Who do you think is Chelsea’s most dangerous player?
Perhaps it’s Eden Hazard, player of the year last season? Or perhaps it’s his key provider, Cesc Fabregas. When you think of Chelsea’s attacking talents, there are certainly a few to choose from.
In the first half of the Community Shield, perhaps the most poignant example of Arsenal’s game plan was that the usually lacklustre Willian looked the biggest threat of all the Chelsea players, and that was in no small part down to Francis Coquelin.
The Frenchman has been on the receiving end of plentiful praise since returning from a loan spell at Charlton last winter, but on Sunday afternoon his tenacity in front of the defence reduced Hazard to a spectator as Arsenal allowed Chelsea plenty of the ball but no end product.
Hazard was playing more centrally than we are used to, sitting inside from his usual left wing berth and playing close to the perennially offside Loic Remy, perhaps because of the pace of Hector Bellerin. With his quick feet and low centre of gravity, he could have caused Mertesacker and Koscielny some problems when trying to both step forward to meet Hazard but track Remy’s runs behind.
As it was, Coquelin moved laterally in front of them to ensure that Hazard had no time on the ball, and more importantly that he struggled to receive it in the first place. Arsenal’s game plan was to allow Chelsea plenty of the ball from deep and cut off the supply lines forward, and Coquelin was the key to ensuring Hazard was one of a number of players particularly stifled by this approach.
It meant that very early on, Fabregas was forced to step up the pitch to try to create better angles, leaving Matic on the ball far more than Mourinho will surely have cared for. For all his strengths, the Serbian is not quite the all-round midfielder the press would have us believe based on his ball-playing at Wembley.
Although our French bulldog was eventually booked for a challenge on Hazard in the 68th minute (not quite sure how his ‘totting up’ count could have reached a higher number than Ramires’, but that’s Antony ‘I don’t believe in fouls‘ Taylor for you), that was the first real time the Belgian had succeeded in getting goal side of Coquelin while actually picking up possession of the ball, and had still been forced relatively wide in order to do so.
Too often on Match of the Day we see clips of Hazard cruising past players with a drop of a shoulder or a burst of pace, but at no point today did our defensive midfielder find himself backing off as Chelsea’s number 10 ran at him, and it proved decisive as Chelsea looked as blunt as a year-old rusty razor.
A common criticism of Coquelin is that he doesn’t do enough with the ball, but in a game like this one he kept things simple for the most part, and spread the play beautifully with a number of fizzing cross-pitch balls when the opportunity arose. He wasn’t playing defence splitting passes, although one did almost reach Mesut Ozil in the second half, but against a team like Chelsea, you don’t need your defensive midfielder to be unpicking the opposition. You just need him to get the ball moving quickly, and Coquelin did just that.
He was also straight in to protect Mikel Arteta when Fabregas started getting nasty late on too.
He’s the steel, and moreover the discipline, that this side has lacked for so long. For me, any new defensive midfielder is as a supplement to Coquelin, rather than a replacement. I don’t want to go all Spursy and declare that “this is our year” just yet, but with the Coq as the perfect foil to our silky forwards, suffice to say this season is shaping up to be exciting indeed.