Past imperfect, future tense: Arsene Wenger's footballing philosophy was backed up with a mean defence in his early years, but in recent times that has changed for the worse

Arsene Wenger shocked the author Nick Hornsby on their first meeting back in 1996. And it wasn't because the writer suddenly realised there were hidden depths to this unknown who, as the cliché had it, looked more like a professor than a manager. Quite the opposite. Wenger had actually read Hornsby's book Fever Pitch but hadn't noticed any other works by him. So the new Arsenal manager enquired as to how an author could make a living if he wasn't writing books. Hornsby explained that he was, just not about football. "It was beyond Arsene's conception," Hornsby later said, "you would want to write anything other than a football book."

It's for reasons like that that many other managers became irritated at the image Wenger supposedly cultivated as a Renaissance Man. While Martin O'Neill would indulge his obsession with crime and Alex Ferguson pursuits like jazz, both at one stage sneered at the perception of "the all-knowing Arsene Wenger". By contrast, the Arsenal manager tends to watch matches late into the night. As one insider put it in Jasper Rees's biographyWenger, he has very few other interests.

It's unknown, then, whether Wenger has read Richard Biskind's Easy Riders Raging Bulls. But, without wishing to get over-elaborate, that account of the directors' movement in 1970s Hollywood could serve as a cautionary tale. Early on, the book details the difficulties Francis Ford Coppola had making The Godfather. Above him, he had the studio looking to constantly replace his young unknowns with bankable stars. Robert Redford for Al Pacino was one demand. Below, Coppola had a hard-bitten filming crew unwilling to indulge his artistic pretensions. In that atmosphere, he had to fight for and compromise on everything. But, as Biskind wrote, "the old cliché turned out to be true. The tension proved creative."

The subsequent success of the The Godfather helped create a new culture where directors were unquestioningly indulged. It led to Michael Cimino – "puffed up by his Oscars, stubborn and megalomaniacal" – directing the overblown, over-budget disaster that was Heaven's Gate. Completely left to his own devices, Cimino made the film that killed the movement.

We're by no means comparing that disaster to Wenger's current team. But there is perhaps an argument that, in the same kind of way, Wenger's initial successes at Arsenal may have led to a situation where he is now over-indulged to the detriment of winning trophies. Does he, in fact, need resistance to sharpen his own beliefs?

Those early trophies, after all, involved an awful lot of compromises. He may have arrived in England with methods that transformed the Premier League but, initially, he had to adapt them around what he had. Perhaps those conflicts carved out optimum teams?

Just look at the most suspect part of his current side: defence. Having conceded an average of 1.12 goals a game (19 in 17), it's the worst defensive record he's overseen at the club. That backline's average age is 26. When Wenger first arrived at Arsenal, by contrast, he was presented with a defence that was, on average, 31. Because of his analysis that athletes begin to physically wane beyond 30, he initially planned to get rid of them. Then, however, he began to see the effect his conditioning had on them. Both Steve Bould and Tony Adams spoke of suddenly feeling years younger. Similarly, they began to thrive under his training.

"He was surprised how good we were as footballers," Lee Dixon explained. "He'd thought we were like robots just doing what we were told [under George Graham]. So when he tried to expand our game, we were able to do it."

Without wishing to evoke anachronistic arguments about "foreigners not liking it up them", it is just possible that the battle-hardened experience of that Arsenal defence provided the perfect complement for Wenger's purism. Instead of introducing technical players to defensive positions as he does now, perhaps he was better off improving the all-round game of existing defenders.

On a similar note, there was the evolution of Ray Parlour. Previously a mere workhorse, he suddenly became "turbo-charged" under the new training. But Wenger also spotted something else. While Parlour wasn't blessed with Marc Overmars's sleekness, the manager realised he took the ball on much more smoothly when receiving it at a certain angle. So Wenger got the rest of the team to play it to him that way. The result was Arsenal's attack became swifter, but the team kept Parlour's endeavour.

