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FEATURE | The Story of Arsène Wenger at Monaco – a tale of revolution, mild success, corruption & brilliance

Is there any other manager more divisive in the world of football right now than Arsène Wenger? It seems that everyone has an opinion on whether the Arsenal manager should still be in a job, but despite the Wenger In/Wenger Out mentality that many have, no one can deny that the man is a genius. He revolutionised English football with Arsenal, and he did a very good job a few years prior to his appointment in North London in a different surrounding, in Monte Carlo with AS Monaco.

Wenger’s time at Monaco is a period that everyone knows about, but not many people know what exactly he achieved or which players he coached. In fact, not many people knew about him about at all before his spell with Monaco. Born in Strasbourg, Alsace, Wenger had a mixture of French and German ingrained in his early life and that might be seen as apparent in both his playing and managerial careers.

Ending his playing career with Strasbourg in 1981 and quickly becoming the coach for their under-19’s side, many of Wenger’s former team mates claimed that from an early age Wenger was a leader who observed training sessions with detail. Clearly Wenger’s skills impressed other clubs and not long after he was appointed as part of the coaching team at Cannes and his work there soon earned him a move to Ligue 1 club Nancy as head coach at the club.

It was here where he learnt about working with a limited budget and squad whilst developing ideas on how to improve to fitness of players and evolving their skills on the training ground. Despite his talents, Wenger failed to keep Nancy up and was eventually allowed to talk to Monaco about the vacant managerial position and really, this is where our story begins. This is where the Arsène Wenger that transformed English football and Arsenal Football Club was brought into light.

Wenger was taking over a side that finished 5th in the previous Ligue 1 campaign in 1986-87, relying fairly heavily on Omar Da Fonseca’s nine goals to have them challenging for a place in European competition. Many failed to realise that Wenger was about to change the fortunes of Les Monegasques in the space of one year, and he had already planned out who and what he wanted before he had even started the job in order to achieve that.

One of the first signings Wenger made was English striker Mark Hateley, a tall forward who had been brought in from Italian giants Milan. Hateley possessed a great aerial ability, showed in a now famous 1-0 Milan derby victory. The Englishman may have only been at the club for three years, but even to this day he still speaks fondly of Wenger.

“He was always there to talk to, always asking questions,” says Hateley, speaking about what the Frenchman was like when he suffered a dislocated ankle. “Arsene was brilliant with me, he was always talking to me and asking me what I needed. He got me a personal trainer to work with me every day, to keep my mind active, and work and work and work. So I always felt I was part of it, even when I wasn’t.”

When Hateley signed for the club, he was almost immediately joined by a compatriot and one of the most talented and technically gifted players of his generation; Glenn Hoddle.

Hoddle had announced at the end of the 1986/87 season that he wanted to leave Tottenham Hotspur to try pursue a career on the continent, where his style of play would be more appreciated and propel him to the next level. The midfielder was all set to join Gerard Houllier’s Paris Saint Germain before Wenger’s ambition and vision influenced Hoddle to swap the French capital for Monte Carlo.

One final big name addition was brought into the squad that summer as French international Patrick Battiston was granted a free transfer from Bordeaux, and promptly joined Wenger at Monaco. With Claude Puel also in the side to form quite a formidable spine of the team, Wenger’s Monaco was set to make a push for the Ligue 1 title, something that not many people expected.

Wenger completely changed the training regime at the club, introducing intense training methods and sessions, as well as an overhaul in the players’ diets. Rice dishes, pasta, fish and chicken-based meals were brought in to improve fitness and health, something that Wenger would go on to famously use at Arsenal and he also introduced detailed preparations on both the opponent’s game plan and Monaco’s own with 45-minute presentations multiple times during the week.

Monaco went on to win Ligue 1 by six points that season, with the joint second best defence in the league alongside Auxerre (only Toulon conceded less) and the third best attack behind both Montpellier and Saint-Étienne. Wenger had created a team that combined defensive solidity and toughness with beautiful, free-flowing football lead by Hoddle in the middle of the park.

Monaco had been transformed in the space of 12 months from UEFA Cup hopefuls to French Champions, but the process was anything but overnight. Meticulous planning, good scouting and, most importantly, aesthetically-pleasing, but crucially effective football is what captured Monaco their first championship in six years. The next challenge was made clear immediately after their triumph, could they retain their title?

To the east of Wenger and Monaco another club had designs on building a team to conquer not only France but all of Europe as Bernard Tapie was given the funds to bring in what seemed like endless amounts of world class players to the Stade Vélodrome.

Marseille had signed multiple top class players including Karl-Heinz Forster, Alain Giresse and the goal machine Jean-Michel Papin, with the latter being the key player as OM defeated both PSG and Monaco to the Ligue 1 title in the 1988/89 season, with the other two clubs finishing second and third respectively.

This was just the beginning of Arsène Wenger’s next challenge as Monaco boss. Despite scoring more goals than in the title winning campaign, mainly thanks to 18 goals from Hoddle and another 14 from a then little-known Liberian forward called George Weah, who names Wenger as the most important influence on his career. Monaco did reach the Coupe de France final that year as well, although they lost 4-3 in a thrilling final to Marseille.

