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Villarreal’s Francis Coquelin Problem

The former Arsenal midfielder has yet to really fit into Unai Emery’s side.

Villarreal v Sivasspor - UEFA Champions League Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

When we first found out about the Valencia fire sale this past summer, I took at look at their midfielders, since that was a big need in our side. I pretty much dismissed the idea of Francis Coquelin, because my thought was that he really wasn’t any better than Manu Morlanes. Morlanes missed 21 matches due to injury last season and thus has been slow getting started in the Segunda division, but I think that take is still defensible (depending on how you feel about the sample size comparisons). When we bought Coquelin, the good part about the move, I felt, was that his positioning when paired with Dani Parejo in a 442 was that of a true defensive midfielder. He would stay home and allow our other midfielders to take care of things further forward. Here’s what that looked like:

Last season, the only player who would consistently play in this defensive midfield zone for us was Iborra. Zambo, for all his talents, was way too prone to pressing forward. Bringing Coquelin in, I thought, would give us another positionally disciplined player to rotate at that position. The problem, so far, is that we have not gotten that from Coquelin. Yesterday, playing against a very game Sivasspor side, his average depth of position was barely deeper than Manu Trigueros, who is a playmaker by trade:

Part of this positioning issue is because our CBs played very aggressively, and I do want to pause here and say that Unai Emery had a bit of a conundrum on his hands yesterday. He wanted to rest Pau, who played with Spain over the international break, but Foyth and Albiol are both more naturally right sided CBs. He knew Baena would be on the left side, as would third choice LB Jaume Costa and not too defensively inclined Manu Trigueros, so he had to decide which CB was going to back them up. He chose Albiol who is probably the better defender, but his lack of pace hurt us badly after the combined efforts of Trigueros and Costa gave the ball away before the first goal. In a rotated side, I’m not sure Emery could have made any other decision.

How this relates to Coquelin, is this: knowing the lack of pace and defensive acumen that we had on the left side of the midfield, a defensive midfielder like Iborra would (and eventually did) sit deeper and help on that side. We got no such thing from Coquelin.

68% of Sivasspor’s attacks yesterday went either down the left or through the middle, so we would expect our most defensive midfielder on the pitch, Coquelin, to have had a lot of defensive activity, right? Well, this isn’t what happened. He had no tackles (for context, Kubo and Chukwueze had two each) one interception, one clearance, and two fouls- one of which was a yellow card. Iborra, in fewer minutes, managed twice as many defensive actions and only committed one foul. Coquelin and Manu Trigueros had the same number of defensive actions.

Maybe Coquelin did less defensively because he had to take over the passing load for the missing Parejo, right? Well actually, that’s not entirely accurate either. When Iborra stepped onto the pitch after halftime, he averaged over a pass a minute for the rest of the match. In his 78 minutes of play, Coquelin only managed 56 pass attempts.

All in all, Coquelin was caught in no man’s land yesterday. Not playing as a DM, not really contributing offensively, being semi-involved but not changing much in link up play. This just isn’t very useful to the team. Right now, the team cannot afford to run any version of a 442 while he is on the pitch, because he’s positionless out there. We need the positionally responsible version of Coquelin to come back.

So far this season, relative to other DMs, smarterscout rates Coquelin a 27/100 in attacking output, a 49/100 in defending quality, and a 0/100 in defending quantity. Essentially, he’s refusing to play defense the vast majority of the time, and when he does defend, his play has been scarcely average. In return we’re getting well below average offensive output for a defensive midfielder. Want to blame it on small sample size? Well, last season smarterscout rated his defensive quality a 7/100 over 1539 minutes playing defensive midfield. Manu Trigueros played 368 minutes as a DM last season, and frankly his defensive scores were better.

Coquelin’s ball retention numbers (how well he avoids giving the ball away) have actually been very good. Literally all Villarreal needs him to do is stay in the defensive zone, snuff out attacks, and not give the ball away. That’s what Iborra had done, and we’ve been a much much better team when Iborra has been on the pitch. It’s not a hard job, Coquelin has just so far been too obstinate to do it. Hopefully that will change soon.