As the Premier League season hurtles towards the finish line, we’re approaching the point at which individual awards are traditionally dished out.
There is no official honour for the most improved player in the competition, but if there were, Arsenal’s Francis Coquelin would surely be giving Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane a run for his money.
Coquelin is the surprise success of Arsenal’s season. Earlier in the campaign, he was farmed out on loan to Championship side Charlton Athletic. With his contract due to expire this summer, his permanent departure seemed a mere matter of time.
Now, he is one of the first names on the team sheet.
First of all he’s shown his individual quality winning the ball and passing it quickly, and he’s very strong in the challenges. He also contributes to the balance of the team and that’s very difficult to measure. You know that the balance of the team sometimes depends on one player who has some characteristics that the others don’t. He looks like he has hugely contributed to that.
That was in evidence at Turf Moor. According to Squawka, Coquelin made a startling nine interceptions to ensure Arsenal kept the clean sheet that gave them three valuable points. Coquelin’s fantastic form has seen him rewarded with a long-term contract. His place in the first XI is now surely secure.
With thoughts beginning to turn towards the summer, do Arsenal still need to sign a holding midfielder?
Arsenal fans have been craving the arrival of a new defensive midfielder for several summers on the spin. Many Gunners supporters were left disappointed that Wenger didn’t bring in a new man last summer, and atoning for that error was seen as a huge priority for the summer of 2015.
However, Coquelin’s emergence has gone some way towards assuaging Arsenal’s need for a holding player. The balance of a team is a curious alchemy, and Coquelin seems ideally suited to the spot. He knows the club inside and out, and without the ego boost of a big transfer fee and exorbitant salary, he seems to have the humility required to execute a defensive role efficiently.
There is the question of cover: Arsenal have no obvious replacement for Coquelin.
The likes of Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini may play in the same part of the pitch, but they lack the defensive nous and rugged physicality of the younger Frenchman. In January, Wenger acquired Polish teenager Krystian Bielik, but it seems too soon to expect him to contribute regularly to the first team.
Coquelin is now so vital to Arsenal that losing him for any prolonged period could prove incredibly costly. With that in mind, Wenger should target someone with similar attributes to ensure Arsenal always have someone on hand to protect the back four.
He needs competition, too.
Arsenal’s recent success has been fuelled by intense competition for places. At present, Coquelin is one of the few players in the squad without an obvious direct rival for his position. In the long-term, that’s unhealthy.
Would Schneiderlin fit the bill? In many respects, yes. However, he’s unlikely to come cheap. With Southampton looking on course to qualify for European football next year, it will take a huge bid for them to consider parting with their star man.
That could be problematic for the Gunners, who may be loath to pay a marquee price for a player who is not a guaranteed starter.
However, that kind of outlay might be necessary. Arsenal have their best squad in years, and any player intending to improve upon their current options will be costly. In January, Gabriel Paulista became the most expensive defender in Arsenal’s history, but that hasn’t meant him becoming an instant first-team player.
Despite Coquelin’s emergence, Arsenal cannot afford complacency.
They still need cover and competition for their energetic enforcer, and Morgan Schneiderlin remains a good option. If he outmuscles Coquelin to become the first choice, it will only be a good thing for the team.