Had Wenger a couple years back been to pick one manager in the Premier League he could have a glass of wine with after a game, Sam Allardyce, current Sunderland coach, would have been wide of the target!
As a matter of fact, Allardyce himself had made that exact admission in his autobiography last year when he revealed that the Arsenal manager has never been particularly welcoming on match days. “He takes it all very personally and has an air of arrogance. He’s not one for inviting you into his office for a drink after games”, said Allardyce.
However, speaking before Sunderland’s trip to the Emirates Stadium earlier in the season, Allardyce admitted that those days of fierce and often heated rivalry had passed. “I got under his skin but those were the early days. Our meetings have been much more amicable since, on and off the field.”
You are still unlikely to find two more different personalities – or football philosophies – in the English top flight than Wenger and Allardyce. They’ve endured their battles over the years and the relegation-threatened Sunderland boss will aim to get his sixth career win over his French counterpart on Sunday afternoon. If he succeeds, it will be his first victory against a Wenger team since May 2010.
That aforementioned statistic is somewhat surprising when you consider that Allardyce was once manager of Arsenal’s bogey team, Bolton. Between 2003 and 2006, the 61-year-old played eight, won three, drew four and lost just once against the north London giants who could not handle Wanderers’ direct, physical, long ball style.
Times have changed since those memorable days at the Reebok, now renamed The Macron Stadium, with Allardyce going on to manage Newcastle, Blackburn, West Ham and current club Sunderland where he faces a gigantic task to try and guarantee Premier League survival.
Allardyce’s much talked about record against Wenger has disintegrated since he left Bolton in 2007 and ahead of Sunday’s match the Gunners are unbeaten in their last five league trips to the Stadium of Light. The game poses a different kind of test from Arsenal’s win over West Brom on Thursday, with the Black Cats still fighting ferociously to secure top-flight status for next season.
Perhaps the relationship between Allardyce and Wenger has neutralised even further due to the lack of major silverware picked up by the Frenchman. As time has gone on, the two have begrudgingly put aside their differences and succumbed to the fact that despite all the history between their sides, there is a certain mutual respect that has developed.
For Wenger, his opposite number has always been more of an awkward itch rather than a fierce rivalry. But, ahead of Sunday’s game, you get the impression that Arsenal are still one of the first teams Allardyce looks out for when the fixtures are released, a chance to show he can match and beat the type of club who have always overlooked his particular skillset.
He may have mellowed, but he’d still love to claim the scalp of his old nemesis on Sunderland’s relegation run-in: “Yes, I do still take satisfaction, because Arsenal are a massive club who have qualified for the Champions League for the last 18 seasons. Yet we managed to pull off some of the famous victories that you always want to experience when you’re working with a lesser team than the opposition. You always want to see your team create an upset. There’s not a better feeling for you, your players or your fans than when you win against the odds.”
In another world, Sunderland may have been tasked with overcoming an Arsenal side fighting for the title, but their silverware hopes have slowly slipped away. Wenger made the glaring admission that he and his players “felt guilty” about the way their season has panned out. The Frenchman also suggested that Leicester players were more “hungry” than his own due to their magnificent form that sees them lead the league table.
One player who will certainly be hungry for the three points is Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere. The England international has surprisingly travelled with the Gunners squad despite Wenger revealing before the match that he was cautious about taking him into a “battle”. Wilshere is expected to be on the bench and could feature in the second half on Wearside.