The Evolution of Arsene Wenger's Arsenal Tactics

James McNicholas@@jamesmcnicholasFeatured ColumnistJune 4, 2013

The Evolution of Arsene Wenger's Arsenal Tactics

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    Arsene Wenger is arguably Arsenal's greatest manager.

    He has transformed the identity of the club both on and off the field. Away from the pitch, he has guided the club through a period of austerity to facilitate the construction of the spectacular Emirates Stadium. On the field, he has created a style of play that has become iconic.

    While Arsenal's sense of style has been consistent, there have been plenty of tactical tweaks along the way. You do not survive 17 years in the Premier League without being adaptable. Arsene Wenger can be stubborn but he also knows the importance of renewal and progress.

    Go to the next slide to begin the story of Arsenal's tactical evolution under Wenger.

1996-2002: Building on the Famous Back Four

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    When Arsene Wenger arrived as manager of Arsenal in 1996, he found quite the gift awaiting him. Although Bruce Rioch, Stewart Houston and Pat Rice had all held the reigns at Arsenal in the 12 months prior to Wenger's arrival, the famous back four drilled by George Graham remained in place.

    The term "back four" is used loosely. What Arsene Wenger discovered was more like a back six. As well as the quartet of Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Steve Bould and Nigel Winterburn, there was also reserve centre-half Martin Keown and goalkeeper David Seaman.

    Graham had turned this collection of players in to an impenetrable unit. Their understanding was so comprehensive that Wenger did not need to change a thing. Instead, he focused on adding attacking flair to a stable base.

    Bruce Rioch had begun that process by acquiring Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt. In his first two years as Arsenal manager, Wenger added the sprightly Marc Overmars and Nicolas Anelka to increase Arsenal's firepower.

    Arsenal had a sturdy back four and a prolific attack. In order to speed up the transitions between the two, Arsene Wenger recruited Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit. These two midfielders became the epitomy of the box-to-box style, simultaneously protecting the back four and prompting the attackers with probing passes.

    Opposing sides in the Premier League had neither the guile to break down Arsenal's well-organised defence nor the athleticism to cope with their speed in attack. The Gunners were rewarded with Wenger's first Premier League title in 1997-98.

    The same formula brought Arsene Wenger his second title in 2002. By then, he had begun the process of replacing the ageing defence. Sol Campbell had arrived to compete with Adams and Keown for a spot at centre-back, but the structure remained identical: a resilient defence, the instant box-to-box transitions of Vieira, and an attack built around speed in behind.

2002-2006: The Invincible Team

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    In 2002, Tony Adams retired.

    Although Adams had become a peripheral figure in the squad by then, slowed by the ravages of injury, the Arsenal side was still constructed around his safety-first ethos. Arsenal built from the back, and Adams was the foundation upon which they built.

    By 2003, only Martin Keown remained from the original defence Arsene Wenger had inherited. Wenger was forced to rebuild.

    Not only did Wenger transform the defence entirely, but he also changed the entire philosophy of the team. Arsenal evolved from a ruthlessly efficient machine to a swashbuckling collection of musketeers.

    That change was evident all through the side. There was attacking talent throughout. The functional full-back pair of Winterburn and Dixon were replaced by the cavalier Ashley Cole and Lauren, a converted winger. At centre-back, Sol Campbell was the general to effervescent lieutenant Kolo Toure, a converted midfielder.

    The whole team was made up of remarkable sportsmen. To a man, they were powerful athletes. Arsenal were as awe-inspiring as they were aesthetically pleasing. If the previous team had been built in the image of Tony Adams, this team was built in the image of Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira: gladiators with grace.

    The team's power and speed meant they were incredibly threatening on the counter-attack. They would win the ball back and within moments have the ball in the opposition net.

    At times, they were irresistible. In 2004, they were Invincible.

2006-2012: Pursuing Spain's Possession-Based Style

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    In 2006, Arsenal moved to the Emirates Stadium. The change of scenery coincided with another major shift in Arsene Wenger's tactics.

    In order to pay for the enormous new stadium, Arsenal entered a period of austerity that meant they were forced to sell a number of major stars. Instead, Arsene Wenger focused developing talent from the youth academy's impressive production line.

    Patrick Vieira had already departed and his No. 4 shirt was inherited by teen sensation Cesc Fabregas. The young Spaniard was already a gifted playmaker, if lacking in physical stature. He didn't have Vieira's power, but he had preternatural vision and passing ability.

    In order to allow Fabregas to flourish, Wenger broke the habit of a lifetime and abandoned his 4-4-2 system. Instead, he adopted a more cautious 4-5-1 system with a focus on keeping the ball rather than lightening-fast counter-attacks. The added numbers in midfield helped Arsenal resist physical challenges and dominate possession. Wenger sought to emulate Spain's internationally successful style in the Premier League.

    Wenger surrounded Fabregas with other like-minded ball-players, with Tomas Rosicky and Alexander Hleb arriving to supplement the midfield.

    With Thierry Henry moving on, Arsenal were able to field penalty-box poachers like Emmanuel Adebayor and Eduardo rather than a dribbling raider in the Henry mould.

    This Arsenal side dominated the possession stats but not the Premier League, losing their fearsome reputation but preserving their aesthetic excellence.

2012 Onwards: Pragmatism Takes Hold

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    Another tactical era may have been born as recently as March 2013.

    Arsenal had just suffered a demoralising defeat in the North London Derby against Tottenham, conceding two goals thanks to a ridiculously high defensive line.

    Since then, Arsene Wenger has introduced a pragmatic discipline to the Arsenal side. The impetuous Thomas Vermaelen and Jack Wilshere have found themselves usurped by the more conservative Laurent Koscielny and Aaron Ramsey.

    In some ways, Arsenal have gone full circle. This summer, Arsene Wenger will once again aim to recruit outstanding attacking talent to augment a reliable defensive core.

    If that policy results in anything like the success of Arsene Wenger's early years, Gunners fans will be delighted.