That mixture of evolution and revolution, old values and new ideas, eventually culminated in the 2003-04 Invincibles season, a title that also marked the meeting point of two eras. Before it, as evidenced by the presence of stalwarts like Martin Keown, Arsenal were an old club which Wenger was directing. After it, they were emphatically his club.

Instead of adapting his beliefs, he began to impose them. Almost every player now fits a physical and stylistic ideal, as indicated by Wenger's refusal to sign Shay Given because of his size.

The idea is to seamlessly mould a team. And there is much admirable in what Wenger does and how he does it. But the reality is a lot of identikit – if, admittedly, exquisite – players. Instead of improving different types of professionals with a new outlook and complementing them with genuine top-class players, Wenger now just imports a number with the same attributes and creates an environment where they express themselves. Eventually, the school of thought is, sleek football becomes second-nature. But this is all based on building confidence. And is the reason why Arsenal so often lose games in pairs. As soon as they're defeated once, that confidence requires rebuilding. A majority of the players don't have other core qualities to fall back on.

Essentially, in being allowed to smooth away all the edges in the creation of his ideal, Wenger has sacrificed the impurities that enhanced it.

Just look at the contrast with their Champions League opponents. As has been written here before, Arsenal are really Diet Barcelona. They mimic the Catalans in what they do with the ball, but fall very short in what they do without it. They aren't as obviously obsessed with winning it back. That fact makes a mockery of Wenger's recent assertion Arsenal "will be ready" for that European rematch. Not if he refuses to compromise. And all the evidence is he won't.

The last time Wenger even adapted his team for the opposition was the occasion of his last trophy, the 2005 FA Cup final when he had to do something to deny Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo the space with which United were ripping Arsenal apart. Usually, as Adams insists, "he never talks about the opposition". Wenger trusts his own team too much. That may have been okay when they were reinforced by the likes of Adams himself. But not with a side that has too many Wenger prototypes.

It's the matches against Chelsea, however, that provide the greatest evidence of all this. Despite the fact Arsenal have only beaten Chelsea twice in seven years and despite the fact Didier Drogba has scored 13 goals in 13 games over that time, you only have to go as far back as last season. Three times since then, Arsenal have dominated possession only to be undone by Chelsea precision. Three times since then, Drogba has scored identical goals.

Most damning of all, those three goals have been down to a player Wenger is all too familiar with: Ashley Cole. He has repeatedly run riot down Arsenal's right side to set up match-deciding near-post strikes. That has stemmed from the fact a creative right-sided player like Samir Nasri has continuously left the full-back exposed – something you simply don't see Barca's attackers do. And yet, the last time, Wenger still didn't change anything to prevent Cole and Drogba pairing up.

It's going to be interesting, in that case, to see how he sets his team up; whether he puts someone like Emmanuel Eboue in right midfield to fortify the defence. If he doesn't, and Arsenal again lose, we're likely to hear the same old excuses and they'll be followed by the insistence that his team is on the cusp of greatness.

But, unless Wenger adapts his ideals as he did in the past, they could always remain there.

Shifting the blame, Wenger's excuses

I do not have a gift for paranoia.

Arsene Wenger during the 2002-03 run-in

I personally put our bad start to the season down to the new stadium. It is linked with the unfamiliarity.

At the outset of 2006-07, after Arsenal had left Highbury

When you have to play Champions League qualifiers so early, you push players and they get injuries, which is what has happened.

Wenger essentially ascribes a poor start to the 2008-09 season to a poor finish in the 2007-08 campaign

I believe some players could not maintain the pace of the game because they played Sunday, Wednesday, Saturday.

Wenger blames Tottenham's comeback from 2-0 down on international friendlies. The Spurs squad has more internationals than Wenger's

It is economic doping.

Wenger on the cash-fuelled success of Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City

Overall the technical quality of the game suffered from a bad pitch.

Wenger last week