Analysing Francis Coquelin's performance for Arsenal against Paris Saint Germain

Arsene Wenger’s reticence to fully utilise the talents of Granit Xhaka and his continued use of Francis Coquelin has caused much consternation among the Arsenal fan-base. It appeared that the Swiss international had been rested against Southampton with last night’s clash against PSG in mind, yet Wenger paired Coquelin with Santi Cazorla in the middle of the pitch once again.

Arsenal spent £34 million on Xhaka to give them another dimension in midfield, especially against stiff opposition such as PSG. Many are confused as to why Wenger is opting for familiarity rather than taking his midfield in a fresh direction.

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It is the sense of familiarity and stasis that probably accounts for much of the criticism Coquelin is subjected to from Gunners fans. Coquelin and Cazorla were midfield partners when Arsenal finished third in the Premier League and won the FA Cup. Now fans want more than a third placed finish and lifting a domestic cup trophy; ergo, they want more than Coquelin. Xhaka is supposed to be that ‘added extra’, therefore he should be playing.

As an individual, the French ball-winner has turned in some pretty decent performances. Against Southampton, he completed 87% of his passes, made four interceptions and successfully completed two take-ons; something that was quite visible inside the stadium as he drove forward with the ball.

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In Paris last night, the criticism around him was less to do with his individual performance, but rather the positions he was asked to take up and the way he affects the structure of the team.

 

This excellent piece by the Arsenal blog Arseblog’s tactical columnist outlines Coquelin’s role when Arsenal have the ball. He is not the type of midfielder who wants to drop between the centre-backs to collect the ball and start attacks. Usually, a team’s defensive midfielder is tasked with doing so these days; Sergio Busquets being the prime example. However, Coquelin is not the type of defensive midfielder who is capable of this, so Cazorla is paired with him by way of compensation.

Arsenal turn the ‘orthodox’ midfield set up on its head; Cazorla picks the ball up in deep areas while Coquelin drifts into high midfield. The idea is that Coquelin acts as a ‘decoy’; taking midfield markers with him to give Cazorla space to play.

This was how the partnership worked when they had a good run in the Arsenal team at the end of the 2014-15 season and at the start of last term. The difference this term is that when Arsenal don’t have the ball Coquelin is playing higher up the pitch and looking to press opponents. Here is his ‘heat map’ from last night’s game, courtesy of whoscored.com via @chrismoore32 :

In Coquelin-Cazorla Part I last year, Arsenal were dropping off into their own half and defending in a low block (one of their best games together was the 2-0 win away at Manchester City in January 2015, which typified this strategy). So far this season, it seems Wenger wants to adopt more of a front-foot, aggressive defensive strategy. This can have its rewards; Theo Walcott’s goal against Liverpool was a perfect example of it can work.

However, if opponents are able to keep the ball and play around the first line of pressure it leaves Arsenal’s midfield two with the width of the pitch to defend.

Many were left wondering why Coquelin was getting so many touches of the ball in PSG’s final third due to this strategy. Perhaps he is keeping a seat warm for Aaron Ramsey; the Welshman shares Coquelin energy but will do far more with the ball if he wins it in dangerous areas. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if Wenger persists with a high-press, high-line defensive approach. It is an exciting way of playing when executed well, but he has no history of coaching a team to play in this way and he has limited time to engrain the style.

Arsenal’s best periods of defending in the last few years have tended to come when the team defends slightly deeper, concentrating on team shape and keeping tight distances.

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Patently, the tactic of trying to squeeze play was badly exposed against PSG and but for some poor finishing and good goalkeeping from David Ospina, the scoreline would have reflected this. To leave so much space in behind with Edinson Cavani and Angel Di Maria in the opposition’s ranks was an odd policy. It clearly was a policy though, reflected in captain Laurent Koscielny’s decision to follow his marker past the halfway line in the first minute of the game.

Arsenal have lots of players who are suited to a pressing style; Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi, Ramsey, Coquelin, Mohamed Elneny, Xhaka, Alexis Sanchez and Lucas Perez. It is doubtful however, if Wenger is the type of coach to co-ordinate and organise this more complex defensive set up.

In truth however, there have been so many changes from one game to another that it is hard to deduce a style or philosophy with any great certainty. One possible explanation for his confusing selections is that Wenger is picking his teams predominantly on the basis of physical fitness at the moment. With the exception of Mesut Özil and Sanchez; who Arsenal cannot do without, there has been a common theme among the players who have been used heavily. Coquelin, Cazorla, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and Alex Iwobi all had summers without international football and played a full part in pre-season.

 

When the likes of Xhaka, Olivier Giroud and Lucas get fully up to speed, and Ramsey returns from injury, we might begin to see something like an obvious first XI come together. Coquelin has not done a lot wrong, but Xhaka was bought to allow Arsenal to play in more serene way through the middle third of the pitch, without the positional contortions described in this article.

At present, Wenger seems to be picking his team based on individual sharpness rather than tactical balance and cohesion. He is just about getting away with.

Featured image: All rights reserved by Emrah Partal

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