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John Brewin profile picture  By John Brewin

Will Arsene Wenger regret placing faith in Coquelin and Arsenal's spine?

At Crystal Palace last Sunday, Francis Coquelin struggled. Arsenal's anchorman might well have been sent off by half-time for two very bookable offences, and following the interval committed another foul, on Palace midfielder James McArthur, that had Selhurst Park baying for a red card.

Referee Lee Mason did not show one, but within moments, Arsene Wenger had subbed off his French compatriot. "I had thought about it at half-time, when the pressure was already there," said Arsenal's manager. "After the last foul I thought there was not much room now."

He was also asked to explain why central defender Laurent Koscielny got turned in the move that produced Joel Ward's equaliser, and to defend Olivier Giroud, who scored the first goal in Arsenal's 2-1 win but otherwise had a quiet afternoon, overshadowed by the brilliance of a supposedly half-fit Alexis Sanchez. And for Ward's goal, there were question marks about Petr Cech's reflexes; the goalkeeper was slow to get down to the Palace full-back's whipping drive.

A difficult day for the central unit of Wenger's team, although they successfully escaped one of the Premier League's tougher away days with three points. With Wenger repeatedly speaking of the difficulty of landing quality reinforcements in the transfer window, can that spine sustain itself throughout a season in which Arsenal are expected to challenge for the title?

It appears that Wenger believes so. He has taken particular pride in the revival of Coquelin's career. Having been recalled from a loan at Charlton last December, the 24-year-old is now first choice for the defensive midfielder role, ahead of club captain Mikel Arteta.

"If we had bought Coquelin at Christmas for £40 million, everyone would say 'what a signing,'" Wenger said in May after a series of smart, strong midfield performances, especially in a 2-0 January win at Manchester City that brought Coquelin considerable critical acclaim. "I am sorry he didn't cost any money, he is still a good player."

Francis Coquelin has the faith of manager Arsene Wenger, but the Frenchman has struggled this season.

Coquelin has the role that Sergio Busquets fulfills at Barcelona, or Nemanja Matic for Chelsea, or after his signing from Southampton, Morgan Schneiderlin for Manchester United.

Schneiderlin was gettable for Arsenal this summer. Multiple reports suggested that the Frenchman, from the same Alsace region as Wenger, preferred the Emirates to Old Trafford as his destination, but United got a £27m deal done. While United have hardly flowed in their three competitive matches this season, they have won them all, looking solid with Schneiderlin sitting in front of the defence in partnership with either Michael Carrick or Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Wenger kept faith with Coquelin. A pride and trust in a player brought up within his system since he was 17 is admirable, a reflection of a continuing belief in youth products in an age in which importing mercenary talent is most other clubs' route to success. Wenger's great rival, Sir Alex Ferguson, had a comparable belief in those he had brought through, although there is a distinct difference.

Ferguson made great use of foot soldiers like Phil Neville, Darren Fletcher and John O'Shea. They did not have the talent of Paul Scholes, David Beckham or Ryan Giggs, but Ferguson often pulled great performances from them in big matches, often at the expense of Arsenal in particular. He did so by telling players who spent regular time as substitutes that they were being saved for a certain role on a certain occasion, and a match-winning contribution might soon be rewarded with a swift return to the bench.

Wenger is different with players of promise though not inarguable class. As his treatment of Coquelin or young Spanish full-back Hector Bellerin demonstrates, once a player has come through for him, then he will be given the chance to play each week until perhaps injury or disaster intervenes.

"We have in every position strong players," Wenger said on Friday, when questioned on a continuing hesitance to buy anyone beyond Cech. "You have to be convinced that it strengthens your team."

Coquelin, Bellerin and Koscielny, a player who had played only a single Ligue 1 season when signed from Lorient in 2009, continue to be emblematic of Wenger's belief in unearthing rough diamonds and polishing them into players built to his specifications. Ready-made has been a rarity for Wenger. Even though he has lavished fortunes on both Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, big-money splurges are viewed as too obvious.

It is an approach diametrically opposed to that of Jose Mourinho, who prefers experienced campaigners and seems to have an aversion to blooding players from Chelsea's trophy-harvesting youth setup.

Mourinho is pushing for the expensive signing of Everton's John Stones, young at 21 but with two seasons of Premier League experience and an England international appearance. Meanwhile, Manchester City have signed Nicolas Otamendi, a powerhouse defender costing £30m. Wenger keeps faith in Koscielny and Per Mertesacker. It is a partnership that has done fine for him, and Wenger, despite January's signing of Gabriel Paulista from Villarreal, clearly sees little reason to lose trust in it.

And in midfield Coquelin partners Santi Cazorla, a genius on the ball but a negligible physical presence, but the Frenchman has suffered so far this season. Against Liverpool on Monday, he must deal with an in-form Philippe Coutinho. An improvement or a rethink may be required. Before Coquelin's problems at Palace came West Ham's 2-0 victory at the Emirates in which Dimitri Payet, playing between midfield and the forward line, thrived.

Coquelin was overmanned on the counter, with the sense that he had been targeted by Hammers boss Slaven Bilic in the same fashion Palace manager Alan Pardew chose the next week. If there is just one player in Arsenal's central midfield who can tackle, then he can pick up bookings in the manner he did at Selhurst. Another such player would take the heat off Coquelin, but there is little sign of that type of player arriving.

"I'm more focused on developing the team and the players we have inside the club," said Wenger on Friday. For him, Arsenal's spine will suffice for the challenges ahead.

John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.

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