Arsenal FC has evolved over the years in a journey which started in Woolwich, moved on to Highbury and now finally to the glitz and glamour of the Emirates Stadium. A journey that has seen them evolve from Dial Square to Royal Arsenal, from Royal Arsenal to Woolwich Arsenal and finally from Woolwich Arsenal to only Arsenal FC. When we look through pages of history, we find men who have acted as catalyst for this evolution, men who have been at the helm of the club and have transformed the team into champions.

Since its inception in 1886, starting from the days of Sam Hollis up to the present days of Arsene Wenger, Arsenal has had some splendid tacticians in their dugouts. Among all of them, there are three masterminds who stand out from the rest. Herbert Chapman, George Graham and Arsene Wenger have made impacts at the club like no other. They have changed the way Arsenal plays and the tactical evolution that the club has gone through is astounding.

The Holy Trinity


TheHardTackle will take a look at how Arsenal have developed tactically under these three managers from three different eras.

The Enigma of W-M


Herbert Chapman was one of the most influential managers the game had ever seen and certainly one of the best. He took over the reins at Arsenal in 1925. It was the dawn of one of the most exciting phase in the club’s history. Chapman didn’t find instant success though; he had a tough task in his hands of rebuilding a squad which was previously fighting relegation battle. He took his time, brought in the right players, changed the system and slowly but surely converted the Gunners into champions.

In the summer of 1925, FA instigated a change in the offside law. Earlier, three opponent players were required to play a striker on, it was changed to just two. This was done in order to reduce the influence of negative tactics growing in the game and make the game more exciting and open. This change had far-reaching effect in tactical set-ups of the teams. Chapman and Arsenal in the beginning failed to adapt to the new law in place and were struggling in the league due to poor results.

While other teams across Europe were coming up with plans to counter this change, Chapman still favored the old system of 2-3-5. It took a heavy defeat of 7-0 at the hands of Newcastle, to open his eyes. The other person to whom credit must go for this change in Chapman’s thought process was Charlie Buchan. The forward was one of Chapman’s first signings, and was the star player at Arsenal during those days. He argued with Chapman that a change in the formation was required in order to compete with other teams who have adopted with the change in law. He even threatened to retire otherwise. Buchan believed that the centre-half had to take on a more defensive role to thwart opponent’s attackers. At first Chapman argued otherwise, but in the match against Newcastle he noted that the Newcastle Centre-half Charlie Spencer played deep from his half and broke up nearly every Arsenal attack. The Centre-half provided very little help going forward, but his defensive discipline meant Newcastle dominated possession and outplayed the Gunners completely.

The 2-3-5 / 2-3-2-3 formation used by Arsenal


Chapman agreed to the notion that a change was needed, but he also foresaw the necessary adjustment needed in the midfield to back this change. Withdrawal of the centre-half to a deeper role meant, the team would be short in numbers in the midfield.  He pulled the inside forwards back to more central position, while the half-backs were deployed in front of the defense. This meant the Full backs who were earlier playing centrally, were pushed towards the wings to stop the wingers of opposition. So there were essentially three full backs, two guarding the wings and one at the centre. Buchan, who played as an inside forward was asked to help in attack as Chapman valued his goal scoring ability, while Andy Neil was deployed in a more withdrawn inside forward position to help out in the midfield. Jack Butler was asked to keep his creative instincts in check and play in the deeper role of a centre-half. Hence the W-M formation was implemented, which gave the team more balance and the results began to turn around immediately after that.

The W-M (3-2-2-3) formation used by Chapman


Herbert Chapman – As His System Started Working


Arsenal went on to finish second behind Huddersfield that season. They played some exciting football and Chapman’s evolutionary work was nearly complete. Nearly has been stressed upon since, the next season teams found them out. Teams began to take advantage of Butler’ failings as a defender. He was not natural at it and was caught out by opponents. Chapman decided it was time to change, he knew that he needed some ‘no-nonsense’ man in that position, and he found those traits in a certain Herbie Roberts. Roberts was the missing piece of the W-M puzzle. He was not as talented with the ball at his feet as his team mates were, his abilities was defined, and that was his greatest strength. He never tried anything fancy, because he was not good at it. His job was simple – Intercept all the balls through the middle and pass it on/head it on to your team mates. He became a pillar in the Arsenal defense.

Arsenal’s formation remained an enigma for the oppositions, but the team which exploited this 3-2-2-3 formation so successfully broke up gradually. Buchan retired while Alex James, one of the key member of the side, signed for Preston. Chapman started the re-building process once again. It took five years for him to win his first silverware. Arsenal won the FA cup against Huddersfield in 1930. The W-M formation was working like a well oiled machine by then. The Half-backs were covering the opposition’s inside forwards instead of the wingers, the Full-backs marked the wingers instead of the inside forwards. The centre-half back transformed into centre-back and took care of the centre-forward, while the inside forwards dropped deeper into the midfield. The Evolution of W-M was complete. Arsenal went on to win the 1930-31 and 1932-33 league titles. Bernard Joy (who joined Arsenal as Robert’s deputy in 1935) later wrote :

“The secret, is not attack, but counter-attack. We planned to make the utmost use of each individual, so that we had a spare man at each moment in each penalty area. Commanding the play in mid-field or packing the opponents’ penalty area is not the object of the game. We at Arsenal achieved our end by deliberately drawing on the opponents by retreating and funneling to our own goal, holding the attacks at the limits of the penalty box, and then thrusting quickly away by means of long passes to our wingers. [excerpt taken from ‘Inverting the pyramid’ by Jonathan Wilson]

This image shows the W-M formation applied against the orthodox 2-3-5 formation (Dotted lines are defensive runs made by the players and complete lines are attacking runs made by the players)

  • While defending, the Half Backs dropped deep and made it into a 5-man defense.
  • The Wingers needed to track back whenever possession was lost, hence demanding high fitness levels.
  • While Counter attacking, again the winger were the key. The Inside forwards all join in the attack making it a 5-man attack.
  • The half backs were the key in midfield domination, they had similar roles to that of today’s holding midfielders.
  • The Centre Back had to be good in the air in order to tackle long balls.

Chapman revolutionized the game during his stint at Arsenal and if not for his untimely death we would have had more medals to show for his incredible work. Chapman died of pneumonia in 1934 and left everyone asking ‘What if’. The side he constructed was the legacy he left behind, and the same side went on to win the 1933-34 and 1934-35 league titles. Off the field he had huge impact at the club as well, he modernized the Jersey, training facilities and most importantly the outlook of the club. The Englishman will always be remembered as the man who changed the fortunes of the Gunners.

Flashback – Arsenal’s Semi-Final and Final match in the 1930 FA Cup


Part I –


Part II –



Continued in Part II – tactical evolution under George Graham and Arsene Wenger…

  • Donna Van Oss

    Still so many tactics and strategy lessons for me to learn….Enjoyed this read on 3 who engineered Arsenal ‘s rise to prominence….

  • astur

    incredible stuff. already looking forwad for part 2.. enjoyed reading it.

  • Kaustav

    The evolution of Arsenal…A Nice Read…

  • Amlan Majumdar

    Thanks to all – glad all of you have liked it. :)

  • dan

    one of the best pieces I’ve ever read. thanks.