Arsenal midfielder comes of age on triumphant return to Manchester
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It’s almost three and a half years since Francis Coquelin made his Premier League debut in Manchester – an occasion that remains lodged in the memory for Arsenal fans.
Not for the right reasons, however. The young Frenchman, along with the rest of his team-mates, was left floundering as Manchester United ripped their visitors to pieces with a ruthless 8-2 thrashing.
Coquelin’s presence in the side, perhaps unfairly, was seen at that time as symbolic of the Gunners’ decline, underlining the urgency of their need for reinforcements.
A decent sprinkling of first-team appearances followed during the next two years, without any real indication that Coquelin might be regarded as a long-term mainstay of the Arsenal midfield.
Loaned to Bundesliga side Freiburg for the whole of last season, Coquelin had probably faded from the thoughts of most Gunners supporters.
Not so from the mind of Arsene Wenger, who decided last month that the time was right to recall Coquelin from his loan spell at Charlton after just five weeks away from the Emirates.
The 23-year-old went straight onto the substitutes’ bench and was then elevated the starting line-up for the Gunners’ 2-1 win at West Ham just after Christmas – and he has remained there ever since.
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Returning to Manchester on Sunday as one of the key figures in Arsenal’s unexpected 2-0 success against the champions, it seemed that Coquelin’s fortunes had turned full circle.
Now, rather than being cited as an example of the need for Wenger to add to his squad, Coquelin’s mature display will have left many wondering if he is, in fact, the man to fill their defensive midfield vacancy.
“I took him from France at the age of 16 – today he is 23,” said the Arsenal boss. “He has gone through some difficult periods but he’s a learner from his experiences.
“I’ve always kept faith in him, because I told him three months ago that he needed to play somewhere.
“He accepted to go down to Charlton and had convincing performances. Now he’s come back, I’ve played him and he’s done very well.”
Coquelin’s run in the side has, of course, been aided by the absence of club captain Mikel Arteta, who is expected to be out until at least April following an ankle operation.
However, even before Arteta was forced to undergo surgery, questions were being raised about whether he was best suited to a role protecting the back four in any case.
In the meantime, Mathieu Flamini – one of Arsenal’s more consistent performers last season – suffered a dip in form and Wenger has only used him sparingly in recent weeks.
Both Arteta and Flamini are now the wrong side of 30 and, whether Coquelin proves to be their long-term successor or not, it can be argued that the necessity for new blood in that position has lessened.
Despite their third consecutive clean sheet, it seems clear that Arsenal’s threadbare defence is – as Wenger keeps stressing – the area most in need of strengthening over the course of the next 10 days.
If it comes down to a choice between recruiting another midfielder, or a new man to ease the burden on the back four, Coquelin’s coming of age should have made that decision an easier one.