HoldingMidfield.com author Joshua Askew created an in-depth review on the times when Arsene Wenger coached football team of the Principality of Monaco.
Having now spent over two decades in North London, Arsene Wenger’s name has become so synonymous with Arsenal that it’s easy to forget that he spent over a decade coaching in his native France and Japan before reaching the Premier League.
With his popularity waning, everyone fully aware of what you can expect from Arsenal under his guidance, it is perhaps a good time to look back to what got him the job despite being a mystery in England – his time in a principality on the South coast of France in the eighties.
As his mediocre playing career drew to a close, Wenger had already moved onto a career in coaching – avoiding celebrations when Strasbourg won the league as he was preoccupied with the youth team. Jean-Marc Guillou convinced him to join him as his assistant at Cannes and in 1984 he was given a shot as a head coach at a Division 1 club by Nancy. He had few resources but managed to finish mid-table, poring over footage to analyse, moving smartly in the transfer market, and improving his team’s fitness with a dietician and pre-seasons in the French Alps. They fell away in his second season, narrowly avoiding relegation by winning a play-off against Mulhouse, before finally succumbing to relegation the next year as several players were sold.
Despite the setback, one of the league’s biggest clubs had seen enough in Wenger to give him an opportunity. Monaco had entered talks with Nancy the summer before, however it wasn’t until 1987 that Wenger would be allowed to move to the city-state. The change gave Wenger more freedom in the transfer market, bringing in Glenn Hoddle, Mark Hateley and Patrick Battiston at the start of his tenure, while also looking to bring youngsters up from the B team – Patrick Valery the first to make the step up.
Nevertheless, questions were asked of his appointment: how was the man who had just taken Nancy down meant to improve Monaco’s lot? “The choice surprised us a little bit as players,” remembers Jean-Luc Ettori. “He had come from a club that been relegated. But after a fortnight we understood why he was there, that he was the man we needed.”
“He was tall and imposing, which helped, but he could command a room without raising his voice,” Claude Puel said. “He always had that natural authority. He was the first manager I worked under who did specific tactical training, painstakingly going over video footage in preparation. He worked around the clock, constantly preparing the next session or reviewing the drills he’d put us through that day.”
Wenger again spent his days analysing videos then putting this preparation into practice on the training ground. Just like at Nancy, he looked to make gains off the field, bringing in physiotherapists and adapting diets. “We had masseurs,” Hoddle recalls. “I had never had a massage at Tottenham. Players would have said you were soft. But over the months, we became more supple and, with a better diet, I was soon fitter than I had ever been.”
An admiration for the Dutch Total Football sides meant he occasionally dabbled in a 4-3-3, however Wenger mostly set up Monaco in a 4-4-2, believing it was the formation that covered the dimensions of the football pitch most effectively. His interpretation involved playing a number ten behind an out-and-out striker, which would often be recognised as a 4-2-3-1 today, rather than using dual number nines leading the line.
Much like Arsenal later, Monaco’s existing strengths were in defence, although more work needed to be done on it. Goalkeeper Jean-Luc Ettori and full-back Manuel Amoros were stand-out players, while Patrick Battiston and Remy Vogel were both signed to shore up the centre. Claude Puel was initially left out, offering little attacking threat, but soon gained a spot to win the ball for Hoddle in an otherwise attacking midfield.
“As soon as you had a problem with the ball, you gave it to Glenn,” says Puel. “In England, where it was the era of the long ball, he had been a bit misunderstood. In France the game was more suited to him and he had three extraordinary years at Monaco. It was him who organised everything, who made all the difference.”
“For us Glenn was le bon dieu – he was a god,” Ettori claims. “He was the star but didn’t have the caprices of a star. For me, the time he was in France, he was the best player in the world.”
“We would get the ball forward quickly to Glenn,” recalls Hateley. “We didn’t want him to come out the centre circle or into his own half. He would either find me or the wide players and then the ball would be played into me and he would support me or I would take the chance. We terrorised everybody we played against.”
Hateley found the French defenders a touch easier to compete with than what he had gone up against in Milan. “He was the typical English striker,” says Ettori. “A force of nature, an animal, afraid of nothing. French defences weren’t used to someone so combative, so tough. When you think of a tough player you think of a defender. But he was tough – tough on others, tough on himself. He pulled us along in our energy. And he had an English spirit: always winning. In France you win at home and try not to lose away. He and Glenn wanted to win all the time.”
Monaco’s gameplan essentially amounted to getting the ball to playmaker Hoddle, who could then use his passing range to pick out Amoros running up and down the flank from full-back, dribbling winger Youssouf Fofana or drop a ball onto the head of target man Hateley, supported by Jean-Marc Ferratge. It proved to be very successful – Hateley finishing as second top scorer behind Jean-Pierre Papin as Monaco won the league in Wenger’s first season in charge.
Papin would prove to be a thorn in Wenger’s side though – despite coming sixth when Monaco won the league, Marseille dominated for the duration of his tenure, winning five league titles in a row.