Seemingly out of nowhere, Arsenal sold Francis Coquelin to Valencia, so what happened and why did Arsene Wenger seem happy to get rid of the player?
There was plenty of talk in the summer of Arsenal signing a new central midfielder to partner Granit Xhaka.
That was pretty damning for Coquelin, who went from first team regular to out the door in the following six months. Whatever shape Arsenal’s midfield was to take this season, it didn’t appear to have room for Coquelin in it.
The main reason for that could simply be down to skillset.
Coquelin resurrected his Arsenal career by adding aggression and tough tackling to the Arsenal midfield. He was regarded as the perfect counter-balance to Arsenal’s technicians, the one to do all the dirty work and allow the likes of Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla to play.
While Coquelin could still provide this, his lack of ability on the ball was a problem.
There have been numerous times when Coquelin has been subbed off after 70 minutes when Arsenal are chasing a game due to the Frenchman’s inability to be progressive with his passing.
Likewise, only Santi Cazorla has looked a good midfield partner for him, as the Spaniard’s supreme passing could compensate for Coquelin’s lack of ability in a way neither Ramsey or Wilshere could.
Nonetheless, Coquelin did keep his spot in the Arsenal team for the beginning of last season at the expense of new £34m signing Granit Xhaka. It was a decision that mystified many fans, but there was some merit to it as Coquelin impressed with his ability to press high up the pitch and win the ball back.
While he couldn’t do much with the ball in the final third, his energy and tenacity were useful during a period where Arsenal were pressing more aggressively. Xhaka’s own clumsy style of defending served to strengthen Coquelin’s position.
But then, Cazorla picked up a
season career ending injury, and Arsenal’s ball circulation suffered as a result. Xhaka had to come into the team to help with Arsenal’s passing. Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger was looking for a way to put a fit again Aaron Ramsey into the starting eleven.
In the end, Coquelin was dropped, and the Xhaka-Ramsey partnership was born.
That partnership went on to flourish in the final 10 games of the season, aided by the extra security of a third centre back. Coquelin only appeared when one of them needed a rest, and found himself coming on as a late substitute to help Arsenal see out games.
In Arsenal’s 3-4-2-1 system, there appears to be little room for a ball winner like Coquelin.
He can’t provide the passes from deep in the way Xhaka can. He can match Ramsey for energy and work rate, but not his creativity or timing of runs into the penalty area. Arguably, Mohamed Elneny is a better option in that Ramsey role.
Coquelin’s best hopes of being a regular again depended on Arsenal switching back to the 4-2-3-1, but even then, Wenger still saw Xhaka and Ramsey as his best partnership.
Unwanted at Arsenal but Coquelin will thrive at Valencia under Marcelino
For some, the sale of Coquelin to Valencia is just Arsenal shedding excessive baggage.
The French midfielder was once a key player in the Arsenal side and formed a very good partnership with Santi Cazorla.
Yet, his synergy with the Spaniard seemed to be the only thing that could get good performances out of him.
Coquelin at Arsenal was a whole-hearted player and added bite to the midfield, but at the expense of discipline and grace.
But while that bothered Arsenal fans, it’ll help him fit right in at Valencia.
Marcelino’s side have been much improved this season.
After years of inconsistency and strange signings, they’re finally making progress again.
Their explosive start to the season made them unlikely title challengers. They’ve since dropped off, but are still set for a comfortable top four finish – something that Arsenal are, ironically, a long way from accomplishing.
Key to their success has been improving unfancied players.
As noted by Guillem Balague, Marcelino has a habit of improving the form of players other clubs didn’t want.
Gabriel, for example, has seen his form improve dramatically since returning to Spain.
Geoffrey Kondogbia and Simone Zaza, two players considered to be flops when signed, have been key to their form.
At times, Coquelin could get lost in the chaos of Arsenal’s midfield and end up trying to cover more space than he was able.
That won’t be the case at Valencia, who are compact and energetic.
Their game revolves around winning the ball back and hurting the opposition with quick counters.
Ball-winning was Coquelin’s biggest strength, so it wouldn’t be at all surprising if he flourished in Spain.