How the Rise of Coquelin Proved Alex Ferguson Wrong

Published: 07th February 2015 08:37 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th February 2015 08:37 AM   |  A+A-


Turn to page 304 of Sir Alex Ferguson's autobiography and you will find one solitary mention of Francis Coquelin. It comes in reference to Manchester United's 8-2 demolition of Arsenal in 2011 and his observations are brutal. "Arsenal played a young boy in midfield; Francis Coquelin," wrote Ferguson. "He was completely out of his depth. I had hardly heard of him and he barely played again."

For most of the three years that followed, it seemed that Ferguson's prophecy would come true. Coquelin was largely peripheral at Arsenal and loan spells at Freiburg and then Charlton Athletic appeared to be a prelude to him departing once his contract expired at the end of this season.

He was relaxing in front of the television and thinking only about how he could help Charlton beat Blackpool the following Saturday when the call came that would transform his career. It was from Arsene Wenger and the unexpected message was to report back to Arsenal's London Colney training base the following morning. With Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere injured, Coquelin was told that he would go straight into the squad to face Newcastle United in less than 48 hours. "I had trained with the Charlton team all week," he says. "It's weird because the way it happened was so sudden."

Coquelin duly came on as a substitute in Arsenal's 4-1 win over Newcastle on Dec 13 and, in the two months since, has become central both to Wenger's short and long-term planning. He will be among the first names on Arsenal's teamsheet to start against Tottenham this lunchtime and his considerable contribution to a run of nine wins in 11 matches has been rewarded with a new four-year contract.

It has certainly been a reminder of how the development of young footballers is rarely predictable or smooth. Now 23, Coquelin always had plenty of potential. Arsenal scout Gilles Grimandi first identified him while he was playing for the France Under-17 team against Israel. He was signed following a trial in 2008 and was part of the France team who won the Under-19 European Championship. In 2009, he also helped Arsenal to win the FA Youth Cup and Premier Academy League.

Coquelin's strength is in the discipline and simplicity of his game. He protects the back four, holds his position, has good anticipation and is a reliable passer of the ball. He was excellent in nullifying David Silva in the 2-0 win against Manchester City and, with Arsenal fans having yearned for a defensive midfielder of stature ever since Gilberto Silva departed in 2008, there is a growing hope that Wenger may have stumbled across an internal solution.

Yesterday (Friday), Wenger spoke frequently of the search for "balance" in his team and how just one individual can unexpectedly alter the whole dynamic. "It is what you try to get right before the game - you imagine your team and you think always, is that right, does that make cohesion?" he said. "You know when you are a manager that the balance of the team can depend on one player. Getting that one player right gives you the efficiency. It is not always a player who makes headlines or someone glamorous. Most of the time it is a player who works in the dark and who has a real team attitude. They have to find their space, their room and their aura in the team."

Coquelin was clearly at the forefront of Wenger's thinking in that analysis but perhaps also Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla. Arsenal's midfield has rarely looked more balanced and the return of a striker adept at playing with his back to goal and holding the ball up has been essential in extracting the best from others. "It can be Coquelin or Cazorla but sometimes the balance is to have one more guy who keeps the ball upfront," explained Wenger. "It depends what type of problems you have. Giroud is a guy who dictates a bit your game because he is tall, he can keep the ball up in the air, he can win headers. All the others are more similar: they are mobility, speed and technique. I've always kept faith in Coquelin. I took him from France at the age of 16. He has gone through some difficult periods but he's learned from his experiences. He has matured."

Coquelin was at Charlton for only just over a month but believes that the five games he played were crucial to his Arsenal comeback.

Wenger immediately noticed an extra maturity and, since asking Coquelin to start on Boxing Day against West Ham United, has not looked back.

It is certainly a far cry from being part of Arsenal's heaviest loss since 1896. Indeed, while Manchester United's two central midfielders in that 8-2 victory - Tom Cleverley and Anderson - have since been ushered to the club's exit door, Coquelin is quietly proving Ferguson wrong.

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