Big Sam’s Bolton: The Scourge Of Wenger

Between September 2004 and February 2007, Sam Allardyce’s Bolton Wanderers faced Arsenal eight times in all competitions. During those eight games, the Gunners were defeated on four separate occasions and drew a further three times. They won just once, in an FA Cup tie on the way to winning the competition in 2005.

On the back of Troy Deeney’s recent claim that Arsenal ‘lack cojones’, Allardyce’s scourge of Arsenal could be viewed as the first-time this trait became associated with an Arsène Wenger team; the beginning of a narrative that has become all too familiar.

Wenger won three league titles during his first decade in North London, including the famous ‘Invincibles’ season of 2003/04 – a team that truly epitomised mental and physical strength. But it was also an ageing squad and this couldn’t last forever. Soon ensued a transition period for Arsenal as the Invincibles team was slowly disintegrated to make way for a new era.

The Gunners would struggle to replace quality with quality over the following years, yet Wenger refused to sacrifice his values and refused to abandon ‘the Arsenal way’ – a stubbornness that would cost him, and possibly still does. Ever since, Arsenal have been vulnerable to the occasional unexpected and embarrassing defeat – usually away from home.

In recent seasons, they have notoriously struggled against Stoke City away, but Sam Allardyce’s Bolton were the first team of this ilk to routinely ‘do a number’ on Wenger’s Arsenal.

Bolton, much like Stoke, were famed for a physical and direct style of football – an ‘old-fashioned’ approach. They targeted weakness, thrived off chaos, and worshipped the basics.

Yet behind the scenes, Allardyce was more revolutionary than old-school. The Dudley-born boss employed a statistical and modern approach to management; notably developing Bolton’s infamous ‘war-room’ – a shrine devoted to in-depth statistics on each and every player in his squad. It was an approach not too dissimilar from the ‘moneyball’ approach in baseball – and one that enabled Sam to get the very best out of his team.

Bolton surpassed all expectatios under Allardyce, achieving four consecutive top-half finishes between 2004 and 2007, a level of consistency only bettered by the original ‘top 4’ during the same period. They were the scourge of many teams over these years, but Big Sam and Bolton forged a particularly fierce rivalry with Arsenal and their continental boss.

Allardyce’s wins against Wenger all occurred after the Invincibles era, but the origins of their rivalry can be traced back to the season before Arsenal went unbeaten.

In April 2003, Arsenal were on the verge of another Premiership title and found themselves 2-0 after 45 minutes at the Reebok Stadium; the game was all but over. Yet Bolton rallied in the second-half with Youri Djorkaeff pulling one back before Martin Keown put through his own net as Bolton completed an inexplicable comeback.

It was a devastating result for Arsenal who lost all momentum in the title-race. The Gunners eventually finished five points behind Manchester United.

“I’m competitive and every disappointment stays with me forever. It is a scar on your heart.”

– Arsène Wenger on the 2-2 draw with Bolton in 2003

As for Bolton, the Arsenal comeback provided the perfect catalyst for them to dramatically escape relegation on the final day of the season.

Fortunately for Wenger, his team came back in the most emphatic style the next year. Although Bolton held Arsenal to another draw at the Reebok, it was a game that failed to garner any significance over the course of the season.

But Big Sam’s torment of Arsenal was only just beginning. Over the next few seasons, Allardyce assembled his strongest squad as the Trotters boss.

To compliment their direct-style of play, Allardyce utilised the aerial powerhouse of Kevin Davies upfront with Stelios Giannakopoulos, El Hadji Diouf and Kevin Nolan frequently contributing from behind. Meanwhile, Bolton relied on the experienced duo of Gary Speed and Iván Campo in midfield whilst the likes of Tal Ben Haim and Abdoulaye Faye were formidable at the back.

Bolton were an underrated team, formed on a low budget and predominantly made-up of players who had been outcasts at other clubs; Allardyce himself had become a master in optimising the potential of his squad.

Their improvements eventually told as Big Sam achieved his first win over Wenger in January 2005 when the polarising Diouf crossed for Giannakopoulos to head in the games only goal.

Arsenal had failed to deal with a simple long-ball before Manuel Almunia, in characteristic style, came for cross and failed to collect. Meanwhile Jay-Jay Okocha had been in imperious in midfield, outclassing a young Cesc Fàbregas. Arsenal and particularly Sol Campbell had looked shaky at the back throughout.

