Arsenal’s trophy-winning years seemingly dried up after the departures of key players, but Wenger’s tactical changes have been just as damaging.

Arsenal’s demise from a European force to a club hanging on to European qualification via the Premier League has been well documented. Much of the blame is attributed to the quality of the players and manager Arsene Wenger’s transfer policy. Both are entirely reasonable assessments, but they ignore an important feature of the club’s evolution in recent years. Arsenal’s trophy-winning years seemingly dried up after the departures of stars like Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry, but Wenger’s tactical changes have been just as damaging.

Wenger’s time at Arsenal can be roughly divided into four stages. The first was his initial adaptation of an existing squad (1996-1999), the second the completion of the manager’s tactical ideas (1999-2007), the third was a change in system following the loss of key individuals (2007-2012), and the fourth is this current season, a mix of tactical confusion and misused individuals. The following article tracks the evolution of Wenger’s Arsenal, and how his tactical plans have been just as responsible for the successes and failures as the players that implemented them.

1996-1999: Wenger arrives, and builds a 4-4-2 around Bergkamp

Upon taking over as Arsenal manager in 1996, Wenger identified Dennis Bergkamp as a player to build a team around. And he did – within a year of his appointment Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit were signed to form a midfield pairing behind the Dutchman, and Marc Overmars and Nicolas Anelka arrived as targets for Bergkamp’s incisive passing.

As with any 1990’s British side, Arsenal were heavily rooted in the 4-4-2 system, so Wenger’s tactical shape did not require any adaptation for the existing players (even if his playing style and training methods did). The club’s famous back five of David Seaman, Nigel Winterburn, Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Steve Bould (and later, Martin Keown) slotted seamlessly into the new manager’s plans. Similarly there were still roles for Ray Parlour and David Platt in midfield and Ian Wright up front.

Wenger won the Premier League in his second season with a team comprising solidity in defence and pace and precision in attack. Vieira and Petit formed a devastating partnership, capable of dominating opposing midfields and supporting attacks through Vieira’s powerful running. Either side of them, Parlour offered energy whilst Overmars provided explosive pace. In attack, Bergkamp dropped into space between the lines to link excellently with both Anelka and Wright making runs in behind the defence. For all the individual quality the team clearly possessed, Wenger had built a supremely balanced side.

1999-2007: Henry/Pires/Ljungberg arrive, and Wenger ditches wingers

1999 was the first watershed moment in Wenger’s reign. Anelka was sold to Real Madrid for £23.5m, and was followed to Spain by Overmars and Petit who joined Barcelona for a combined £32m a year later. Such deals were a sign of things to come – Wenger identifying players that were overvalued and taking the money.

In their place arrived Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg and a new defence. Wenger set out to rebuild a team shorn of three of its stars and an ageing backline. The 4-4-2 system remained, but the roles were evolving. Younger, more technical full backs were given more licence to attack. Henry had the freedom to work the channels more frequently than his striking predecessors.

As a result, Wenger dispensed with the need for wingers – with Bergkamp having such success between the lines of the tactically naïve Premier League, why not deploy two more players capable of exploiting the space? Pires and Ljungberg became arguably the first high profile ‘inverted wingers’ – both players moving into central areas from wide starting positions, Pires to create and Ljungberg to score goals. With Petit missing from midfield Wenger found able replacements in Edu, Gilberto Silva, and later Cesc Fabregas. Meanwhile, in attack, Thierry Henry became arguably the world’s most feared striker.

The result was Wenger’s finest team, culminating in an unbeaten title-winning season in 2003/04 and a Champions League Final appearance in 2006. The interplay between Bergkamp, Henry and the wide midfielders was admired all over Europe but continued to be offset by a strong defence and a disciplined midfield.

Players came and went – Bergkamp was rotated with Nwankwo Kanu and Robin van Persie as he reached the end of his career, Jose Antonio Reyes, Tomas Rosicky and Alexander Hleb gradually came in for Pires and Ljungberg, Emmanuel Eboue and Gael Clichy replaced Lauren and Ashley Cole – but the basic balance of the side remained. During this period Arsenal won two Premier League titles, with four second place finishes, and reached six cup finals, winning three.

2007-2012: Henry/Bergkamp depart; Van Persie inspires a change to 4-3-3

After two trophyless seasons, Wenger began to consider a major tactical change and wanted to restructure his side around another Dutch forward. He had identified van Persie as a player capable of fulfilling both the creative and goalscoring responsibilities of his forward pairing – a “9.5” as the player himself calls it – and looked at using him as the focal point in a 4-3-3 system. This may be true, but the decision was clearly influenced by the retirement of Bergkamp in 2006 and the departure of Henry in 2007, effectively robbing Wenger of his forward line.