In 1989/90, Wenger’s side finished third behind both Bordeaux and eventual retaining champions Marseille, who only won the title by two points, but finishing seven points ahead of Monaco. Despite the troubles in the league, there were still positives to look upon. New signing from Inter Ramon Diaz scored 15 goals and was the only Monaco player to hit double figures in Ligue 1 that season, but also Wenger was slowly bleeding in some youth players as well.

Defensive midfielder Emmanuel Petit was brought into the squad and became an integral part to Wenger’s plans as well as making 23-year-old Weah perhaps his prized asset, building his formation and team around the star forward for the first time. More was to come from the youth centre at Monaco, and a victory in the Coupe de France over brought home Wenger’s second trophy in charge.

In the summer, Mark Hateley departed the club following his horrible ankle injury and a few new young starlets, nurtured by Wenger, were introduced to the squad. In defence, a young 17-year-old by the name of Lillian Thuram quickly became a mainstay in the squad and the defender never forgot what Wenger was like with him when he was promoted to the first team.

“He was very attentive, always ready to listen. He is not someone who talks a lot, but he has a great observational quality and listening quality. When I was coming back (from a season-long injury) the reserve coach was very tough with me. One day, Wenger told me ‘I am your manager’. He meant he had faith in me, and that was very important. His words were always right for me.”

Additionally, Frenchman Youri Djorkaeff joined up with Wenger’s side from Strasbourg and it was at this point where Wenger’s French managerial legacy really started to take shape. Everyone remembers the Ligue 1 victory, some remember the Coupe de France triumph and European nights but his ability to develop and nurture talent was what made him so famous and so successful.

Lillian Thuram, Youri Djorkaeff, Emmanuel Petit, George Weah and Thierry Henry were all singled out by Wenger at an early age, learning under his stewardship at Monaco: that’s how good his eye for talent was. His ability to involve them in the first team was also something to be in awe of, as was his ability to keep Monaco competitive in an era where Marseille ruled the roost.

During Wenger’s time at Monaco, the club only finished outside of the top three once, which happened to be in the Frenchman’s final year in charge. This impressive consistency at the top is a characteristic of his career in England shows how good a job Wenger did at the club. Not only in the league but also in cup competitions, both domestically and on the continent, Monaco were competitive. Wenger reached two Coupe de France finals, a European Cup Winners’ Cup final against Werder Bremen, which Monaco lost 2-0. He also reached the European Cup semi finals in 1994 where eventual winners AC Milan would hand them a 3-0 defeat.

But, it wasn’t Wenger’s constant near successes that got him the sack, the Monaco board was reasonable, they simply did not have the finances of a Marseille. It was instead a poor start to the 1994/95 season that saw Monaco sack Wenger in September, just eight games in, with five league defeats already to his name. What made matters worse for the Frenchman was that just mere weeks earlier, Monaco chairman Jean-Louis Campora had refused an advance from German giants Bayern Munich for Wenger.

This wasn’t the aspect of Arsène’s departure that left the most bitter taste his mouth. Instead, it was that his departure signified the end of his rivalry with Olympique de Marseille, but more specifically with manager Bernard Tapie. Much has been made over the years of Wenger’s rivalries with Sir Alex Ferguson and José Mourinho but neither compare to the pure hatred that he had for Tapie, and that disdain escalated to incredulous heights in 1993 when Tapie and Marseille were convicted of bribery.

Marseille allegedly wanted to protect their star players ahead of their European Cup final against Milan and it was claimed that Tapie organised a way for Valenciennes to lose against Marseille and for the Valenciennes players to essentially take it easy against OM. This supposed corruption in Ligue 1, as confirmed by Wenger himself, is why he decided to go to Japan after his sacking at Monaco, instead of staying in France to join another club.

On the record, Wenger has been quite vocal on the subject, saying, “We had a very difficult time because we fought against people who didn’t use regular methods. You cannot accept corruption because it is killing sport – look at how it has killed boxing.” 

“I’m sure we would have won more trophies in normal circumstances and it makes me sad because Monaco will never get those trophies back. At that time, corruption and doping were big things and there was nothing worse than knowing the card were stacked against us from the beginning.”

In recent years Arsène Wenger has been a man that has divided opinion around the world. “Wenger Out” signs have been spotted at almost every major event from Coachella to the Super Bowl, even to a Donald Trump rally, but we must never forget the influence he has had on Monaco, Arsenal and football in general.

Revolutionary dietary and training methods, an incredible eye for talent and superb tactical and football knowledge, Wenger was an avant-garde manager before anyone even comprehended that a manager could revolutionise his job and in such a way. He was like the Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground of football management. Everyone wanted to love this cool new style, but hardly anyone fully understood it.

What he did at Monaco was almost like a dress rehearsal, an experimental period of his life where he figured out which methods worked and which methods didn’t. Every player that worked under Wenger in the Monaco days will attest to the fact he was a brilliant coach, man-manager and all round human being, every league table will show that he made Monaco consistently competitive and his squads showed that he was very, very trusting in exciting youth talents.

Arsène Wenger’s time at Monaco may still leave a bad taste in the mouth for the man himself, but for fans and observers, it was a brilliant example and showcase of an incredible footballing mind at work.

T.S.

 

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