I struggle to think of a greater philosophical disparity between two managers than Sam Allardyce and Arsene Wenger. The Arsenal boss, an eternal beacon of technically-demanding purist football; the West Ham manager’s attritional style of play famously branded ’19th Century’ by Jose Mourinho last season.
Indeed, in this sense, they are polar opposites; Ying and Yang, chalk and cheese, Elvis Presley and Dizzie Rascal. Finding any similarities between the way they set up their sides is a task equally rewarding as trying to make a piece of toast cry.
Yet, at their diverse levels of the beautiful game, Allardyce’s and Wenger’s reputations have been built upon essentially the same characteristics – consistency and survival. The ability to, regardless of short-term limits in resources and finance, prevent their clubs from moving backwards by maintaining their respective statuses.
After beating Besiktas 1-0 in an incredibly uncomfortable European double-legger, I’m sure, just like me, your every orifice has been invaded with critical acclaim of Arsene Wenger for once again securing Arsenal’s place in the Champions League. Many have dubbed this 17 year-run an incredible achievement, considering no English side has been able to match that consistency over the last two decades.
But apart from financial security – the Besiktas tie was dubbed the £25million game due to the TV revenues from the Champions League group stages alone – what benefit has come of Arsenal’s eternal involvement in Europe’s top competition? With the exception of reaching the tournament’s final in 2006, nearly a decade ago, the Gunners have escaped the quarter-finals just once. For the last four campaigns in a row, they’ve been knocked out at the Round of 16. In fact, Wenger’s attitude to progression in the tournament has become so lapsed recently that Arsenal have claimed pole position in their group just twice in the last seven years. But every season, Arsenal happily make up the numbers and rake in the revenues.
That’s where the Allardyce comparison comes in. The 59 year-old’s greatest achievement to date is a sixth-place finish in the Premier League with Bolton, their best campaign of four consecutive spent in the top half of the table. He’s never exceeded tenth place throughout spells with Blackburn, Newcastle and West Ham, yet Allardyce is the 13th best-paid manager in world football, taking home a pay cheque equal to Roy Hodgson and greater than Rafa Benitez at Napoli. Believe it or not, this time last year he was ranked at eighth.
Why would the Hammers dare to pay him so much? Because through good times and bad, Allardyce has guaranteed Premier League football and the unrivalled revenues it provides for all of his prior employers. It’s often controversial and rarely pretty, but Big Sam’s understanding of the league, moneyball statistics and specific players who warm to his Yorkshire charm has meant that he’s yet to be relegated from the top flight since 1999.
It’s the exact same reason Arsene Wenger, despite winning just one trophy in the last nine years, not guiding Arsenal to second or higher since 2005 and never actually winning European football’s greatest prize, is the fifth best-paid manager in world football. His salary is only surpassed by Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich, Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho, Manchester United’s Louis van Gaal and Marcelo Lippi, now of Chinese champions Guangzhou. In summer 2013, PSG were reportedly prepared to throw an even mightier sum than his current £7m per-year package at the Frenchman.
Think of the Champions League as an extension of the English top fight. The top eight clubs in the Premiership now form their own mini-league – over the last few years, perhaps slightly flatteringly, the title race has been dubbed a six-to-eight horse affair by many. Fifth and below constitutes the relegation zone – fall into it, and the finances, as well as the quality of player available to you, sharply declines, as if you’ve slumped from the Premier League to the Championship.
Over the years, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool have all plummeted through the trapdoor, but Arsenal, even amid the most arduous of seasons, have always protected their Champions League status under Wenger – just as Allardyce has performed a likewise service for Newcastle, Bolton, Blackburn and West Ham. In essence, they are both bottom line managers, rarely exceeding expectations and never falling below them. That’s why the Gunners are so scared to lose Le Professeur, and why PSG were prepared to pay so much for his services.
There are other similarities too. Both managers rely upon distinctive, extreme philosophies to overcome the obstacles of finance, and both, albeit at different levels of quality and of completely opposite styles, comb the market for the best bargains possible.
Last season for example, Allardyce signed Roger Johnson in January on loan from League One side Wolves because he was ‘tall and not cup-tied’. In direct comparison, Wenger loaned 31 year-old midfielder Kim Kallstrom, a player long-rejected by the European elite and way past his sell-by date, following injury to Aaron Ramsey, due to his technical qualities matching Arsenal’s progressive style. I’d throw up more examples but at this point, it’s fairly undisputed that Wenger and Allardyce both come with a long history of barrel-scraping bargaining, albeit at polar ends of the Premier League table.
Indeed, Arsene Wenger remains as proud as ever whilst lapping up the credit for Arsenal’s 17-year involvement in the Champions League. But what has truly come of it? They’ve avoided the downward spirals of Liverpool and Manchester United, yet there has been no silverware, no improvement in league standing, no particular advancement in the quality of player, to speak of.
It goes without saying that staying in Europe is vital for the Gunners, but producing positive figures on the balance sheet, through the perpetual financial security of Champions League football, has been Wenger’s only true achievement on the continent.
Essentially, he’s avoided Champions League relegation for 17 years, he’s the tournament’s survival specialist. And that is why he’s the European competition’s answer to Sam Allardyce. Unfortunately Arsenal, I guess that makes you West Ham.