BY STEVE NJUGUNA
Arsenal seemed destined for doom at the turn of the year but with a handful of games to go they are just 7 points off leaders Chelsea and are in a position to finish third or even second.
Football as many say is a game of strange things. Some describe it as a battle of wit and tactics. Others refer to it as that game where twenty two chaps chase some cow hide about and stick it in some mesh. Luck in soccer can be just as good as talent in grabbing a win, and sometimes a good tactician can change substandard players into household names. However, when it comes to Arsenal, in the last decade there has been some distinct predictability about their luck.
Coach Arsene Wenger has been trying to impose a carpet style of soccer which requires increased ball retention and possession and playing ground passes in an effort to split the opponent. This form of football is fondly referred to as ‘tiki taka’ by its many admirers. Of course his attempt to set his team up to play the beautiful soccer is laudable and can bear comic results, but it seems to ignore the basics like good old fashioned defensive aggression. That coupled with glorious wing play, which entails the fastest player on the team steaming down the flanks and bringing in a cross in the hope that someone in the middle will nod it in. Wenger did not factor in that the most successful football teams mix beautiful soccer and old-fashioned football techniques for their spectacular style.
But the change came this season with the redrafting of 23 year old French midfielder Francis Coquelin back to the squad after a deep midfield injury crisis. After a few games he cemented himself into the team with his accurate tackling, aerial combativeness and wonderful passing accuracy. Olivier Giroud’s improved form has also improved the Gunner’s fortunes. Giroud has scored 13 goals so far in the premier league, allowing Wenger to relax his tactics to express more wing play thus playing to the French striker’s strengths. But Coquelin is the one who is prompting this discussion.
Some perhaps telling statistics show just how indispensable the young Frenchman has been to the team. He has had no defensive errors at all in his 15 games this season, and he has won 60% of his aerial duels which is commendable since at 178cm he is one of the shortest defensive midfielders in the league. He has a passing accuracy of 83% with 84% of that number being forward passes. This is impressive for a player who was on the verge of being sold on a free transfer and experienced a loan spell at Charlton Athletic in the English league second division only a few months earlier. Arsenal have only lost twice when he has played. This speaks volumes about his impact on the team.
Wenger finally decided to balance tactical and physical strength and he is reaping dividends. If he manages to hold on to his new midfield warrior, he might just be able to weasel his team into contention for the title.