[Published on August 31, 2011 in Goal, The New York Times Soccer Blog]
“Why sit you doomed one?”
These were not the words the Greeks wanted to hear. It was the summer of 480 B.C. and they had just fallen to the Persians at Thermopylae. Worse, Athens appeared to be the next target. But the Oracle of Delphi continued, burying a modicum of hope in his inscrutable message:
“Though all else shall be taken, Zeus, the all seeing, grants that the wooden wall only shall not fail.”
The wooden wall. What could it signify?
Many believed the Oracle was alluding to the Acropolis, which was surrounded by a “wall” of thorn bushes. For Themistocles, however, an Athenian statesman, the wooden wall meant one thing: a naval fleet. His interpretation quickly won over the public. Under the aegis of Themistocles, Athens built up a navy of over 300 triremes, or warships, and employed a canny sleight of hand. A messenger, sent by Themistocles, fed Persia’s King Xerxes lies about the supposedly weakened state of Athens, prompting Xerxes to send ships to finish off the Greeks at Salamis. Hindered by the narrow straits near the coast of Salamis, the Persians lost 200 ships — the Greeks, only 40 — in a battle that ensured the superiority of Ancient Greece, and, as such, shaped all of Western civilization.
While refreshing readers on their ancient history, this story from Herodotus’ Historiesalso serves an unlikely sporting purpose — it illuminates the current plight of Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal.
Arsenal imploded last Sunday in a mortifying (for Gunners fans) 8-2 loss at Manchester United, the club’s worst defeat since 1896. They have mustered just one point from their first three games of the English Premier League. Their two biggest stars, Samir Nasri and Cesc Fàbregas, spurned them for clubs offering bigger paychecks and more ambition. And yet, having accrued nearly $100 million from the sale of those two players; their coach, Wenger, has hardly spent any money on new signings, defiantly ignoring criticism from fans and players alike.
Why sit you doomed one?
At the moment, Wenger mistakenly believes the Acropolis is the wooden wall. Consider some of his newest additions: Ryo Miyaichi, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Carl Jenkinson, and Joel Campbell. Wooden wall? More like pencil lead.
While the Athenians rightly struggled to decipher the Oracle of Delphi’s words, Arsenal should have no trouble coming up with their modern-day analogue. The wooden wall, plain and simple, is an experienced world-class player. Miyaichi, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jenkinson, and Campbell are all unproven teenagers. Even the club’s more recent and more experienced signings, such as Park Chu-Young and Per Mertesacker, have been obtained to patch holes in the squad, not necessarily to dramatically elevate its quality (like, say, the arrival of Kaká might).
These are not words Arsène Wenger wants to hear. (He has already heard them many times over.) It is the summer of 2011 and his Arsenal side has just suffered one of the most severe defeats in its history. Worse, should the slide continue, the team teeters on the edge of being labeled a feeder club to Europe’s true elite.
Just as the fate of the Greeks hung in the balance at Salamis, so too does Arsenal’s soccer philosophy in the next few days. But if Wenger wants his team to exhibit the courage and efficiency of that Greek fleet, he would do well to take three lessons from its leader, Themistocles.
¶ No. 1: Persuade. Themistocles sold the Athenians on his interpretation of the wooden wall; Wenger needs to convince his team and a revolting fan base that his youth policy will improve, not hurt, Arsenal’s style of play and quest for silverware. How can he win over his team and the fans?
¶ No. 2: Discover the wooden wall. Themistocles heeded the Oracle’s warning by mobilizing a huge navy; Wenger needs to remedy his team’s lack of star power and depth by purchasing exceptional players in the transfer market and raising the club’s wage cap.
¶ And No. 3? Be clever. Themistocles duped Xerxes into fighting in the perilously narrow channels of Salamis; Wenger needs to revise his tactics to innovatively accommodate the players he has. These traits helped Themistocles’s Greek force vanquish the Persians. Arsène Wenger, on the other hand, is not fighting a war, but he is fighting for his players, his club, and possibly his job.
Shaj Mathew is a student at the University of Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in The Millions, The Alcalde, McSweeney’s, This is American Soccer, Goal.com, and The Run of Play. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org