Dream, Realistic, Wildcard, Squawka Selects: Four ways Arsenal could upgrade on Francis Coquelin
Yet, just over two years later, he was starting at the Allianz Arena as the Gunners were dispatched 5-1 by Bayern Munich in the Champions League knockout stages and also turned in a poor performance against Liverpool at Anfield.
There have always been concerns that Coquelin is not a talented enough footballer to make it at the top level, but his tenacity in midfield and willingness to tackle are redeeming features that have earned him 90 Premier League starts.
In Germany, however, these ball winning qualities were painfully absent, with the French midfielder having been successful in none of his three attempted tackles and making just one interception, in a game where Arsenal struggled to get hold of the ball.
He is now 25 years old, and it looks fairly evident that Coquelin is not the midfield destroyer that the Gunners need to partner Granit Xhaka. His all-action style is appropriate, but he is simply outclassed when coming up against the likes of Thiago Alcantara and Xabi Alonso.
Arsenal have loosened the purse strings in recent years, with over £30 million being spent on Xhaka last summer, so we have scoured the continent for who could be the right fit to slip into Arsenal’s midfield in place of Coquelin.
Dream: Arturo Vidal
Vidal has long been one of the best midfield terriers in world football. The Chile international has won five domestic league titles in a row, for both Juventus and Bayern Munich, and looks destined to pick up his sixth this year.
With Bayern generally a team who dominate possession and play on the front foot, his defensive responsibilities are often barely needed, yet he is a fantastic option in the middle of the park, who possesses a huge engine and a willingness to get stuck in. He has won the most tackles in the Bundesliga per 90 of any Bayern player with 2.06, and made the third most interceptions at 3.02.
He would be a hard target to lure to the Premier League given his importance to one of Europe’s biggest clubs, yet there is a feeling that the German club need freshening up, having put in some lacklustre displays under Carlo Ancelotti. He turns 30 in May, and joins the likes of Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben and Xabi Alonso as players who could be moved on to make way for the next generation in Renato Sanches, Joshua Kimmich and Kingsley Coman.
Phillip Lahm has already announced his intention to retire at the end of the season and, if there is to be changes to the personnel at Bayern Munich, Arsenal should do whatever they can to lure Vidal to the Emirates and build their midfield around him.
Realistic: Tiemoue Bakayoko
Arsenal were one of the teams reported to have made an approach for the Monaco star in January, and will likely be in the queue of clubs desperate for his signature come the summer. Bakayoko has formed a formidable partnership with Fabinho in central midfield which has helped catapult Monaco to the top of the Ligue 1 table.
He is a more imposing figure than Coquelin, standing at a sturdy 1.84m, but is a fantastic talent both on and off the ball. His 45 tackles won is the 12th most of anyone in the league, but he is also adept at carrying the ball out of midfield, having completed 43 of his 63 attempted take ons. This is a skill that Coquelin lacks, and a limitation that he often left Arsenal short when attempting to transition from defence into attack.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has recently been praised for his ability to run through the middle in recent weeks, setting Arsenal on the front foot, but Bakayoko would also do this from the holding role. At 22 years of age, Arsenal would be signing both a player who is proven at the top level and with the ability to improve further. He may well cost a fair amount, but it would be a shrewd investment and an undoubted upgrade on what they already have.
Wildcard: Asier Illarramendi
Many will remember Illaramendi’s short spell at Real Madrid, where he struggled to make a real impression, but he has come on leaps and bounds at Real Sociedad, and looks ready for another chance at a top European club.
He’s top in La Liga for interceptions with 88, and fourth for tackles with 57. He is also comfortable on the ball, creating 23 chances and with a pass accuracy of 85%. His experiences at the Bernabeu matured him as a player and, whilst he did not make the grade there, he has grown into one of the best central midfield players in outside La Liga’s top clubs.
He is also a versatile option, something manager Arsene Wenger certainly values. He would be comfortable stepping into Coquelin’s role, yet could also move into a more advanced area to fill the void left by Santi Cazorla. It would represent a risk to go for a player who is yet to truly perform on the highest stage, yet Illarremendi looks to have all the qualities that Arsenal need in their midfield.
Squawka Selects: Idrissa Gueye
Over the past 18 months, Idrissa Gueye has proven himself to be one of the best ball winners in the Premier League. The 79 tackles he has won thus far is 13 more than anyone else in the league, as his ability to regain possession in midfield areas has drawn plaudits all season. This is the specific role that Coquelin is employed to do, and Gueye is a far better option for it.
Unlike the Arsenal player, Gueye has the talent on the ball to be a force in their possession based style of play. He has completed 22 of his 28 attempted take ons and has created 14 chances from a defensive midfield role. This ability to win the ball back and use it effectively is something that Arsenal lack at the moment, with Coquelin generally just looking for the easy pass to his more creative team-mates.
Wenger is generally unwilling to pay the premium fee that Premier League talent demands, but having a proven option in this position would be so important. We have seen how it can take time for players to settle in the league with Xhaka’s struggles, whilst N’Golo Kante was able to positively influence Chelsea immediately. The Everton player would offer a new and improved dimension to Arsenal’s midfield, and would be worth every penny.