Defensive midfield has been a problematic position for Arsene Wenger for some time now.
For several years he sought fruitlessly for a successor for ‘The Invisible Wall’, Gilberto Silva. However, the same part of the pitch will currently be causing him to scratch his head — not because of the lack of a credible holding player, but because of the emergence of one. The surprising success of Francis Coquelin has left Wenger with a conundrum over whether to recruit another midfield spoiler.
As Arsenal entered the back end of 2014, their need for an accomplished anchoring midfielder was particularly pronounced.
Mikel Arteta’s body was caving in under the weight of responsibility — specifically a continually troublesome calf muscle. When Mathieu Flamini was called upon, he looked like as likely to bring chaos as calm to the defensive set-up. As a desperate measure, Wenger recalled Francis Coquelin from a loan spell with championship Charlton.
If this was a last throw of the dice, Wenger rolled a double-six. Coquelin became a key player for the remainder of the season and played a crucial role in Arsenal’s FA Cup triumph.
His performances will have had a dramatic impact on Wenger’s transfer plans for the summer. Six months ago, a defensive midfielder would have been top of the Arsenal boss’ shopping list. However, it’s now possible that he may not even buy one.
Reports indicate that Arteta has agreed a new deal that will see him extend his stay in London by another year. Would Wenger really ask his captain to stick around if he didn’t have a set role for him in the squad? If the Spaniard is intended to be Coquelin’s immediate understudy, then it becomes difficult to see where a new signing could fit in.
Perhaps that explains why Manchester United appear to be allowed a relatively clear run at Morgan Schneiderlin.
The Southampton midfielder has appeared for some years to be an Arsenal player-in-waiting, but now seems more likely to end up at Old Trafford. It appears Wenger is unwilling to pay in the region of £25 million for a player who would not be a guaranteed first choice.
Wenger faced a similiar situation in January when looking to recruit a new centre-back. With an established partnership of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker settled in the team, Wenger had to identify a player who could add depth without disrupting an effective alchemy.
In the end, he plumped for Villarreal’s Gabriel Paulista: a player without a huge continental reputation, signed for a reasonable fee of a little over £10 million, with an age that meant he was content to bide his time on the bench but had the potential to improve and compete for a regular place before too long.
A player with a similar profile could be the ideal solution to the midfield problem.
There is no point bringing in a huge star that will curtail Coquelin’s development. Instead, Arsenal need a player who will be prepared to fight for their place. It’s about acquiring quality but it’s also about maintaining equilibrium.
Arsenal waited so long for a player with Coquelin’s attributes that they would be foolish to do anything that might halt his progress. However, Arteta is not a like-for-like replacement — the skipper is still more a playmaker than a destroyer.
A signing in the Gabriel mould would undoubtedly improve their squad.
Read more from James McNicholas, AKA @gunnerblog