The link between the myths of Ancient Greece, Alexander the Great and Arsenal’s complex Champions League history may not be one that immediately springs to mind, but bear with me. In Phrygia (now modern day Turkey) a man called Gordius drives his ox cart into a dusty square and all hell breaks loose.
Local legend suggests that Gordius is heralded as a king and is so chuffed he dedicates his ox cart to Zeus, tying the cart up with an intractable knot. An oracle then prophesises that whoever unties the knot will rule all of Asia.
The story recommences about 100 years later. It is 333BC, the knot remains securely tied and a petulant 23 year old king called Alexander is busy taking over Asia Minor. He reaches Phrygia, hears of the Gordian knot and proceeds to have what can only be described as a very regal tantrum. “What does it matter how I loosen the knot?” he bemoans as he slices the knot in half in a fit of tyrannical rage. Zeus is happy and Alexander moves on to greatness.
The Champions League is Arsenal’s Gordian knot. Win it, and any worries about Arsenal’s recent disappointing trophy haul will be halted in their tracks. Concerns over supporting Wenger’s unerring dedication to his philosophy for so long will be forgotten and Arsenal will experience a palpable boost in self-belief which will ultimately perpetuate further trophy successes. The Champions League to Wenger is Asia to Alexander the Great. It holds high esteem, promise and, perhaps more importantly, economic power.
Nevertheless, despite Jack Wilshere’s admission that the Champions League is the title that Wenger “really, really wants”, he has reached the final only once in 17 years. Wilshere may dismiss this as merely “unlucky” but the crux of the matter is there is something seriously wrong at Arsenal. Significant blame must be apportioned at the feet of Arsenal’s dogged Alsatian.
Wenger’s resolute desire to play football in style unerringly true to his principles has led him to become highly predictable. Tactically inflexible, he was outmanoeuvred repeatedly by Borussia Dortmund. Undoubtedly Arsenal were beaten by a faster and more hard-working Dortmund who, despite the loss of both Mats Hummels and Marco Reus, adapted well. Mesut Ozil was wasted on the left wing because he was forced to play Wenger’s game rather than Wenger adapting his tactics to capitalise on Ozil’s strengths. There is a certain irony in Wenger’s belief that altering the pioneering style he formed in the late 90s would be construed as failure. However admission of his own weaknesses is vital in order for Arsenal to succeed.
Perhaps more serious still is Arsenal’s imbalanced squad. An over-reliance on youth and pace has resulted in the management making blatant errors in the transfer market. The Gunners desperately need bolstering both in defence and midfield, yet an inability to appreciate the importance of mixing youth with experience has led Arsenal to miss out on multiple chances to bolster their squad.
The purchases they have made this season seem to have quickly succumbed to injury, leaving Wenger with limited alternatives. As a result of a lack of depth in the team injuries traditionally tend to ensure that by the New Year at the latest the squad becomes incapable of maintaining a challenge in both the Premier League and Champions League simultaneously.
In order to strive for fourth position, Wenger is forced to prioritise the Premier League to ensure automatic qualification for the next year’s Champions League. Arsenal may have progressed from the opening stages of the Champions League 14 years running but perhaps this actually only celebrates Wenger’s pragmatism as supposed to his delivery.
Attempting to untangle Arsenal’s underachievement is as complicated as trying to untie the Gordian knot itself. Wenger’s dogmatic belief in his footballing philosophy is ultimately harming the club’s future campaigns. The FA Cup is not enough.
Questions must now start to be asked as to whether it is in fact Wenger who will ultimately be proved right in his beliefs, by finally bringing Champions League glory to the Emirates Stadium. Perhaps in a cruel twist it will be the attacking and consistent Jurgen Klopp who will come to play Alexander in this modern day conquest. If so, this leaves an inflexible and unsuccessful Wenger desperately scrabbling around trying to find a way of unravelling his own predicament.