#360view: How Coquelin has become key cog for Arsenal

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  • Francis Coquelin is slowly becoming a fans' favourite at Arsenal.

    Arsène Wenger was relieved when Arsenal won at Manchester City on January 18. The 2-0 victory was the first time in a decade the Gunners won at the ground of Premier League title holders. Their last venture to the Etihad Stadium had ended in dismay with a dramatic 6-3 scoreline in favour of the hosts.

    That infamous December 2013 game had been the seventh consecutive match without a victory in Manchester for Arsène Wenger, who had fallen successively to Sir Alex Ferguson, Roberto Mancini, David Moyes and Manuel Pellegrini in the North West. When the whistle blew for full time the Frenchman stared his Chilean counterpart in the blank of the eye, a sense of fulfilment gripping him.

    His most astute team selection was unquestionably the inclusion of Francis Coquelin in the starting XI. No-one thought the man offloaded to Charlton Athletic on loan just a month-and-a-half earlier would turn up with a man-of-the-match performance in an encounter of such importance.

    Coquelin in action for Charlton Athletic

    Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla both produced composed performances, but the star was the energetic defensive midfielder cleaning up the space left behind them. Coquelin was instrumental in his side’s 36 interceptions and 50 clearances (to Manchester City’s 15 and 12 respectively) in a crucial part of the pitch so often left behind in Wenger’s recent reflections. Coquelin brought the sort of security in the middle of the park that Arsenal previously lacked when facing top-class opposition this season, the side’s attacking instincts coming at the expense of prudence at the back.

    Later Wenger would concede he “listened to the team” by changing his strategy. The term “reassurance” was coined by the French manager post-match, hinting his star players up front had requested more defensive prowess in key moments, which Coquelin duly provided.

    Since Coquelin’s return, Arsenal have seven wins in nine games, a clear improvement for a side that lacked a leader in central areas in critical games this season. The defeat to Harry Kane’s Tottenham last week was Arsenal’s first loss with Coquelin in the starting XI this season.

    Eyebrows were raised among the Arsenal faithful when Wenger recalled the 23-year-old from Charlton after just five weeks last December. The manager had been forced to delve low into his pecking order to find a name many tied to the ‘unfulfilled potential’ category, with Coquelin having failed to establish himself in North London five years after his capture in 2008.

    Brought to England on the recommendation of France scout Gilles Grimandi, Coquelin took time to settle but now looks like a mainstay in Arsenal’s midfield.

    Starting football aged seven, he was brought up in Mayenne, an area of France more renowned for its its dairy products than football players. “He was a bit overweight but compensated with a brilliant passing range,” recalls Philippe Mace, the vice-president of AS Bourny where Coquelin made his debut as a football player. “He was already a beast on the pitch aged 12.”

    Having cherry-picked him after an under-17 tournament, Wenger initially used him as an understudy to Alex Song in North London. However he made just four appearances in two years – his natural leadership somewhat stifled by the competition for places in midfield. Loaned out to FC Lorient in June 2010, he played more consistently with the Ligue 1 side, collecting 25 appearances in a season.

    His versatility across midfield and athleticism in open spaces was a highly effective addition to Christian Gourcuff’s free-flowing system and he was picked for the France Under-19 side that won the European Championships in 2010, imposing himself as a leader on and off the pitch in a side blessed with the talent of such household names as Antoine Griezmann and Alexandre Lacazette.

    His first appearance back at Arsenal was a traumatic one, as the Gunners were humiliated 8-2 by Manchester United at Old Trafford – that game must have lingered in the back of his mind as he took to the pitch across town at the Etihad Stadium a fortnight ago.

    Those games were separated by a fruitless loan spell at Freiburg in the German Bundesliga, where his struggles to adjust looked set to doom his career for good. Despite obvious physical abilities, he seemed to lack the charisma required to adapt his natural leadership to a foreign environment.

    The French midfielder would in all likelihood have still been on loan at Charlton Athletic now, had Arsenal not witnessed a peculiar injury crisis in midfield; Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta, Abou Diaby, Tomas Rosicky and Jack Wilshere were all struck down, forcing Wenger to bring back Coquelin. As it turned out, this late night phone call in early December changed his fortunes as well as Arsenal’s. The realisation that his time was running out – his contract was due to expire next summer – turned him into a much more authoritative player. He has made the most interceptions in Europe (26) and more tackles than any other player in the Premier League (20) in 2015.

    Short as it was, the five-week loan spell at Charlton proved highly beneficial. The entire tactical system set out by Bob Peeters was planned for Coquelin to play a prominent part. “I felt bad for Charlton as we had trained all week and the coach had just introduced the new system in which I was supposed to play a key part,” the player confirmed upon his Arsenal comeback. It contributed to his sense of self-worth after months on the sidelines. Returning to London he showed the drive everyone had wanted to see in the five years beforehand.

    “Without Charlton I would not be here,” Coquelin has said. “They gave me playing time at a time when I was out of form, so when I came back I was perfectly fit.”

    He was rewarded with a four-year contract last week, showing that in football – destiny is sometimes forced upon you. As strange as it sounds, the 23-year-old now appears to have time on his side to develop into a complete central midfielder in North London.