'Fireman Fran' giving new spark to Gunners
BEFORE Arsenal's game against Burnley, Thierry Henry described Francis Coquelin as 'The Police Officer' but given his ability to put out fires before they spread and any emergency develops, 'Fireman Fran' might be a better nickname.
There were times in the last few years when it felt that an Arsenal corner meant both teams had an equal chance of scoring a goal within the next few seconds.
An Arsenal player might get his head on a cross or, alternatively, the opposition might scramble it away and find themselves breaking towards the couple of Arsenal defenders who had been left to hold the fort. With four or five players coming at them, the defenders were usually bringing a knife to a gunfight.
On Saturday, an Arsenal corner was cleared and dropped to the feet of Coquelin on the edge of the box, he took a touch with his right foot and a shot with his left which, frankly, was rubbish and went out for a goal kick.
Had it dropped to Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere or Aaron Ramsey they may have smashed it into the top corner or, more likely, they would have taken more than two touches, risked being dispossessed and given Burnley the chance to break for an equaliser. Poor though the shot was, it's difficult for an opponent to break quickly when they're taking a goal kick.
This was Coquelin in microcosm - even in attack, there was thought given to the defence.
There is nothing as dangerous for a team than a player in central midfield who thinks that he is better than he is and knowing your limits, as Coquelin does, is far more important than trying to be something you're not.
"I try to give my best," he said before the game against Liverpool in which he was, again, outstanding. "I try to get the ball as quick as possible to play it to the players who have got a little bit more ability than me on the ball."
It's a job that Claude Makelele did to the point where the joke at Real Madrid and France was that if Zinedine Zidane was sitting in the stands, Makelele would win the ball back and still pass it to him. When Madrid signed David Beckham and got rid of Makelele, Zidane asked, "Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?"
Makelele was never a YouTube sensation and given their unspectacular nature, there won't be many people searching for Coquelin's finest moments either. But those that do will be rewarded by a batch of tackles that are a thing of beauty if you're into that sort of thing.
At one point in the video, there's a sequence of 20 tackles, 17 of which are slide tackles and all finish with Arsenal back in possession. None of them will feature in Sky's Premier League Years highlights show at the end of the season but they show both his mobility and desire to do the dirty work, qualities which have resurrected Arsenal's season.
Of course, those 17 slide tackles are all within a few inches of picking up a yellow card but since picking up four consecutive bookings in games over the Christmas period, Coquelin has just one in the Premier League in the 12 games since.
It's a decent record for a player who is forced to commit to as many challenges as he does, yet the statistic of Arsenal's record with and without him in their central midfield is the one which underlines his importance.
Coquelin returned from his loan spell at Charlton to an Arsenal team ravaged by injuries who had just lost to Stoke and were two points off the Champions League places.
Before his substitute appearance against Newcastle, Arsenal's record without him was Played 15, Won 6, Drawn 5 Lost 4, giving them a total of 23 points. Since then, in the 17 games in which he has featured, they have won 14 with seven clean sheets, drawn one and lost two - an improvement of 20 points with just two extra games played.
Not bad for a guy whose first league appearance of the season came when he was brought on as a 61st-minute substitute as Charlton battled back to snatch a draw against Leeds and whose contract was due to run out at the end of the season.
Wenger would have been laughed out of the room if he'd said that Coquelin, David Bellerin and David Ospina would be crucial to their revival but all three have rewarded their manager's trust albeit, with Coquelin in particular, raising the question about why he wasn't in the team sooner.
In Coquelin's case, the bonus prize is a four-year contract but there has been no hint of 'Mark Viduka Syndrome' where a player works hard to earn a new deal and reverts to type once they have done so.
In the game after Coquelin signed his contract, Arsenal lost to Tottenham to drop one point behind their local rivals. Since then, they have won eight in a row and are now 12 points clear of them.
"That's the magic of football," added Coquelin. "One day you are unknown - the next you are a bit bigger." Coquelin's reputation and importance is growing bigger by the game.