Francis Coquelin has emerged as a key player for Arsenal of late, a development Arsene Wenger admits to being surprised about.
Coquelin joined the Gunners as a 17-year-old in the summer of 2008, and made his first team debut that September when he came on as a right-back during the second half of a 6-0 home win against Sheffield United in the League Cup. His first start came in the same competition 12 months later, when he played the best part of an hour in the 2-0 win over West Bromwich Albion.
He also featured in the disappointing 3-1 home defeat to Stoke City in the FA Cup that term, and he was sent back to his homeland of France the following season when he made 24 appearances for Lorient. When the midfielder returned to England for the 2011/12 campaign he made his first league start at Old Trafford, in a nightmare day when Manchester United beat Wenger’s side 8-2.
Coquelin also stated in a defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, but despite these setbacks, he was handed a new long-term contract at the club and was also given playing time in the UEFA Champions League. By the end of the 2012/13 campaign he had made 43 appearances in all competitions for the Gunners, but with his progress not being as speedy as they would have liked, he was again sent on loan.
During the 2013/14 season Coquelin played 24 times for Freiburg in Germany, and earlier this campaign, he was loaned to Charlton Athletic for a brief spell. Just as it was looking as though his future might lie away from Arsenal he was recalled by Wenger following an injury to Aaron Ramsey, and he has since grabbed his opportunity to establish himself as a key member of the first team.
Coquelin has now started 14 times for the Gunners this season, and he has been a revelation in a deep-lying midfield role which has helped them embark on an eight-match winning run. This has given them an outside chance of challenging Chelsea for a first league title since 2004, and Wenger is honest enough to admit that he is surprised at the impact his 23-year-old compatriot has made.
“He has been absolutely consistent in the quality of his defensive work,” he told Sky Sports after the 1-0 win at Burnley. “He is good technically right and left footed. You need that. Yes, [he has surprised me] because he is a player who has been with us for seven years, he is 24 now and has just come out. So sometimes you have to be patient. He has shown great mental strength.”
Arsenal are now just four points behind Chelsea, who have two games in hand. Jose Mourinho’s side still have to travel to the Emirates Stadium though, so if Wenger’s side can keep within touching distance they could well cause a major upset by winning what would be their 14th league title. And whilst this may be unlikely, Alan Smith, who won the title with the club twice, is refusing to rule it out.
“They have to beat [Chelsea] if they are going to win the league, and that will put doubt in the mind of Jose Mourinho’s players,” he told Sky Sports. “The way they’re playing, they’ve got more than enough going forward to make chances and score. Even against a defence like Chelsea’s. But they can’t afford any slip-ups because you really cannot see Chelsea dropping many other points.”