My guys from Arsenal were in the shits. We were losing players left and right. Wenger made the call to bring back Francis Coquelin. He did and the results propelled the guys to a eight match win streak. My Gunners are now in second place with 66 points.
Henry Winter wrote-Arsene Wenger’s disciples have restored their messiah to his pedestal, lauding Arsenal’s manager for an impressive eight successive wins when his season-changing decision, summoning Francis Coquelin from exile, was forced on him. Coquelin has become one of Arsenal’s most important players, the beast amidst the beauty, by accident.
At 1.52pm on December 12, Charlton Athletic announced the “BREAKING NEWS” on their twitter feed that Coquelin had suddenly been recalled by Wenger. It was quite a shock. A bit-part player at Arsenal since 2008, Coquelin moved between shirts, changing from 35 to 39 to 22 and 34, a mobile number, never belonging. The Frenchman seemed surplus to requirements by Wenger, who even extended his compatriot’s loan at The Valley on December 1 by another month.
But just as the 23-year-old was preparing for another loan game against Blackpool in the Championship an SOS call came in from Wenger. A plethora of injuries to central midfielders prompted the Arsenal manager into his emergency action. Jack Wilshere’s ankle was battered by Manchester United’s Paddy McNair on November 22, Mikel Arteta damaged his calf against Borussia Dortmund on November 26 and then Aaron Ramsey pulled a hamstring against Galatasaray on December 9. Wenger was already missing Abou Diaby.
So in a move that has so unexpectedly given promise for the future, Arsenal went back to their roots, taking back a player who was plying his trade scarcely a mile from Woolwich. Coquelin hot-footed it across the Thames, coming on against Newcastle United 24 hours later. It was the January 18 victory at Manchester City that truly alerted everyone to his qualities. He made seven interceptions, won all three of his tackles, and dominated seven of his eight aerial duels, subduing David Silva in the process. He instructed more illustrious team-mates to keep their focus and not get carried away after Santi Cazorla’s opening goal.
After a decade of supporters pleading with Wenger to shield the defence more, Wenger finally found a successor to Gilberto Silva more through luck than design. Coquelin is no Invincible but he has become an Irreplaceable, not bad for a player who Wenger kept on the bench for eight games at the start of the season, using only once against Southampton in the Capital One Cup before despatching to Charlton.
Obsessed with pure football, Wenger preferred his deepest-lying midfielder to be a passer, a player like Arteta, sadly ageing and not tough enough anyway. Mathieu Flamini is too headstrong for the role. Wilshere is more creative, a passer who works better with a Coquelin-type. Ditto Ramsey.
So let us sweep aside the garlands currently strewn at the feet of the saintly Wenger. He has stumbled on the balanced midfield of Coquelin and Cazorla through unfortunate injury and happenstance (although Ramsey and Wilshere could also dovetail with Coquelin). Wenger has been helped inordinately – rescued is too strong a word, just – by an employee he had all but abandoned.
Given the chance, Coquelin has seized it hungrily and also improved in the succeeding four months, diving in less, intercepting more. He is that rarity in Wengerland, a water-carrier, a midfielder content to get the ball and give it, a professional who understands the importance of protecting the back-four and keeping clean sheets.
He’s had poor games, notably to Monaco at home, but he is now in contention for Arsenal’s Player of the Season. The fans love Alexis Sanchez’s adventure, Cazorla’s irrepressibility, Mesut Ozil’s increasing elegant influence, Hector Bellerin’s lively promise and Olivier Giroud’s impact but Coquelin has spread the grit to kept Arsenal on the road.
He excelled against Liverpool. He was Man of the Match at Turf Moor last Saturday, nicking the ball to help set up Ramsey’s winner, and registering a Premier League record of 11 interceptions. He’s vocal and demanding of his team-mates. He also shows a passion for the cause of a player aching for this opportunity since he was 17.
Wenger has chanced on a more balanced side. If Wenger does turn this fortuitous Damascene moment into something longer-term, and recruit a Morgan Schneiderlin, who he continues to scout, or Monaco’s Geoffrey Kondogbia, then Arsenal will have sufficient cover in the engine-room or even start two in certain tougher away games.
The constant criticism of Wenger’s post-Invincibles sides is that they are psychologically, often physically, brittle. Arteta’s appointment as club captain encapsulated Wenger’s philosophy; the Spaniard is a truly charming individual, a great ambassador for the club, and a neat, technical footballer but a leader in adversity? No.
Arsenal have lacked leadership in recent times throughout the club from board-room to dressing-room. Shareholders seem happy with the status quo, qualifying for the lucrative Champions League, keeping the money rolling in, if not the trophies. Wenger has lifted one trophy in 10 years, yet is under little pressure internally. Sadly, a culture has been allowed to develop at Arsenal where fourth is the new first. With ticket prices so high, Arsenal supporters have every right to question a passive board and a blinkered manager. Coquelin, a man who hates losing, may just change that ethos.
About time. Wenger has reached one Champions League final in 18 attempts. In reaching that showdown in Paris, Arsenal conceded only two group-stage goals (to Thun and Ajax) and none in the knock-out rounds against Real Madrid, Juventus and Villarreal when Gilberto Silva was supreme shielding a (good) defence.
It is embarrassing that Wenger has needed until now to appreciate that the best teams balance defence and attack. Arsenal’s manager does deserve praise for certain decisions this season, not least starting Danny Welbeck as centre-forward against Manchester United, in signing the wonderful Sanchez, in finally playing Ozil in his best position (as a No 10), and giving Arsenal more tactical flexibility as seen in the contrasting strengths of Welbeck and Giroud. Arsenal have shown more resilience, winning at the Etihad in the league and Old Trafford in the Cup, as well as destroying Liverpool at home.
Those of us who wanted Wenger to change, or for Arsenal to change manager, know that the season is still in balance. Second place and an FA Cup would be a good season. Second or third place and defeat at Wembley (in the final or semi) would be a combination that would have the Wenger Out brigade taking to the streets and social media again. Make no mistake: the substantial desire for regime change at Arsenal has not disappeared. Wenger is on notice from many fans.
This has been an average league season with the champions anaemic, with Liverpool missing Luis Suarez and (for long periods) Daniel Sturridge, with United taking time to rally under Louis van Gaal, and with Chelsea now cruising to the title with a 37-year-old upfront. All will be stronger next season.
Wenger has still to shake off Jose Mourinho’s “specialist in failure” jibe. Mourinho is the anti-Wenger, the master tactician, the serial winner. Arsenal “entertain” Chelsea on Sunday week. Beating Mourinho would be a huge statement. Wenger will need his accidental alchemist, Francis Coquelin, to be at his dogged, defiant best.