Selling Francis Coquelin shows Arsenal still need proper holding midfielder
There was a time, back in 2015, when Arsene Wenger claimed that Francis Coquelin would have been a great signing at £40 million (had he not joined the club academy as a teenager). Two-and-a-half years later, Arsenal will probably be happy to get a fraction of that from another club in the January transfer window.
Wenger acknowledged on Tuesday that he's considering selling Coquelin this month, having seemingly come to the same conclusion many fans reached long ago -- that the 26-year-old Frenchman is not the top-class defensive midfielder the Gunners so badly need.
It would be a disappointing ending to a once-promising Arsenal career but selling Coquelin is the right decision, even though he has rightly endeared himself to sections of the fanbase by showing a level of passion on the pitch that's often lacking from his teammates.
It would also be a signal that Wenger is finally dealing with two of his biggest shortcomings: not taking the holding midfield role seriously enough, and hanging on to underperforming players for way too long.
It's often said that Arsenal have never replaced Patrick Vieira, and the truth of that statement doesn't need to be repeated here. But what's become increasingly infuriating in recent years is Wenger's stubborn attempts to plug that giant hole in central midfield with either cheap stop-gap solutions or square pegs.
First he tried to re-school Mikel Arteta, but the Spaniard was never a true defensive midfielder. Then he re-signed Mathieu Flamini on a free transfer, even though the Frenchman was clearly past his prime. (Starting the 2014-15 season with that ageing duo as his only holding midfielders -- having just bought Alexis Sanchez to play alongside Mesut Ozil in front of them -- remains one of Wenger's most appalling mistakes.)
When Arteta and Flamini both got injured, Wenger stumbled upon another free option in Coquelin, who was recalled from a loan spell at Charlton in a measure of desperation. To everyone's surprise, that move worked beautifully at first.
Coquelin's energy and willingness to accept a purely defensive role next to Santi Cazorla gave the team an immediate boost. His performance in the 2-0 win at Manchester City in just his second start of the campaign still ranks as arguably his finest.
For a while, it looked like Coquelin was indeed the enforcer that Arsenal had been crying out for, and it wasn't long before Wenger used him as an example to defend his transfer policy.
"If we had bought Coquelin at Christmas for £40m, everyone would say 'what a signing'. I am sorry he didn't cost any money, he is still a good player," Wenger said in May that year.
Unfortunately for Arsenal, though, Coquelin had apparently convinced Wenger that he didn't need to spend any money on a holding midfielder that summer either. And when the Frenchman then suffered a long-term knee injury, Wenger's solution was to spend around £7m Basel's Mohamed Elneny -- a player who, like Coquelin, is now only deemed good enough for cup games and the bench.
When Wenger finally did splash some cash, it was on Granit Xhaka. But while the £35 million Switzerland international was billed as a holding midfielder when he arrived, it quickly became clear that his defensive abilities, especially his hot-headed tackling, are the weakest parts of his game.
Still, Xhaka remains a better option than Coquelin, who was an excellent partner to Cazorla but has never looked like a good fit playing next to anyone else. If he leaves now, he will carry the dubious record of having played the most games as an outfield player under Wenger without scoring a goal -- 159 and counting. It's hard to imagine how any professional footballer could play 159 games in Arsenal's midfield without scoring at least once, but that only serves to highlight the Frenchman's limitations.
If Arsenal can get anywhere between £10-£15m for Coquelin, they should consider it a good deal (and the same can be said for Elneny.) The question, as always, is whether Wenger actually plans to bring in a proper replacement this time.
Fans will want him to splash the cash on a high-profile new arrival, but the emergence of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, a central midfielder at heart who has been used at left-back lately, may convince the Arsenal boss that the cheap option is still the right one.
Mattias is ESPN FC's Arsenal correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @MattiasKaren.