Arsenal fans received some bad news for the team’s title chances when they found out Francis Coquelin is out with a potentially long-term injury. Without a lot of options in reserve, Arsenal fans are worried and have already begun to criticize Arsene Wenger for not buying a backup option for the defensive midfielder. Should Arsenal fans be worried? I want to look at the consequences of losing Coquelin for Arsenal, and potential replacements for him in the medium term and ways to strengthen the squad in the January window.
The first question is how badly will Arsenal miss Coquelin? He’s a key part of the team, and his backup is Mathieu Flamini who Arsenal fans don’t seem to rate highly at all. I broke out my Transfer Simulator to see how many points Arsenal could expect to lose with Flamini as a replacement for Coquelin, and Arsenal fans shouldn’t be too concerned.
When I substituted Flamini in for Coquelin to my model, I only see a four point loss over the course of a season, which translates to a roughly 4% decrease in win probability in any given game for Arsenal. This isn’t too bad, although 4 points could potentially be a huge different given that Arsenal’s expected final lead over Man City is currently 5 points. A 2 or 3 point drop over the time Coquelin is out of action makes the title race a lot more competitive, so there is some reason to be concerned.
The next step was to find suitable replacements for Coquelin in the January transfer window. Assuming Wenger wants to buy (which is a big assumption given his history, especially in January), how many options are there? Going back to my first cut at a Points Above Replacement (PAR) measure from a few months back, Coquelin is possibly Arsenal’s most difficult player to replace, offering them a ~4 point bump over the median player in my database (more than any other player in their opening day first team). 1
This matches Wenger’s philosophy that top players are difficult to replace, so he shouldn’t necessarily spend money just for the sake of spending money. If he can find a legitimate upgrade, then he should so do, but that’s going to be difficult for Coquelin.
Are there options though? I ran some of the big names, and came up short, and honestly they’re probably unrealistic for what Wenger would be looking for/willing to pay in January anyway. Even ignoring that, most of them weren’t an upgrade over what Coquelin brings to the table in terms of offensive and defensive production simultaneously. More offensive-minded players cost Arsenal valuable defensive contributions, and a lot of pure defensive-minded holding mids fell short by a shot per 90 minutes over Coquelin’s contribution and didn’t offer as much in the passing department. To find options, I did two things.
First, I looked at my list of replacements that generated the graph above. Because I have all midfielders classified in the same group, most of the replacement improvements weren’t positional fits: the model wanted Arsenal to buy Franck Ribery, presumably because his offensive contributions somehow overshadow his defensive limitations in this case. However, I did find a couple of cases that were interesting here: Jeremy Toulalan and Etienne Capoue. They’re not great options – Toulalan because of his advanced age, and Capoue because he just recently transferred to Watford and might not be seeking a second move so soon, but they’re both basically break-even compared to Coquelin.
Second, I went to my multi-dimensional scaling project to find similar players. The full method is explained in another post, but the idea is that I use game stats to create a two-dimensional placement for all players in my database. From there, I can measure the distance between each player and Coquelin, with shorter distances representing more similar players. This generated a couple of other interesting leads for players, but strangely enough most of the most similar players were wingers, indicating that Coquelin’s contribution as a defensive mid isn’t what you’d expect.
Fer and Vujicevic are fairly close to Coquelin in terms of stats and contribution, and interestingly are incredibly similar to each other. Capoue and Toulalan are very different from Coquelin but are very similar to each other.
I like each of these players because they’re all affordable and would likely be comfortable as a rotation option for Coquelin. All of them but Toulalan are reasonably young (ranging from 25-28), which is good and fits with what Wenger would like to do. So what is the expected point contribution of each of these players? I ran them through the transfer simulator, and here’s what I found.
Toulalan, Capoue, and Vujicevic are all *slight* downgrades from Coquelin, while Fer is about a five point downgrade. Not ideal, but it demonstrates the difficulty of replacing someone like Coquelin and shows what sort of position Arsenal is in. Each player has their downsides (Toulalan’s age, Capoue made a recent move already, Vujicevic would be making the transition from a less competitive Eredivisie straight into a Premier League title race, and Fer is arguably a downgrade over Flamini), but this is where qualitative scouting would come into play. Fer is the youngest of the group: can he improve quickly? Would Vujicevic’s performance transfer well into the EPL from the Eredivisie?
There are options, but I couldn’t find a silver bullet to replace Coquelin. Arsenal has a difficult series of choices ahead of them, and many “ok” options but not any great ones. It may be the best option to ride it out with Flamini, hope he can be solid in the short-term, and think about finding a better option in the summer window or even re-balancing the squad to have some more flexibility in their midfield.
- Arsenal fans -you’ve already beaten me up over my rating of Bellerin here so you don’t need to do a second round ↩