Premier League footballers have more than their fair share of fame and fortune.
However, there can also be a considerable amount of a very different kind of fortune required to make it at the top level.
Down in the realities of the football league, if you don’t take your moment to shine, then your career can be over. Or indeed, you may never get your moment to shine at all because of the way injuries fall, whether for you or the players you are competing with.
Where, at the top level, the players can hold the clubs to ransom, at the lower levels many of the clubs treat their players like dirt on the bottom of their shoe.
LIVING THE GOOD LIFE
At an elite academy, it’s a very different world – being picked up (and retained) by a club past school age means you have a far greater chance of being picked up, at the very least by a lower league club, and making a career in the game, even if the elite club themselves is just a level too high.
The confidence to earn a living for those players is much higher than the unattached 16 year old who has to seriously decide if they want to chase their dream or focus on a more reliable career.
So in many ways, those who develop at Arsenal don’t know how lucky they are.
But even at that top level, sometimes you just need things to fall for you, and the curious case of our reinvigorated Mr Coquelin is a prime example.
ADVANCING AT ARSENAL
There are three main routes that players can take if they are to be part of Arsenal Football Club at some stage in their careers – they can either join the Arsenal academy at an early age, join another club’s academy and then sign for Arsenal once they have attained a “potential” tag, or they can sign for the club once they are already an established player at the top level, whether that’s as an internationally recognised superstar or an Arsene diamond in the rough.
Looking at Arsenal’s current squad, we have quite a balanced mix of those routes, with established players just edging it.
It’s pretty impressive really that 16 of the 30 men listed on the first team squad list have either been developed by the club in the first place or given their top level breakthrough.
It demonstrates the widely-held view that Arsene Wenger gives young players a chance.
It also shows that at Arsenal, a young player is given every opportunity to prove that they can cut it at this level.
Luck is but a very small part of it once you reach the fringes of the first team squad.
So then, how did Francis Coquelin – a player expected to make his 14th appearance of the season on Saturday – go from being within months of leaving the Emirates to being indisputably our first choice holding midfielder?
From making five appearances for a side nearing the bottom of the Championship to more than double that number for a side competing in the Champions League?
We had better start at the beginning.
Le Coq was scouted by Gilles Grimandi as a 17-year-old back in 2008.
He spent a couple of years in and around the first team, playing regularly for the reserves and picking up a handful of games in the cups and then, as with many young Gunners, it was time for Coquelin to go out on loan to cut his teeth properly.
Lorient was the chosen destination, and a relatively successful season with the Ligue 1 club saw him return to North London the following summer despite interest from his loan club in signing him.
It was his time to shine.
Except that’s when it all started to unravel for the versatile French midfielder – Coquelin’s return coincided with possibly the worst game of Arsene’s tenure, the 8-2 mauling at Old Trafford where he played 62 minutes before being unceremoniously hauled off. His next Premier League start came in another defeat – this time 2-1 away to Spurs. A Champions League bow followed in yet another defeat at Olympiacos.
Le Coq was starting to look like an unlucky omen.
KEEP THE FAITH?
However, despite his apparently negative impact on the team’s results, Wenger did see fit to offer Coquelin a new contract, with his slightly more cultured style comparing well to the likes of Frimpong, and his versatility to play across the defence as well as in midfield also working in his favour.
17 appearances in 2011-12 and a further 22 in 2012-13 demonstrated that Arsene was not afraid of putting Coquelin on the front line following the departure of Alex Song.
However, not all those appearances were starts – with Coquelin pushing for more game time, the Frenchman was again farmed out on loan in the summer of 2013 – this time to Freiburg in the Bundesliga – and effectively replaced by the returning Flamini.
Rumours were that the deal would become permanent if he made a good impression.
The writing looked on the wall.
A season spent playing out of position again and again hardly helped Coquelin demonstrate his skills, and a future at Freiberg was off the cards at the turn of the season.
Against all odds, Coquelin began 2014-15 at Arsenal, but after starting just a solitary game in the League Cup, it appeared his time at the club was finally up as he went on what many expected to be his third and final loan to Charlton.
It looks as if it may well be his final loan, but for a very different reason – one which owes a huge amount to chance.
IT’S NOT OVER UNTIL THE COQ CROWS
Ahead of the visit of Newcastle in December, Wenger was without Arteta, Diaby, Ramsey and Wilshere, while makeshift defensive midfielder Chambers was suspended in the short term but also needed in the longer term to cover gaps left by Koscielny’s temperamental Achilles. The questionable fitness of both Monreal and Debuchy added to his headache.
Arsenal’s three fit midfielders – Flamini, Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain – looked more than a little on the lightweight side. If ever there was a place for a central midfielder with the ability to fill in at full back, it was then.
Clearly Arsene agreed, and so the call was placed to Charlton and Coquelin returned to North London in a last chance saloon.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Without injuries to the above mentioned players, though, it’s not difficult to imagine that Coquelin may even now have been contracted elsewhere.
All signs point to the club having mentally closed the door marked Coquelin, and the player himself has frequently made reference to his preference to play, wherever that means he must go, rather than collect his paycheck for benchwarming.
Fair play to our powerful Frenchman, his stats stand up to the best in the Premier League.
This year Nemanja Matic has been widely regarded as comfortably the best holding midfielder in the league, and albeit over 10 games compared to 24, but Coquelin has surpassed the Serbian in pretty much every defensive statistic available.
Per 90 minutes, he’s won more tackles, aerial duels, total duels and made more interceptions, blocks and clearances than Matic.
It’s not just about the statistics either – the Arsenal defence has been noticeably tighter with the Frenchman patrolling in front of it, with Coquelin proving a much stronger aerial presence despite his relatively small 5’10” frame and also reading the game very well to cover for the full backs when they do bomb forward, or support them when the opposition have an overload.
YOU MAKE YOUR OWN LUCK
The one thing that has never been in question is Coquelin’s attitude – there are numerous reports of his professionalism, his willingness to play wherever the team needs him most, and his commitment to the cause – from the moment he stepped back onto the Emirates pitch he was flying into tackles (thank goodness he has calmed down a little!) and doing his utmost to benefit the team.
Moreover there’s no doubting his desire to simply play, and he now has huge swathes of the fanbase not just tolerating, but actively supporting him.
Firstly he had to prove he could perform consistently. Check.
Next he had to prove he could do it against a top team. Check.
There are still a few people who hold out hope that Arsenal will sign a household name in that defensive midfield position in the summer, but the real question is who is even available, let alone better than Coquelin?
Morgan Schneiderlin is a name that recurs, but you can’t help but feel his reputation has been more than a little inflated because of our desperation for a quality player in that position. If Francis can keep his form going for an extended period of time, those calls for a replacement will stutter and fade.
So far the signs are very, very good.
Ultimately, Coquelin has been a lucky boy in resurrecting his Arsenal career when it looked dead and buried.
But then, they say you make your own luck, and Le Coq has certainly worked hard for his. More importantly, Arsenal are reaping the benefits.
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