When Francis Coquelin was sent out on loan to Charlton Athletic in November of last year, he must have thought that his time at Arsenal was coming to a close. Yet four months on, he has become the lynchpin of the club's resurgence in form.
For all the flair and pace that Arsene Wenger's team always seems to possess, the lack of a defensive hard man in the centre of midfield has arguably held Arsenal back from winning the big trophies over the the past few years. The frustration of a reluctance to buy an defensive midfielder prompted an angry response from Arsenal fans.
However, amid the plethora of attacking rejuvenation that the Gunners have showed during a much improved second half of the season, it has been Coquelin's presence in midfield that has been the catalyst to the club winning eight of their last nine league games.
And the stats emphasise his importance to Arsenal's cause
Before Arsenal's 3-0 victory over West Ham on Saturday, Arsenal with Coquelin in the side boasted a win percentage of 76.9 (10 wins in 13 games and an average of 2.4 points per match), compared to a 40 percent without him (six wins in 15 games and an average of just 1.5 points per game).
Not only that, but Arsenal concede only 0.8 goals per game with Coquelin in midfield, and 1.2 goals per match without him. His importance is undoubted.
Arsenal have needed a player who is willing to do the dirty work in midfield so that the attacking talent can go and play, and that is exactly what Coquelin thrives on. In 13 games since his return, Coquelin has won 48.6 per cent of his tackles, 68.9 per cent of his aerial duels and averages 4.1 interceptions per game.
Furthermore, the 23-year-old averages 0.6 blocks, 5.2 clearances and zero defensive errors per match - all superior stats to Chelsea's own midfield enforcer Nemanja Matic, who is widely regarded as the best holding midfielder in the country.
Coquelin's performances have added much needed steel to an Arsenal side that have often been criticised for being too soft. Wenger knows only too well how much his midfield man's rise to prominence has helped the club.
“I think he analysed well what he is good at, defending in midfield," said the Gunners' manager earlier this month.
“He was in between the playmaking position and being a box-to-box player, but he is not that - he's a sitting player who can win the ball.
"He restricted his game to that and you make success in life with what you're good at. You don't have all the qualities but you have to express what you're good at and he's good at that.”
Coquelin is continuing to inspire others around him. The form of key playmakers Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla, who is fast becoming a contender for footballer of the year, has improved dramatically with Coquelin in a supporting role
Before, Ozil and Cazorla were heavily scrutinised for not tracking back when they needed to, when in fact, their job is to provide Arsenal with real attacking nous. They both needed someone to come in and do the defensive work for them and that is exactly what Coquelin has done.
The presence of Coquelin suggests a difference in Wenger's usual flowing philosophy. In the 10 games this season where Arsenal have had least possession, they have actually won seven, drawn two and lost just once.
Wins at Manchester City in the league and most recently at Old Trafford in the FA Cup point to a long-awaited change in strategy against the big teams, especially away from home. During Arsenal's winning streak of 18 in 23 matches, the Gunners have had an average possession of 55.3 percent.
That is lower than all of Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham, Chelsea and Everton. The pragmatism being shown in big games is as a result of Coquelin's ability to absorb pressure throughout, therefore allowing the free flowing football to take place at the other end.
If that wasn't enough, legend Thierry Henry has been more than impressed with Coquelin's displays.
“He has been amazing, Arsenal don’t look like they will concede, they can score and he gave everyone protection everybody was talking about," said the club's top scorer at the start of February.
“Sometimes you look for that player and they are right in front of you. But the guy has matured, he went on loan, and knows he had to perform and he is doing it.”
What Coquelin lacks in height (5 ft 10 in), he more than makes up for with his battling displays. Moreover, the passion is there for everyone to see.
After Nacho Monreal's opener at Old Trafford at Monday, Coquelin didn't sprint over to celebrate with the Spaniard straight away. Instead, he stood there, fist pumping and passion being released while at the same time knowing how much his hard work is paying off. Passion and organisation are two pertinent adjectives to describe the Frenchman at the minute, and it seems it's rubbing off on the rest of the team.
Whether or not Wenger will still be searching for a defensive midfielder in the summer is anyone's guess. Yet the performances of Coquelin throughout the second half of the season has given the Gunners boss plenty of room for comfort.
Coquelin has become a key man for Arsenal, and it has been a resurgence of the upmost significance.
Is Francis Coquelin the future for Arsenal in the centre of midfield?
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