In the wake of a toothless defeat at Norwich City on Saturday, the popular and predictable refrain that Robin van Persie would have stopped Arsenal from losing misses the point spectacularly. Van Persie may well have fired in a 35 yard free kick or produced a moment of magic, it is true. Then again, he was not able to stop Arsenal losing 2-0 at home to Liverpool last year, 2-1 at Fulham, or by the same score against Queens Park Rangers and Wigan, to name just four occasions when the club fell to defeat with the talismanic Dutchman.
The reason van Persie was unable to influence the result in all of those matches was the same reason why Arsenal lost to Norwich at the weekend. They were unable to get the ball into threatening positions often enough to get their forwards into the game - it had little to do with their ability to take their chances. Manchester United had the same problem against Everton on the opening day of the season, and could not get van Persie involved during his brief time on the pitch in that particular match.
Where Arsenal went wrong against Norwich was in their inability to pass the ball around Norwich’s midfield quickly enough and pull players out of position. It was rather straightforward for Chris Hughton, whose team stuck to their positions and waited for Arsenal to try and drag them out of shape. It was a sensible and practical ploy which Arsenal had no answer to. As a result, Gervinho was barely involved, Lukasz Podolski was unable to have any influence and Olivier Giroud was not given a single clear chance. But the failures Arsenal had in this game were in midfield.
What would have helped Arsenal was to bring on an extra midfielder and change to a diamond formation. That would have given Arsenal an extra man in the centre, allowed them to dominate possession far better and get into threatening positions more often. Arsenal did have most of the ball, true, but they rarely had it in good positions.
The most important thing in football is to be able to control a game of football. Arsenal are usually adept at this, yet against both Norwich and Chelsea, their two league defeats, they have been unable to pass the ball around the middle of the pitch – and as a result they had little control in either game. And the answer to an inability to pass the ball through the centre of the field is not to throw on a centre forward who has little influence on that area of the pitch – even if his name is Van Persie. Wenger would be wiser to consider reshaping his midfield next time his team come up against a similarly stubborn opponent, rather than contemplating changes further forward.