Francis Coquelin was a revelation last season when injuries forced Arsene Wenger to bring the French midfielder back from his loan spell at Charlton in December. He was in large part the catalyst for Arsenal's excellent run of form in the second half of the season. Arsenal won 17, drew 2 and lost 4 of the 23 matches Coquelin started in all competitions including a win at Manchester City, a heavy defeat of Liverpool and an FA Cup triumph in which Coquelin was sensational in the final. He brought an energy, physicality and discipline at the base of midfield that Wenger's side had been sorely lacking. Over the course of those 23 starts he rarely seemed to put a foot wrong.
There was plenty of debate among Arsenal fans over the summer months over what positions most needed strengthening. After Petr Cech signed from Chelsea the consensus among those that felt they were still a signing or two to short of a title challenge was that Wenger needed either an upgrade on Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck at striker or cover for Coquelin at defensive midfield. Given Coquelin's near flawless half season and a lack of available deeper lying midfielders in the market following Morgan Schneiderlin's move to Manchester United and William Carvalho's unfortunate leg break, transfer rumors have centered around a new striker.
But to put so much pressure on Coquelin to be the main man anchoring Arsenal's midfield is a giant ask of a 24 year old in his first complete season in top flight English football and a risk for the club. While he made no indications that he wasn't up for the challenge last season, a 38 match league campaign requires a level of fitness and, most importantly, concentration that Coquelin hasn't had to show thus far in his young career. One of the defining features of Chelsea's title winning side was the vast experience of every one of their normal starting XI. They'd all played in big matches and all had an understanding of the consistent level of concentration required to win a title. Over the course of their careers they'd been in nearly every imaginable situation on a football pitch and were able to use that experience in tough circumstances.
While Coquelin has proven to have the attitude and physical tools to be a fantastic Premier League midfielder, he can't have developed that ruthless professionalism and ability to read game situations that only comes with playing in a large number of matches. Players of his experience level will inevitably make mistakes and become better players by learning from them. The experience he's gaining now is invaluable and should make his future a bright one at the Emirates but if Arsenal's goal is to win a title this season, it's ambitious to rely so heavily on a player with half a league season under his belt. While Alexis Sanchez is certainly Arsenal's best player, Coquelin is currently the least replaceable. That is a compliment to just how quickly he's adapted and proved his worth in top flight football but it can also be viewed as a critique of Wenger's lack of depth deep in midfield. Mikel Arteta's return is valuable- the calmness and ability to dictate play he brings will be useful in certain matches- but he struggles to provide the necessary cover for the back four in big games.
Coquelin put in what was probably his poorest performance for Arsenal in the opening day defeat to West Ham. To suggest this is an indicator of some kind of sophomore slump rather than simply a one off bad day at the office would be deeply unfair. Every player has a bad match from time to time and Coquelin has had shockingly few since returning to Arsenal. He certainly wasn't the only Arsenal player not at his best. But it will be interesting to see how he picks himself up after a poor performance. When he returned from Charlton last season less was expected of him and therefore the pressure to perform wasn't as heightened. This season the expectations are high and the pressure immense. It's a lot to put on the shoulders of such an unseasoned player but for Arsenal to have a crack at the title he'll have to continue to perform like the tested professional he looked last season.