OPINION | By Arsenal correspondent Tony Hughes
Arsenal have the makings of something special, Francis Coquelin is the Premier League’s standout player of 2015 and other lessons learned from the Gunners’ trip to Turf Moor
Arsene Wenger could be building his first great side in a decade
After so many false dawns and near-misses, finally, just finally, Arsene Wenger appears to have settled on a formula that could have the rest of the Premier League worried.
A run of 22 wins in 27 matches, including eight consecutive league victories, might not be enough to convince Wenger sceptics but his team is undoubtedly on the right track.
With a squad possessing attacking options galore, a handful of reliable goalscorers, strength in depth in most positions and crucially, a growing know-how, most bases are covered.
Even the consistent failings of recent years – the crippling injury lists and the horrible meltdowns against top-four rivals – appear to have been eradicated.
The 2014-15 team now appears primed to go where no Wenger team has gone in 10 years and finish in the top two. Chelsea are virtually home and dry, but Arsenal look the best-equipped side to challenge Jose Mourinho’s champions-elect next season.
Francis Coquelin has been as effective as any Premier League player in 2015
Francis Coquelin’s emergence is one of the stories of the season. It might not quite out-rank Harry Kane’s ‘Boys Own’ tale but it is compelling enough.
Recalled in December from a loan spell at Championship club Charlton Athletic for what appeared a final stab at first-team Premier League football, he was expected to be trailing Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini, Santi Cazorla, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and even Calum Chambers in the race for a place in Arsenal’s central midfield.
Against all odds, Coquelin has catapulted himself from the fringes to a first-team regular. Rewarded with a new four-year contract in February, he could now be a fixture in Wenger’s team for many seasons.
Like all the best midfielders of his type, Coquelin does all the dirty, often overlooked, work. He protects the defence, closes down spaces, blocks and intercepts, and gives the ball to those more skilled than himself. Significantly, he has been crucial in making Arsenal harder to beat.
Possessing more energy than Arteta and a purer technique than Flamini, Coquelin has been integral to Arsenal’s run of eight consecutive victories.
No praise is too high for the Frenchman’s contribution. Oliver Giroud has supplied the goals and Santi Cazorla the craft but Coquelin has been Arsenal’s most influential player in 2015. Indeed, there is a strong argument that he has been the most effective in the league in this calendar year, ahead, even, of the likes of Kane and Eden Hazard.
Per Mertesacker is far better than his critics give him credit for
When the wheels come off at Arsenal, fingers usually get pointed at the vast frame of Per Mertesacker.
Yes, he has the turning speed of an oil tanker. True, he can look a little cumbersome on the ball. Agreed, he is prone to the type of errors that can look awful on slow-motion replays.
But the German also happens to be a pretty decent centre-back, and has been for four seasons now.
When Wenger had to perm two out of three from Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen a few years ago, the Germany World Cup winner was believed to be the manager’s first choice centre-back. Koscielny emerged as his regular partner, while Vermaelen fell down the pecking order and was subsequently sold to Barcelona.
Mertesacker was in commanding form against Burnley as Arsenal secured an eighth consecutive win, a run in which they have conceded just five goals. The German’s contribution is totally appreciated within his own team.