The partnership Cazorla and Coquelin formed two seasons ago was as impressive as it was unpredictable. Ever since its conception it’s just seemed to click. The small technical Spaniard pairing up with a hard French enforcer contrived an Arsenal duo both dynamic and delicate. The perfect cocktail illustrating the style and steel Wenger continues to orchestrate to the media.
Nonetheless, the addition of Granit Xhaka this summer has placed Coquelin’s position as the primary holding player in Arsenal’s midfield under scrutiny. Assuming it is unlikely they will often start alongside one another, Wenger has to choose which of the two best combine with the players around them and can contribute most to Arsenal’s system of football.
When Xhaka first arrived most viewed him as a sort of Coquelin 2.0. Someone Wenger had purchased as an evolved upgraded version of the Frenchman. The idea was that Xhaka could do everything that Coquelin could do, and some. He could tackle, intercept and protect the defence just as Cazorla’s partner had been doing already. But unlike Coquelin, Xhaka was an expert passer, he could link-up with attackers more fluently, create chances, spread the ball and even score the occasional goal or two (I think he’s proven the latter).
However, since the beginning of the season it is clear that Wenger isn’t completely ready to say “au revoir” to the proven partnership of Coq-zola. Starting 5 matches, compared to Xhaka’s 3, Coquelin 1.0 still seems to be very much the steel in the Gunner’s midfield. In fact, if it wasn’t for Coquelin getting injured Xhaka may have spent even more time on the bench.
When quizzed on why the Boss has continued to select his native, and leave his summer signing on the seats, the manager referred to the chemistry between the already-made partnership. In the pre-match presser against Hull, Wenger said, “It’s not about his [Xhaka’s] quality. For me it’s about pairs that work well. Coquelin and Cazorla played well together.”
The boss has chosen to go with what he already knows, rather stick than twist so to speak. And honestly, who could blame him? With our front three performing as they currently are, there is no pressing reason to try and fix something that’s not obviously broken.
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On each of Xhaka’s starts (Leicester, Watford, Burnley) he hasn’t seemed out of place, nor interrupted the fluency in Arsenal’s game. The Watford game especially demonstrated how he can maintain a defensive solidarity whilst significantly contributing toward attacking play. One could argue, on these performances, that Xhaka may bring even more to the team than Coquelin is currently doing and has the potential to strike an effective partnership with Cazorla himself.
Upon comparison much of what Xhaka and Coquelin do is two and one of the same. Yet it is their differences which better provide some clarity not only to the manager’s team selection but also in determining who may be best going forward in the holding role.
With his ability to shuffle short passes in the midfield, spread the ball long to the wide men and cut through the lines with through balls it seems that Xhaka can offer more in the passing department.
Although they both average just below 90% in passing accuracy it is the Swiss who comes out on top in the most Arsenal-esque of qualities. Despite having less game time, the new signing has completed 339 passes to Coquelin’s 250. Xhaka’s passing is not only superior in number but also in range. He has completed 20 accurate long/switch balls, 12 more than Coquelin’s 8. He has completed 4 through balls contrasting Coquelin’s 1 and 10% of Xhaka’s passing are considered “long passes” compared to Coquelin’s 5%. With his ability to shuffle short passes in the midfield, spread the ball long to the wide men and cut through the lines with through balls it seems that Xhaka can offer more in the passing department.
In defence of Coquelin, he plays a somewhat selfless role in our build-up play. Cazorla drops deep to take the ball off the defenders while Coquelin runs the lines to stretch the opposition’s midfield. In theory, this is a tactic to help Cazorla pick a pass and to allow Ozil space to receive one. Unfortunately, the space Coquelin tries to make for Ozil can sometimes be the very space he runs into, which otherwise shuffles our passing out wide.
Nonetheless, this decoy movement from Coquelin, in addition with his short passing in the final third is what is expected to be his instructed contribution to the Gunner’s attacking play. Wenger compensates Coquelin’s technical weakness by utilising his impressive work-rate and stamina instead. The inclusion of Xhaka, allows Cazorla to share the responsibility of receiving the ball from the defenders and transitioning the play from back to front.
