Francis Coquelin could be set for a surprise return to the Arsenal team for the FA Cup final

Arsenal’s chances of FA Cup final success have been severely hit by the absence of several key defenders. Shkodran Mustafi’s concussion, Laurent Koscielny’s suspension and injuries to Gabriel Paulista and Kieran Gibbs have left Arsene Wenger scrabbling around for defensive solutions. One possible answer might be to give his back line more protection in midfield—and that could mean a surprise recall for Francis Coquelin.

For the first time in more than two years, Coquelin is not currently an automatic starter in the Arsenal team. Since being recalled from a loan spell with Charlton in December 2014, he’s pretty much been a regular, with his partnership with Santi Cazorla proving particularly effective.

However, when Arsenal switched to a back three for the match with Middlesbrough on April 17th, Coquelin was dropped from the team. He has made two starts since then, but that’s primarily been to afford some measure of rotation rather than a firm endorsement of his abilities.

For many Arsenal fans, removing Coquelin from the XI was long overdue. Without Cazorla alongside him, he’d had a difficult season. Arsenal’s midfield was dangerously unbalanced, and the duo of Coquelin and Granit Xhaka seemed to lack any semblance of stability. He remained a decent ball-winner, but his technical limitations were beginning to grate on the tetchy Arsenal supporters.

While dissection of Arsenal’s move to 3-4-2-1 has understandably focused on how it’s alleviated many of the Gunners’ issues at centre-half, it’s also had a transformative effect on Wenger’s midfield. With an extra centre-back cover, the Arsenal boss has managed to pair Xhaka with Aaron Ramsey. Although neither player is a classic defensive midfielder, they have struck up an impressive understanding that was beginning to bode well for the final.

Wenger’s plans are now in tatters. When Arsenal adopted the back three, part of the thinking behind it was a wealth of options at centre-half. However, in classic Arsenal fashion the Gunners have now lost three central defenders in little over a week. It leaves Wenger facing up to the prospect of giving club captain Per Mertesacker his first start of the season at Wembley.

If Gibbs is declared fit, it will be possible to field a back three of Mertesacker, Rob Holding and Nacho Monreal. However, if Monreal is the only left-sided player available on the day, Wenger is likely to revert to the back four he used for the majority of the season.

That’s where Coquelin could come in handy. Arsenal can get away with pairing Xhaka and Ramsey when there are three covering defenders behind them. However, with a back four, Arsenal will need a steelier midfield—and Coquelin remains their best ball-winner.

After all, Arsenal are up against no ordinary midfield. Nemanja Matic and N’golo Kante have been outstanding all season long, and Arsenal may need an extra body just to cope with Kante’s superhuman stamina.

If it’s indeed a back four, Coquelin is likely to be installed along Xhaka with Ramsey granted a more attacking role. If he keeps it simple (i.e. wins the ball back and immediately gives it to the superior distributor in Xhaka) then he could be a very useful addition to the team.

Despite the criticism he’s received this season, Coquelin remains an important squad member. When Arsenal went away to Stoke a couple of weeks ago needing a result, Wenger called upon Coquelin. The Frenchman produced a complete midfield performance as Arsenal ran out 4-1 winners. He is far from a busted flush.

It’s also worth mentioning that there have been some problems away from the field for Coquelin this season. It did not attract much press attention in the UK, but he missed two matches earlier in the campaign on compassionate leave to help him deal with the death of a family member.  

Wembley is an opportunity for Coquelin to put the problems of this season behind him. He may never regain his status as an automatic starter, but this is a chance for him to show he’s an asset who warrants deployment in certain key games. His commitment to the Arsenal cause has never been questioned, but against Chelsea he will need to find the quality to match.