It seems a very Arsenal-esque tale, of a young player who is not actually young anymore, of one whose development has stalled, of one who was briefly the solution and then became part of the problem. Au revoir, Francis Coquelin; Arsene Wenger confirmed as much after the stalemate against Chelsea, the midfielder reversing the journey Shkodran Mustafi made 17 months ago by heading for Valencia.
His Arsenal years ended in a footnote to a 0-0 draw. Three days earlier, the Frenchman had been spared the ignominy of playing his part in the wretched display against Nottingham Forest, omitted to facilitate his departure. There was a time when Coquelin would have been rested for a Cup tie against lower-league opponents – indeed he did not figure in the second-string side that visited the City Ground last season – and large swathes of an Arsenal career when he would have been pencilled in for precisely such a game.
He departed as a curiosity. He had been the fringe figure who suddenly became a talisman. He was the midfielder whose last league start for Arsenal came as a centre-back at Manchester City, a strange choice that backfired in predictable fashion, when he was replaced by a striker.
He was briefly hailed as the successor to Gilberto Silva, the defensive midfielder Arsenal had long lacked. This season, deep into his 27th year, in his 10th season at the Emirates Stadium, he became the new Jeremie Aliadiere, the constant at the club, if not in the team. Like Theo Walcott now and Aliadiere before him, he is an illustration of how being one of Arsenal’s longest-serving players became an indictment of a regime, not an accolade for an individual.
Briefly, belatedly, Coquelin was a triumph of Wengernomics. Acquired as a teenager, he emerged from obscurity six years late to fill a void in a way that bolstered Wenger’s argument that the answer can be found without expensive recourse to the transfer market. In Coquelin’s case, it was unearthed on loan at a struggling Championship club.
But it is three years now since his coming-of-age display at Manchester City, anchoring a tactically astute, counter-attacking side who secured the sort of away win at elite opponents that threatened to become a regular occurrence.
It did not, of course, but he was a reason why Arsenal, in an Arsenalish achievement, topped the Premier League table for the calendar year of 2015. Or perhaps he was half a reason. He formed half of a double act of the artisan and the artist, each offering the qualities the other lacked. Santi Cazorla was his sidekick, offering the class and catalytic passing Coquelin lacked, perhaps coaxing more from the younger man. Arsenal’s C-team became A-listers.
Arsenal accrued 74 points from 34 league games they started together. It is not title-winning form this season or last, but it is not far off it in other years. It is definitely the sort of return that would propel a club into the top four. It amounts to 2.17 points per game, a sizeable difference from the 1.77 that Arsenal are getting this year.
So when Cazorla was injured, Arsenal lost not one player but two. Yet if others are missing Cazorla and, from Mesut Ozil downwards, there is a list of footballers with whom the playmaker has struck up an understanding, no one else suffered as much from the Spaniard’s absence as Coquelin. He lacked the same chemistry with anyone else – Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey, Mohamed Elneny (he has played so rarely with Jack Wilshere that it is harder to form an assessment) – and a Cazorla-less Coquelin brings familiar criticisms of Arsenal: they need a high-calibre defensive midfielder, a constructive and destructive force.
It is worth noting that a Cazorla-less Coquelin was borrowed by Charlton in 2014, recalled only by Arsenal because of their injury problems. And that makes the reported fee of £10 million Valencia paid remarkable. Because unless they can find a counterpart of Cazorla to recreate his alliance with Coquelin, there is scant evidence from almost a decade at Arsenal to suggest the Frenchman is anything other than a stand-in.