a Wazzat?a I suddenly awoke on one of the many flights Ia ve had to take recently, sleep-mask askew and drool plastered on headset. After adjusting my bearings, I looked over to see an unnaturally happy flight attendant looming over me, jawbones stretched till the lands of infinity.
a Would sir like something to drink?a
I thought and decided that sir *would* like something to drink.
a We have orange juice and pineapple juice, sir,a the attendant tittered, maw still parted in an admirable Grand Canyon imitation.
a Alright, Ia ll have an orange juice.a
a Here is your pineapple juice, sir.a
I mouthed wordlessly but the attendant was already off, an ephemeral wood-sprite of confusing hospitality. I checked around to see if the flight doubled up as a set of a Coen Brothers movie, shrugged, and proceeded to attack the pineapple juice.
Hardly the most gripping of stories, I know, but it does in this case serve as a mediocre segue into the domain of Francis Coquelin. Over the years, Arsenal supportersa demands of a midfield enforcer have cast a constant mushroom-cloud over the Emirates stadium, as Wenger has in turn experimented with the workmanlike duo of Denilson and Song, the metronomic and well-coiffured Mikel Arteta, and leggy war hero Mathieu Flamini. As both Arteta and Flamini struggled with injuries and poor form respectively this season, and clamourings for reinforcements reached a crescendo, Wenger unsurprisingly surprised everyone by recalling a glass of pineapple juice, erm, Francis Coquelin from his Charlton loan and shoving him into the first team. The three months since then have been littered with strong, disciplined performances, as Le Coq has provided the vibranium bedrock at the base of midfield that Arsenal have been craving for so long.
In my half-baked but sincere opinion, Coquelina s meteoric rise owes itself to two factors: his willingness to focus on his core competence, and the complementary qualities of his midfield partner Santi Cazorla.
The Core Competence
During the two torturous years of business school, whenever I wasna t paying attention in class and was inevitably called up to voice my thoughts, I would quip, a I think the firm should just focus on their core competence,a and then plop my head back on the desk, going back to my core competence. And what business students pay thousands of dollars to learn, Arsene Wenger drilled into Coquelina s head for free.
I have fleeting memories of a younger Coquelin plying his trade in the Arsenal midfield: that fateful 8-2 night at Old Trafford where he didna t play as badly as the stats suggest (five goals were scored after he was substituted off) but was still out of his depth; battles against Tottenham where he seemed to be embroiled in a personal identity crisis in midfield, not knowing whether to sit back or bomb forward.
Fast forward a few years, and Arsene Wenger had this to say when quizzed on Coquelina s performances:
a I think Coquelin analysed well what he is good at: defending in midfield.
a He was in between a bit the play-making position and a box-to-box player. He is not that a hea s a sitting player who can win the ball. He restricted his game to that and you make success in life with what youa re good at.a
The aforementioned shift has made all the difference. Coquelin forswore the stars-in-eyes playmaking tendencies that all midfielders undoubtedly have and became a man of fewer skills but very good skills. Look at his passing map from Arsenala s 3-1 victory over Hull a couple of weeks ago:
Notice two clear patterns here: good showings in the statistics footballistically accepted as a defensivea , and a marked absence of any stats one would call a offensivea . Coquelin completed six successful tackles, two interceptions, three successful aerial duels, and two clearances. He also committed three fouls in the process. On the flipside, he made no shots (on or off target), made just one failed take-on (often an attacking characteristic), and had no fouls committed against him (fouls are often committed against teams in the opposition half while attacking). This map tells the story of offensive abstinence as much as defensive sophistication.
And this is no isolated incident either. Take a look at this table comparing Coquelin with other players having the top defensive statistics in the league this season:
Coquelin ranks fifth in the league for number of tackles per game, tops the league in number of interceptions per game, and the stats for clearances and blocks are also up there with the best of them. On paper as well as on the pitch, he has very much been the fire-breathing lion-heart that North London had been crying out for.
The Complementary Caz
There is often a Catch 22 situation in central midfield, a position that is tasked with orchestrating both bite and ballet, both tempo-setting passing and tempo-disrupting tackling, botha well, Matic and Fabregas. Arsenala s problem over the years has been as much about finding that balance in double pivot, a duo that can both dictate their teama s game and derail the oppositiona s. Wenger came close with Wilshere and Song, and a bit less so with Ramsey and Arteta, but a combination of injuries, player departures, and wrong choices have prevented the Arsenal engine-room from really picking up steam for a sustained period.
All wood touched and lucky rabbit feet clutched, but I think Arsenal have found an excellent midfield pairing in Coquelin and Cazorla. And Coquelina s recent good form owes itself as much to Cazorlaa s regista-reprisal as it does to his own defensive awakenings. The little Spaniard is a master at holding the ball under pressure, dribbling it out of pressure, shifting it quickly from one foot to the other, spraying both short and long accurate passes, and playing quick one-twos with other players in advanced positions. These qualities help tick the offensive boxes required from central midfield, and leaves Coquelin free to wield his mighty, retributive hammer during opposition attacks.
As Arsenal get ready for another encounter at Old Trafford (I dona t know when this piece will go online, so apologies if we have already lost) and Coquelin laces his hob-nailed torture boots, he would do well to remember his debut there a few seasons ago and marvel at how far he has come.
It might taste weird and tangy at first, but ita s funny how pineapple juice eventually grows on you.
The article was written by Abhishek Iyer (@) for TheHardTackle.