At the back of every Arsenal's fan mind, as they confidently predict their side's participation in the title race, is The Fear. The Fear is borne out of the now over 9-year drought, the fact that Arsenal have been so close on so many occasions and have utterly ballsed it all up. Paris 2006, Birmingham 2008, St. James 2011, Wembley 2011 and nearly again, twice, in 2014. No club seems to have the ability to hit the self-destruct button as well as Arsenal. All of that was supposed to be over, but as Arsenal showed on the weekend, The Fear is a legitimate feeling to have as an Arsenal fan.
The result against West Ham, however, has been on the cards for awhile. Indeed, in a sense, it's a continuation of the run of form Arsenal showed at home at the end of last season, where they failed to score in three consecutive games before beating a West Bromwich Albion side that had decided to start their summer holiday early. Indeed, there was really nothing different between Arsenal's match against West Ham and the 1-0 loss to Swansea and the 0-0 draw with Sunderland, plus one or two goalkeeping errors; Arsenal had lots of shots, most from not great positions, and couldn't really create anything.
That is part of a larger pattern. Although Arsenal had a strong run to the end of the season, there were very few convincing performances. Only eight or nine matches could be considered truly good performances: Manchester City away, Aston Villa at home, Middlesbrough in the Cup, Manchester United in the Cup, West Ham at home, Liverpool at home, Hull away, WBA at home and the Cup final. Two of those games were against Aston Villa, who finished 17th in the league; a further two were against sides now in the Championship, and it could be argued that West Ham and West Brom had downed tools by the time Arsenal played them (and even then, Arsenal were on the back foot for much of the second half against West Ham).
Other matches during that run tended to follow a pattern: Arsenal huffed and puffed, and struggled to break teams down, before scoring two quick goals, and then spend the rest of the match trying to absorb pressure, often giving up one goal, and not really threatening on the counter attack. In that way, it was not entirely dissimilar to the end of the 2012/13 season, where Arsenal sacrificed good football for points. But that comparison has a major caveat: the 2012/13 side was far better at seeing games out (and indeed, kept more clean sheets) and controlling the tempo because of Mikel Arteta. Furthermore, although he hadn't yet broken out in the goal-scoring hero, Aaron Ramsey was able to play central midfield, and his passing and running was vital to changing the tempo on counter attacks.
Arteta, of course, was unavailable last season after November, and was replaced by Coquelin. And after the 4141 proved to be a mostly disastrous failure, Manchester City aside, Coquelin was partnered in midfield by Santi Cazorla, who made up for the Frenchman's inability to pass out of the back. Cazorla was quite good in the role: he is exceptional under pressure, and was able to work the ball out of pressure and to Mesut Özil, which enabled Arsenal to have some semblance of control further up the pitch. But while Arteta was able to set the tempo, Cazorla was not. This is not his fault: Cazorla is an attacking player, so, naturally, his first choice is to pass forward. But that is not always the best option, especially when trying to break sides down. While it seems counter-intuitive, it can make more sense to pass sideways and backwards, and try and draw a team out. Or, to put it more simply, you cannot play at the same tempo for an entire match, as it is too easy for competent defences to defend against that tempo. Thus, sometimes you have to slow the tempo down, before speeding it up. On Sunday, and throughout the end of last season, Arsenal were too one-paced, unable to change the tempo.
One way to change the tempo is to have a dynamic player in the centre of midfield. That player is Aaron Ramsey, and Arsène Wenger clearly recognised that Arsenal were too one-paced, for he returned Ramsey to the centre. The problem, though, is that between Coquelin's inability to pass quickly, or to pass well over ten yards, and the style of Ramsey's play, Arsenal do not have a controller. Ramsey is not as good as Cazorla, or Jack Wilshere, at turning out of pressure. But he is a smart-decision maker on the ball, which is why he is good at being the player to get the second pass out of defence. Furthermore, if he were to be the first pass out of defence, it would hamper his ability to change the tempo, as he'd be further removed from the middle of the field, where Arsenal can go through the gears. Furthermore, as this site has explored, Mesut Özil is a far better player when Aaron Ramsey is in the side. So too is Olivier Giroud.
On Sunday, Wenger paired Coquelin and Ramsey together, and the result was fairly bad. Coquelin, notably trying to show to his centre backs more, passed terribly, and West Ham, who were far better at pressing and trying to contain Arsenal than they were in March, allowed Coquelin to have the ball, stopping Arsenal working the ball to Mesut Özil and others. Cazorla returned to the middle at the beginning of the second half before Coquelin, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Cech conspired to gift West Ham a second goal. Many reponses to the result have blamed Wenger for breaking up the Cazorla-Coquelin partnership. He was, however, right to put Ramsey back in the middle. Since the beginning of 2013/14, when Aaron Ramsey played central midfield in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Arsenal had the following results:
Santi Cazorla had a good record at central midfield in a 4-2-3-1, mostly with Coquelin, but it was not as good as Ramsey, and there were fewer convincing performances; with Ramsey in the side, Arsenal beat Champions League runners-up Borussia Dortmund away, Swansea away, Luis Suarez's Liverpool at home and Tottenham at home. With Cazorla and Coquelin, Arsenal beat a fairly-average Liverpool and lost at home to Monaco, where the two were fairly culpable for the first and second goal. Furthermore, a higher proportion of Arsenal's goals were scored on set pieces, which isn't very sustainable, and there is a smaller sample size of success, with results and performances at the end of the season pointing to the opposition sussing out how to stop Arsenal, as Manchester United did in the league until Cazorla was subbed off and Coquelin was moved to right back.
Arsenal are a side with aspirations of winning the Premier League and being more competitive in the Champions League. To meet those goals, they have to be able to control matches, be proactive with the ball, be able to absorb pressure, and be dangerous on the counter attack. They do all of that better with Aaron Ramsey central. But to play Ramsey central, they need a midfield partner who can complement him; who can control, set the tempo and be positionally intelligent. Mikel Arteta, sadly, no longer has the fitness for such a role, and it is unlikely for Cazorla to gain the nous to control, though he is a wonderfully intelligent footballer, and stranger things have happened.
But if Coquelin is to be the starter, Coquelin will have to be partnered with Cazorla, and Arsenal will not reach the goals they have set themselves. Coquelin did a job last season; he stood in the right place for the large part, tackled, and gave the ball to Cazorla to pass, and he is useful in big games, when Arsenal stand off sides, and are better at countering because they can fit four midfielders into the side with two runners, as they did in the Community Shield, where Cazorla, from a nominally left-sided position, was able to come deep as collect and pass. Against most sides, though, where Arsenal will have to break teams down with possession, Cazorla is no longer energetic or quick enough to play wide, and the best way to break teams down, the partnership between Özil and Ramsey, is neutered when one is played wide.
Coquelin's skillset is fairly limited, and that is why Arsenal's major competitors do not have a player similar to Coquelin starting matches as the defensive midfielder. Barcelona have Sergio Busquets; Real Madrid have Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, Bayern Munich have Xabi Alonso, Philip Lahm or David Alaba, PSG have Thiago Motta and Marco Verratti, and closer to home, Chelsea have Nemanja Matic. This is the level and skillset Arsenal have to aspire to, and such players are, in fairness, hard to find. But as long as a player can control, and a good first pass out of defence, Arsenal can cope because of Ramsey's running, and the better structure of the side. If they cannot find this player, it will be another season where having The Fear will be justified on multiple occasions.