Arsenal: Coquelin's return provides welcome relief from Flamini - but is Cazorla the key to defensive solidity?

 
Joe Hall
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Arsenal v Manchester United - Premier League
Ready to rumble: Coquelin is back in contention for Arsenal (Source: Getty)

Arsenal midfielder Francis Coquelin is in line for a return from two months on the sidelines this weekend and among the cacophony of relieved sighs at the Emirates Stadium none will be louder than Petr Cech’s.

The Arsenal goalkeeper could justifiably expect a welcome drop in his workload once there is a Coquelin-shaped shield sitting in front of his defence.

Arsenal fans have been hankering for the return of their midfield lynchpin following two months that have included disastrous defensive showings away at Southampton and Liverpool.

While making do with the erratic Mathieu Flamini, Arsenal have actually managed to keep results at a fairly consistent level - averaging 1.9 points per game before and after Coquelin hobbled off in the 14th minute at West Brom in late November (a game Arsenal eventually went on to lose).

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Yet despite only losing twice in the Frenchman’s absence, Arsenal’s opponents have found considerably more joy in attacking areas.

With Coquelin in the side this season Arsenal average 0.75 goals conceded per Premier League game and 10.3 shots conceded per game.

Without Coquelin? That has swelled to 1.2 goals per game and 14.7 shots per game.

Teams have scored more goals, made more chances and forced Cech into more saves whenever Coquelin has been absent this season.

Mathieu Flamini, superior to Coquelin at geeing up his teammates and building up a sweat, can’t match the mobility or even positional discipline offered by his fellow countryman.

Without Coquelin’s defensive machinations in front of the back four, Arsenal’s tackles per game dropped from 21.8 to 17. The difference between the pair’s individual metrics is stark: Flamini averages 1.8 tackles per game and 1.9 interceptions per game while Coquelin averages 3.2 tackles per game and 2.7 interceptions per game.

Yet before Arsenal fans reach for the “like a new signing” line, it’s worth keeping in mind that Coquelin’s knee injury largely coincided with midfield partner Santi Cazorla’s own absence with a similar issue (Cazorla was injured a week later).

Arsenal’s shots and goals conceded per game with and without Cazorla mirror their numbers with and without Coquelin.

And while Cazorla can’t match the industry or tenacity of Coquelin, he has been the Arsenal midfield’s best passer after Mesut Ozil, completing 90 per cent of 446 passes while Aaron Ramsey - who has partnered Flamini in central midfield in recent weeks - has completed 86 per cent of 402 passes.

Furthermore, Ramsey is on average dispossessed 2.5 times per game compared to 1.4 times per game for Cazorla, while his preference for making attacking, driving runs into the box has the potential to leave his midfield partner with too much ground to cover if the team does lose possession.

Coquelin’s return should contribute to calmer heartbeats amongst the Emirates faithful - but Cech may not be able to rest easy just yet.

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