It was a defeat that all but put the Gunners out of the title-race as early as January.

Wenger’s Arsenal may have secured a win over Bolton in their following fixture, but they were defeated once more by the Wanderers in December. This time, a 2-0 league defeat in which Bolton out thought and overpowered a lacklustre Arsenal.

The Trotters were ruthless and physical, particularly targeting Arsenal’s most vulnerable defender, Pascal Cygan. A tactic which paid off, as Cygan gave away a sloppy free-kick leading to the first goal before a Gilberto Silva mistake resulted in Bolton’s second.

Arsenal in contrast looked brittle in midfield and were wasteful going forward. But Bolton’s Jussi Jääskeläinen was forced to produced some heroics in goal.

“We were shaky on the set-pieces and it was a physical game. Bolton wanted it more and deserved to win”. Arsène Wenger

Less than two months later, Arsenal travelled back to the Reebok for an FA Cup tie and were defeated once again. On a cold night in Greater Manchester, Giannakopoulos headed in yet another winner to earn Bolton the victory. Once more, Allardyce identified and targeted a weak-link in Arsenal’s defence – this time, Philippe Senderos.

“He takes it all very personally and has an air or arrogance. He’s not one for inviting you into his office for a drink after games… He’s a fantastic manager, I cannot deny that. But the more I could wind him up, the more I liked it.” Sam Allardyce on Wenger

Allardyce and Bolton had become the antithesis of Wenger and Arsenal. Whilst Allardyce was a pragmatist, willing to adapt and compromise, Wenger was an idealist and romanticist, unwilling to waver from his footballing philosophy. Regardless, it resulted in Wenger repeatedly leaving the Reebok disappointed as Allardyce’s percentage football usually prevailed.

A month later Bolton were just minutes away from a famous win at Highbury during its final year. An injury-ridden Arsenal were forced to play Sebastian Larsson and Mathieu Flamini as full-backs as Kevin Nolan put the Whites one-nil up. It took the Gunners until the 92nd minute to rescue a point as Gilberto steered a volley past Jaaskelainen to save Arsenal’s embarrassment.

“There was one time he wouldn’t shake hands with me at Highbury because we got a draw. I saw him ripping his tie off and throwing it on the floor in anger.” Sam Allardyce

The two managers would have to wait until November 2006 to face each other again, but it was the same-old-story for Arsenal at the Reebok. Prior to the game Wenger’s players had promised to be a match for Bolton’s notoriously physical-approach, but that never materialised. It was probably Sam’s most emphatic victory over Arsenal during his time as Bolton boss.

Ex-Gunner Nicolas Anelka returned to haunt his former club, scoring twice in a 3-1 win. Inevitbaly, Bolton were a constant threat from set-pieces and denied Arsenal space and time on the ball ensuring a dominating display.

The two sides drew once more as they met in the FA Cup the following January before Wenger finally secured a long-awaited win at the Reebok. Arsenal made hard work of it on the night, being dragged into extra-time and missing two penalties in the process. But they eventually ran-out 3-1 winners. It had been nearly two years since they had last defeated Bolton.

Tellingly, in the same period that Arsenal had lost four times Bolton, the Premiership’s two outstanding sides, Manchester United and Chelsea, went undefeated against the Trotters – an example of the gulf in class that had emerged between Arsenal and the league’s top teams during this period.

“He takes it all very personally and has an air or arrogance. He’s not one for inviting you into his office for a drink after games… He’s a fantastic manager, I cannot deny that. But the more I could wind him up, the more I liked it.” Sam Allardyce on Wenger

Allardyce resigned and left Bolton the following year and has never quite repeated the same consistency of success against Wenger in the jobs that have followed. However, his time at Bolton has had a lasting-impact on Arsenal, at least from a media stand-point.

Even the best teams aren’t immune from the occasional shock defeat, but with Arsenal it seems to happen more than most. And every time it does, the same narrative follows – ‘Arsenal are a soft-touch’, ‘Arsenal lack leadership’, ‘same-old-story for Wenger’.

Of course its more complex than to simply blame these defeats on an absence of cojones, there are far more facets to football than this. Bolton’s victories over the Gunners were often put down to a lack of fight or discipline on Arsenal’s behalf, but Allardyce had also tactically outmanoeuvred Wenger on these occasions too.  Regardless, no opposing team or manager has done more to feed this repetitive narrative of Arsenal weakness more so than Big Sam’s Bolton.