This change didn’t happen immediately. Both Eduardo and Emmanel Adebayor were played alongside van Persie in a 4-4-2, but Wenger appeared either unconvinced by his forward options or convinced by the skillset of van Persie. By 2009 Arsenal had adopted a 4-3-3 variation on a regular basis.

With van Persie operating as a lone striker, Wenger wanted to add a third central midfielder and give his wide playmakers more attacking freedom. In this sense Arsenal were following the trend of the time – Jose Mourinho’s success with a 4-3-3 shape at Porto and Chelsea resulted in an abundance of replications across Europe. Perhaps Wenger did really want to utilise van Persie in a new way, but it is just as possible that he had decided that he could no longer field a competitive two-man midfield.

Wenger’s problem was that the majority of his squad were far more suited to a 4-4-2 shape than a 4-3-3. At full back both Clichy and Bacary Sagna continued to be ambitious with their attacking runs, but now lacked the defensive support previously afforded them by a flat midfield four – as a result Arsenal became particularly vulnerable down the flanks. In attack, neither Adebayor nor Nicholas Bendtner were capable of replicating van Persie’s “9.5” role when the Dutchman was (regularly) unavailable.

In midfield, where the tactical change was most directly felt, the side’s balance was lost. Both Abou Diaby and Alex Song was touted as Vieira replacements, but in looking for another powerful ‘box-to-box’ style player Wenger ignored the disciplined presence of Petit, Edu and Gilberto that gave the team the defensive balance it required. With Fabregas getting forward to support van Persie, Arsenal need at least one of Diaby and Song to operate as a reliable defensive shield, but neither player possessed the positional discipline to provide such a service. If moving to three in midfield was supposed to provide greater defensive solidity, the players selected only succeeded in making Arsenal more vulnerable.

Thanks to Van Persie’s brilliance and the technical quality of Wenger’s players Arsenal continued to qualify for the Champions League. Yet, with the exception of a League Cup Final defeat in 2011 and a couple of semi-final appearances, Arsenal no longer appeared strong enough individually or tactically to challenge for honours.

2012-present: Van Persie departs, and Wenger rotates his midfield triangle

The loss of van Persie as the major contributing factor to Arsenal’s poor season thus far has been greatly exaggerated – Wenger’s side were not a title-challenging side with the forward, but his goals did cover up a lot of flaws and steal a lot of points. Yet from a tactical perspective the Dutchman’s departure indirectly led to a tactical switch that has arguably weakened Arsenal more than the loss of any individual player.

Without the one player capable of fulfilling two attacking roles, Wenger opted to return to a creator-goalscorer axis, signing Santi Cazorla to play as an advanced playmaker and Olivier Giroud to lead the line. To accommodate Cazorla Arsenal’s midfield triangle rotated from a negative one – a deep midfielder behind two central midfielders – to a positive one – an advanced midfielder ahead of the central pairing. Wenger’s sacrifice of a deep midfielder leaves Liverpool relying on the central pairing to compete in midfield and protect the defence.

Yet as already discussed, Arsenal are lacking in natural holding players. Mikel Arteta arrived to join Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey as technically sound midfielders more adept at dictating play than shielding a back four. Arsenal now require Arteta – nominally a calm distributer – to occupy the space between the lines and Wilshere – a natural playmaker – to combine forward runs with defensive diligence.

In defence, unconvincing players are weakened by the lack of protection ahead. In attack, the transformation of the wide forwards from technical playmakers (Hleb, Rosicky, Nasri, Andrey Arshavin) to direct attackers (Theo Walcott, Lukas Podolski, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain) has robbed Wenger’s team of the creativity and subtlety that once defined them. Arsenal under Wenger continue to aspire to dominate possession and press aggressively, but now have a forward line better equipped to counter attack and a back four uncomfortable with defending with a high line.

The simple fact is Wenger no longer produces a system that enhances the players at his disposal. It is possible that a number of Arsenal’s current squad would have flourished during the glory years of a decade ago. Wenger makes no secret of his desire to develop players rather than bringing in the finished article, but Arsenal can no longer offer an environment conducive to this. Finally, if financial decisions are considered, Wenger’s failure to develop players has also prevented him moving them on. This is magnified by the club’s willingness to award imperfect players with well-paid contracts on the grounds that they would ultimately justify the investment.

This season may be the nadir of Wenger’s reign. Effectively out of all competitions before the end of February, there is now serious doubt over Arsenal’s ability to qualify for the Champions League, so often Wenger’s ‘Get Out Of Jail’ card. Individually there is little doubt that this Arsenal side are not as strong as their predecessors, yet it is tactically that this team have regressed. Wenger’s side were once the epitome of balance – power and pace, functionality and flair – but now look unorganised and uncomfortable.

It isn’t just the players that need to change. Wenger’s gameplan does too.