It is clear, in an attacking sense, Xhaka seems to have more strings to his bow. His vision, long passing and technique makes Arsenal’s build-up play more threatening and versatile. Yet, with all that being said, it is their defensive contribution which may pencil one of their names onto the team sheet.
The Frenchman leads his competition in tackles making two more than Xhaka’s 13. But the Swiss’ more physical frame means his tackle success rate is at 69%. Coquelin’s sits at 53%. Part of the reason why Coquelin is so effective is down to his ability to read the game, position himself and cut out opponents passes. These qualities, along with his speed and agility, take his interception tally up to 16 whilst Xhaka has made only 7 this season. Coquelin really is an expert when it comes to the art of the interception. Considering last season Coquelin led the Premier League with 3.7 interceptions per game, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he has continued in the same vein.
An Achilles heel for Arsenal in recent times has been their vulnerability toward the counter attack. Like a CD stuck on repeat, Arsenal would keep the ball in the final third, lose it and find themselves within seconds having to defend an ominous fast attack from the opposition. I’ve lost count how many times we have conceded that type of goal. At times it’s just looked too easy.
Now, by no means have we banished the curse of the counter attack, but the inclusion of Coquelin has shielded the defence from this occurrence being too much of a recurrence. His knack for interrupting attacks, pushing the play wide, harrowing players and intercepting the ball, in England, is literally second to none. I repeat, Coquelin is an expert of the intercept.
This is part of Wenger’s reluctance to bench the Frenchman. He is left with a dilemma of sorts. Does he stick with a player who provides a balance to the teams play? Does he remain faithful to the steel which compliments his style? A player who offers the defensive ingredients that protects the team from one of its weak spots? Or does he twist? Does the manager change what’s for the most part worked (cough…Bayern 5-1 Arsenal…cough) and replace Coquelin with a more technical and creative player capable of shielding the back four by his own means? A player who may not interrupt opponent’s attacks in the same manner, but will tackle hard, drop deep, cover the back four and help transition from defence to attack.
Overall, Xhaka is strong where Coquelin is weak. But where Coquelin is strong, he is very strong, and his style suits the play and compliments the players around him.
Overall, Xhaka is strong where Coquelin is weak. But where Coquelin is strong, he is very strong, and his style suits the play and compliments the players around him. Wenger makes sense when he says it may not be a about Xhaka’s “quality,” but it’s about “pairs that work well.” The inclusion of another passer like Xhaka may be a case of too many cooks and all that, or it might just be the extra piece of quality the team needs to break down stubborn defences, whilst maintaining a stubborn defence of their own.
The real problem is actually that Xhaka isn’t Coquelin 2.0, he is his own player. Yes, he has many similarities with the Frenchman but what he lacks in comparison has become an important asset to the team. If he had everything Coquelin had and more, then it’d be a much easier decision to make. On the other hand, what Xhaka offers in terms of his technical ability may just be what the team is starved in certian circumstances. Coquelin can be overlooked in Arsenal’s build-up but what we have in Xhaka is an individual who sticks his hand up, creates from deep, threads passes through the lines whilst guarding the defence.
It is a puzzle Wenger must figure out, but I assume we will be seeing the pieces shuffled about for a while longer before the debate is settled. Afterall, we still have Elneny impressing and Ramsey to come back from injury to throw a spanner in the works.
Like most competing for a place, injury, fatigue, partnerships and opponent may determine which of the two find themselves starting in midfield on any given occasion. Wenger may choose to opt for Xhaka against weaker sides like he did against Watford. Matches particularly away from home when the opponent is more open and not determined to camp in their own half and strike on the break. Coquelin may get the nod when playing teams which prefer the counter attack, or against opponents when we may require that extra defensive solidarity. Who knows? Maybe they’ll both fail and we’ll be crying out for Coquelin 3.0.
Nonetheless, it’s still early days. I suspect we will be seeing more of Xhaka as the season progresses and then the proof will be in the pudding so to speak, whether he can muster the same sort of footballing chemistry Coquelin was able to concoct. Here’s hoping. In either case, the fact that we have both players in our squad is good for business, and I for one honestly won’t be fretting if I see either of them on the team sheet.
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