The return to the first team squad of French midfielder Francis Coquelin leaves Arsene Wenger with something of a selection dilemma as he weighs up who to start in the centre of midfield for the visit of Swansea.
After Coquelin was sidelined with a minor knock to the knee, Arsene promoted Granit Xhaka from the bench to fill the vacant role next to talismanic Spaniard Santi Cazorla.
With Coquelin returned to the squad, however, the boss will have to assess whether the Frenchman will slot straight back into the side or whether to keep faith with summer signing Xhaka.
Let’s not forget that Coquelin, up until his injury, was the preferred partner to Cazorla in the heart of midfield, despite the general moans and groans of many fans, who wondered why the club’s £35million summer acquisition was warming the bench.
Whether the decision to start Coquelin was genuinely tactical or whether Arsene was keen to introduce Granit to the pace and power of the Premier League in a more gradual manner remains to be seen, but it can’t be said that it hasn’t been successful.
Looking at the statistics, it seems that the Frenchman offers a little more of a combative presence in midfield, tempering the more adventurous, attacking instincts of Cazorla. Perhaps Arsene believes Coquelin provides a better balance to the team, as compared to fielding Xhaka alongside the Spaniard.
In the league at least, Francis has fared slightly better than his team mate, with 3.2 tackle attempts, 3.2 interceptions, and 0.8 clearances averaged per game.
Xhaka, meanwhile, averages 2.2 tackles, 1.5 interceptions, and 1.2 clearances per game in the league. (statistics via whoscored.com)
While the Swiss has proven himself very adept at retrieving the ball and breaking up play, he hasn’t, as yet, been as aggressive and destructive as Coqeulin – who loves a good tackle or two.
That said, the Frenchman is returning from a spell on the sidelines, albeit a relatively short one, and it is for that reason I suspect Arsene will err on the side of caution and keep him in reserve, for the Swansea fixture at least.
Arsenal don’t have the greatest record in recent times with players returning from injury and it would be a shame to rush him back a week or so before he is ready.
In any case, it might be that it will require more guile and cunning than brute force to overcome Swansea, and Granit is arguably better placed to provide that, particularly with his range of passing.
Granit has averaged 71 passes per game in all competitions so far this season, with a completion rate of almost 87 per cent. By contrast, Coquelin has averaged 47.8 passes per game, with a completion rate of 88 per cent.
The midweek visit of Ludogorets could well be a more suitable opportunity in which to ease Francis back into first team contention, and I suspect that is what Arsene will favour this time around.
The real conundrum will be in the weeks ahead when, presuming both players stay fit, Arsene will have to choose the set up he prefers in the longer term.
Although, with Santi Cazorla getting on in years, and Aaron Ramsey on the comeback from injury, the debate could soon be much broader.
It’s a great conundrum to have. There’s nothing like competition and opportunity to encourage players to step up their own performances and really drive the team on to new levels.
Keeping all players happy will be difficult, there is no question of that, but I think there is a far greater appreciation for the squad as a whole in modern football, rather than the focus solely being on the starting XI.