“Are you kidding me again, Wenger?” countless Arsenal fans frustratingly ask after seeing the starting XI every week. The expected names are always there: Petr Cech in goal, Mesut Özil, Alexis Sánchez, and the steady defensive trio of Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal, Héctor Bellerín. However, there’s another name consistently featured each match, much to the consternation of Gunner supporters. Of course, it’s the bruising defensive midfielder Francis Coquelin.
What is it exactly about Coquelin and his play that infuriates so many Arsenal fans? For starters, he can be an extremely rash player on the pitch, prone to late tackles and hasty decisions. This simply isn’t Arsenal’s style under Arsène Wenger, and it has been somewhat of a shock to see such a dangerous challenger wreaking havoc the past few seasons. He actually only has one red card to his name as a Gunner, but is nonetheless beginning to have a reputation similar to Chelsea’s Diego Costa.
Similar to how bizarre it is to see his playing style blend with Wenger’s, there are times when he appears to be mucking up the intricate, flowing offense. He’s meant to be the defensive midfielder of the group but often, he drifts much further up the pitch where his offensive liabilities are more exposed. He is thought to be a weaker passer than any other Arsenal midfielder and is not a threat to score whatsoever, with evidence for this being the fact that he is yet to bad a single goal for The Gunners.
Finally, Coquelin is in the uncomfortable position of being in a talented midfield with depth, and he’s the one being selected for big matches. Already, he’s started four of the five Premier League matches, as well as a Champions League fixture at Paris Saint-Germain. He and Santi Cazorla seem to be Wenger’s preferred midfield pairing.
This decision is especially vexing since Arsenal went out and spent a good bit of money to acquire Granit Xhaka. He’s younger than Coquelin but also offers a lot of the same skillset. The Frenchman is tough and physical—something Arsenal could use more of—and he has similar abilities at intercepting passes. However, Xhaka appears to be much better on the offensive end. His long balls are beautiful and typically accurate, and the summer acquisition is even something of a fan favorite now that he’s banging home long-distance strikes. Coquelin has become the scapegoat for Wenger not starting his shiny, new signing every week.
Nevertheless, much of the negative criticism around him is exaggerated and, unfortunately, perpetuates his image as a careless, one-dimensional midfielder. Not all of this is correct and clouds the many positive things he contributes. He finished just outside of the top 10 for interceptions in the Premier League’s 14/15 season and sits in the top 15 early on this campaign.
His passing; whether or not it actually contributes to anything meaningful, is still better than the perception some have. In 14/15, he finished with a successful passing percentage of 85.8%, ahead of playmakers like David Silva and Cesc Fabrègas. In 15/16, Coquelin finished in the top 10 at 89.1%. At the start of this term, he is hovering right around the same percentage as last year. He definitely doesn’t always make the right passes for the offense, but he’s not turning the ball over either.
Coquelin can certainly be an annoying player to watch, partly because he can just seem so out of place in Arsenal’s movement. His being selected ahead of Xhaka is curious too, and it is difficult not to transfer irritations with lineup choices to the actual players themselves. Still, like a lot of athletes, the constant Twitter and Reddit ire he receives have come to almost totally define his perception as a player.
Ultimately, Coquelin seems to be stuck in the same highly-critical, never-satisfied bubble as teammate Olivier Giroud. They are both quality players who shouldn’t be expected to start every game. They can contribute in the right kind of games and, in others, their specific set of talents aren’t needed. They both become the easy target for all of Arsenal’s and Wenger’s failings, deserved or not.
So, next time we see Coquelin in the lineup instead of Xhaka, let’s all take a deep breath and relax. Or at least until Coquelin nearly breaks an opponent’s shin, gets yellow carded in the 38th minute, and somehow plays the rest of the match.
Featured image: All rights reserved by Emrah Partal