Arsenal have arguably needed a holding midfielder since 2008. Seven years on, they appear to have found their man: Given his performances in the second half of the season, it is difficult to imagine the Gunners beginning 2015/16 without Frenchman Francis Coquelin in their starting XI.
2008 was a bad year for the base of Arsenal’s midfield. Arsene Wenger began the 2007/08 campaign with Mathieu Flamini, Gilberto Silva and Lassana Diarra at his disposal. It was an embarrassment of riches for Wenger, but the degree of depth backfired.
Diarra and Gilberto left due to a lack of first-team football, while Flamini’s accelerated development saw him offered a lucrative contract by AC Milan. By the time the 2008/09 season got underway, Arsenal had lost all three of their holding midfielders.
That gap was subsequently filled with minimal success by Denilson and Abou Diaby. More recently, Mikel Arteta has been the regular incumbent. However, he is more of a playmaker than destroyer. Arteta has the intelligence to mark and intercept from his "pivote" position, but he lacks the physicality to dominate in the middle of the park.
That can’t be said of Coquelin, who plays every game with abundant aggression. His impact has transformed the dynamic of the team, prompting Wenger to tell ITV Sport:
He contributes well to the balance of the team and that's very difficult to measure.
The balance sometimes depends on one player who has some of the characteristics that others haven't got.
Coquelin’s most crucial characteristic is selflessness. He understands that he’s not the most technically gifted player in the team and is willing to sacrifice any attacking ambitions to offer perennial protection for the back four. The player himself told Press Association Sport (h/t Daily Mail):
With every player we have got going forward, you need a man with a defensive mind as well.
If I can give the team a good balance - because we have got quite a few players going forward - hopefully we can get back to keeping clean sheets soon.
It took a bit of time for me, but in the end I got my chance and I am just trying to do my best for the team.
The team has been rewarded with an excellent run of form, and Coquelin has been rewarded with a new long-term contract. Having lost Flamini after his breakout season back in 2008, Wenger will be delighted to have tied the younger Frenchman down for the foreseeable future.
Replacing him would not be easy. Arsenal need to sign someone who can provide cover and competition for Coquelin in the long term, but it’s unlikely they’ll find someone who is a better fit for the team. Having come through Arsenal’s academy, Coquelin is embedded in the style and culture of the club.
Finding the one player who can bring balance to the team is a difficult task. It took Arenal years to discover a player who could bring bite to their midfield. Having finally stumbled upon someone able to give this team the structural security it needs, Wenger will cling to Coquelin.
In the space of a few months, he has become essential to this team.
James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and is following the club from a London base throughout the 2014-15 season. Follow him on Twitter here.