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After a strong end to the season, all eyes were on Arsenal to see if they would reinforce their squad. The North London club were content to bring in only ‘keeper Petr Cech though as they look to embark a strong title challenge this time around. Andrew Thompson wonders if they’ve missed a trick in not reinforcing the midfield.
The emergence of Francis Coquelin in the second half of last season was rubber stamped as the turning point in Arsenal’s domestic campaign. Being recalled from exile at Charlton, the Frenchman took his chance with both hands and firmly implanted himself as one of the first names on the team sheet at the Emirates. Fast forward to the current season and he is still at the forefront for the Gunners, but his vital importance to Arsene Wenger’s side also comes with an unfortunate drawback, and that is the inescapable fact that no one at the club is capable of doing the same job…he is truly irreplaceable.
Arsenal surely aren’t short of talent in the center of the park, with the aforementioned Coquelin, Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere providing a quartet of talented midfielders that offer plenty of depth in quality. However, Coquelin remains the only option available to Wenger who can play in that holding midfield slot to the levels required, and therein lays the problem – the loss of Coquelin would spell utter disaster. Any long-term injury, or constant suspension due to card accumulation, runs the risk of railroading any run we intend to make this season. The question that has been and must continue to be asked is if Arsenal missed the boat when they did not strengthen the midfield during the summer window.
Linked with names such as Morgan Schneiderlin, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Arturo Vidal, it would appear that Arsene Wenger had his opportunities to strengthen the spine of the first team with a player of quality, and the lack of business on our end showed a bit of naivety. I do not personally think we had any real chance at any of the players listed above, but I do however agree that to not bring in legitimate cover for the swashbuckling Frenchman was a fool’s error.
Many will argue that the continued existence of Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini can offer adequate cover should we be forced to miss Coquelin for an extended period of time, and that it’s a waste of money to upgrade players who are further down the pecking order. Further arguments have been levied that Wilshere can do a job in the deeper role the same as he does for England – these arguments have two flaws however: 1. Flamini and Arteta are past their expiration date and only have a year left at the club, thus bringing in someone better than them now gives us a better back up for a longer period of time, and 2. Wilshere deeper for England is viable because England plays a brand of football that allows that to succeed…we do not.
Note: All statistics are cumulative over the course of the season and are courtesy of Squawka.com
Note: Arteta only featured for a combined 26 minutes total this season
I have spoken before about the qualities that Coquelin brings to the side, and even though the current season can only provide a very small sample size, it remains clear that only one man at the club is able to do the job, and that’s him. Cazorla and Ramsey are just too forward thinking to ever be considered for the role, with Wilshere too fragile and flamboyant on the ball to really do the simpleton task of winning the ball and passing it to the creative outlets in the team.
As for Arteta and Flamini, both have the experience of playing in deeper areas, but neither can be trusted to do the job for a prolonged period of time. Flamini is not the pit-bull he once was and is more likely to get sent off than produce frequent timely challenges, while Arteta is calm and collected on the ball and can read the game well, but his body is just not willing enough to keep pace with the high tempo nature of the Premier League…just because you know where the play will develop, doesn’t mean your body can magically get you there faster than it is able.
On the whole, Arteta and Flamini may be experienced players who offer qualities off the pitch that are invaluable to the first-team, but their contributions on the pitch itself will surely be limited and 95% of the matches will be given to the hardnosed Mohawk-toting midfielder.
The question everyone has asked, as stated before, is why didn’t we strengthen the midfield. Many supporters would have happily splashed the cash on the names of players I listed earlier, but the reality is those players wanted to be first choice in the holding role, which is something we were not prepared to offer – Wenger has already stated that he intends to keep faith in Coquelin and have him remain as our primary holding midfielder. What then could Arsenal have done to improve the situation? Players were still available that could have given us a better option off the bench than Arteta (who many think would be better next to Coquelin rather than instead of) or Flamini (who probably shouldn’t still even be at the club). While many Arsenal fans wanted to bring in a player of “world class” caliber, Arsene Wenger would never spend 30+ million on a player who he would only rotate. Perhaps a better option would have been to target a player such as Victor Wanyama or Thiago Motta – experienced and hardnosed players who could add very good depth to the first-team as well as an option on the bench more than capable of starting in place of Coquelin should something keep him out of selection.
If the Premier League has taught us anything, and surely Arsenal’s injury record can only further ram the point home, it’s that first-team depth is just as important as having bags of quality in your XI. Between the domestic campaign, two domestic cup competitions and European obligations, it’s a very long and trying season for the English elite. Given that fact, not adding to the midfield could very well come back to haunt Arsene Wenger and potentially stall the Gunners’ push to the top.
The time for sentiments is surely over, and while many of us are incredibly thankful for the contributions made by Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini, sentimentality cannot trump practicality. The importance of Francis Coquelin is surely a blessing and a curse, and I for one have to be left hoping that the Frenchman comes through the season unscathed.
Written by Andrew Thompson