is developing into the sort of DM Wenger really wants to have at Arsenal: one that can defend but also support the attack (and with Ramsey he is trying the reverse btw).
It also must be said that Francis’ ability to develop a strong partnership with the self-reinvented Santi, is just as key for his miraculous progress. The Wall of CoCa has been pivotal to the recent success of the team, and together they have found a great balance between supporting the defence and linking up with the attack-minded players. Santi is not a natural defender, and this will always be a weakness for him, but he reads the game well and is very good at keeping hold of the ball and releasing pressure, once he is in possession of it – and he can do this in the tightest of spaces. The Spaniard’s ability to play a quick and accurate through-ball, with either leg, is of course also a key attribute he offers to us. But Santi needs Coquelin to cover for him when he vacates his position and pushes forward. Francis’ phenomenal ability to read the game, make crucial interceptions, win one-on-one duels on the ground and in the air and great tackling skill, make the Wall of CoCa so effective: together they are more than the sum of these considerable parts.
We have also started to notice a Vieiraesque ability to lead. Francis is both calm and introvert – his more natural demeanour – and takes the lead and is very vocal at the same time: just like Vieira used to be. He also uses his (by some still undervalued) physicality to the max without getting nasty. He is hard but fair and seems to have a lot of respect from his fellow players as well as his direct opponents. This is an amazing achievement in just twelve months of regular first team football and shows he has great potential to become our captain at some point in the future.
I love it when a genuinely great guy and committed sportsman finally comes good, and this is certainly the case with Francis Coquelin. And, it should also provide all those hard working young players out there who are currently struggling to establish themselves at their clubs with hope that things will turn round for them eventually. Coquelin has produced his own fairy-tale: Francis, I salute you!