Life and Times… Arsène Wenger – The Monaco Era

When you look at Arsène Wenger’s time at AS Monaco, particularly if you’re familiar with what he’d later do at Arsenal, there’s an unmistakable feeling of having been there before. They say “history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes”; at times it could be seen as melancholic humans looking back and hoping to find a sign of warning that they missed. However, with Wenger, there seems to be a measure of direction and intent. That the same work he did lead to the same strengths and weaknesses, the same beauty and frailties. Let’s dive into what went down during Arsène Wenger’s first stint at a major European club.

Before ASM

Wenger’s career didn’t start at AS Monaco, of course. Born in Strasbourg, France, in 1949, he started playing football from the age of 6, although it wasn’t until he was 12 that he got the opportunity to play for his local side. He was described as a holding midfielder (and later a sweeper) with little pace, but “a complete vision of the pitch and having an influence among his team-mates”. Having broken through too late for him to build a career as a top footballer, he remained a lower leagues player. There he had to balance his love for football with his studies, completing a degree in Economics at the University of Strasbourg in 1972.

Wenger during his playing days with RC Strasbourg

Wenger eventually joined RC Strasbourg, the side he supported as a child, in 1978 as a coach for the reserves, as well as a scout, though he would end up playing some matches for the first team. By 1979 he was the Reserves Manager and played little to no football. Wenger’s dedication and obsession with details when it came to football were noted several times. In 1983, former France international Jean-Marc Guillou offered him the opportunity to join him at AS Cannes as his assistant. Just a year later, he was offered the role of Manager at AS Nancy-Lorraine by the club’s Director of Football, Aldo Platini.

One’s first job in management is never easy, but for Wenger there was an added caveat; he was replacing club legend Hervé Collot, who had played his entire career at the club as a fullback, between 1952 and 1964, representing the side 275 times.

Wenger’s first season was arguably the most successful. AS Nancy-Lorraine finished in 11th position, comfortably above relegation and with one of the most effective attacks in the division, with 53 goals (although numbers are inflated by a 6-1 win vs PSG when there was nothing left to play for in the season). Their Achilles heel was the defence, where they conceded more goals than one of the relegated teams.

Arsene Wenger with (left to right) Francois Zahoui, Rubén Umpierrez, Fabrice Picot and Robert Jacques during the 1984/85 season

For 1985/86 things would be a lot trickier. Les Chardons finished third from the bottom and had to face FC Mulhouse on a Play-Off to remain a top tier side. By the time of Wenger’s third season, relegation was inevitable. “It wasn’t Arsène’s fault”, said Platini when interviewed by Myles Palmer for his book “The Professor: Arsene Wenger at Arsenal”. “He had no money to spend. Monaco wanted him halfway through his spell with us. He wasn’t sacked. He simply left us to join them”.

A man ahead of his time

Much like when he first arrived in England, Wenger’s pedigree was instantly called into question at Monaco. He was, after all, a manager with little to no reputation as a player, who had only managed a small club, and led them to relegation in his final season. “The choice surprised us a little bit as players,” remembers Jean-Luc Ettori. “He had come from a club that had been relegated. But after a fortnight we understood why he was there, that he was the man we needed.”

Mark Hateley (left), and Glenn Hoddle (right) with their new manager; the English internationals proved invaluable for Wenger early years

Wenger contrasted that dreadful last season at Nancy with a thrilling first season with the Monegasque side. The addition of Mark Hateley from AC Milan and (most crucially) Glenn Hoddle from Tottenham Hotspur and Patrick Battiston from Bordeaux gave him the platform to build a championship-winning side. Wenger, however, wasn’t resting on the comfort of having top tier players at his disposal.

“What [impressed me] was his management of the whole situation”, said Hoddle when interviewed on his Monaco days. “He was way ahead. I’d never seen someone prepare training like he did, he was there hours before and everything was absolutely meticulous”. The discipline and dedication of Wenger’s approach were revolutionary. His focus on preparation, nutrition and effective training gave new energy to his players. “The warm downs were 45 minutes and massages were compulsory after training. At Tottenham, we never did anything like that”, said Hoddle. “I was fitter at Monaco than I ever was [before]. I couldn’t believe the difference in how I felt physically, it was quite incredible.”

Video analysis was another of Wenger’s “quirks”. “He was the first manager I worked under who did specific tactical training, painstakingly going over video footage in preparation”, said Claude Puel. “He worked around the clock, constantly preparing the next session or reviewing the drills he’d put us through that day.” He was looking to get gains wherever they could be found. As Wenger himself puts it in his autobiography, “For all those years, the only thing that counted for me was the next match and the result. For all those years, all I wanted was to win. My time and my thoughts were taken up with this sole objective”.

During his early years as a manager Wenger was all about winning, a mindset we’d later associate more with rivals Mourinho or Ferguson, as his outlook on life and management changed. On the other hand, that absolute 80s look would remain his forever…

However, for all that work and dedication, the 1987/88 league title would be Wenger’s only during his time at Monaco, with just the 1990/91 Coupe de France to keep it company. For all the turmoil that his latter days with Arsenal would bring him with Russian oligarchs, sheikhs and FFP, the early 90s would be Wenger’s first clash with a financially superior rival, Olympique de Marseille. By far the biggest club in France, with the most fans and the largest budget (and with the irregular methods of Bernard Tapie), made it very hard for Wenger’s AS Monaco to compete. As Joshua Askew puts it in his article about the team, “The rivalry between the clubs became so heated that Wenger and Marseille president Bernard Tapie came close to blows on multiple occasions. The brash Tapie would publicly complain about Monaco benefiting from tax loopholes all while poaching Monaco’s players”.

Eventually, it became all too much. After the bribery scandal that saw Valenciennes FC player Jacques Glassmann reveal he and others had been approached indirectly by Tapie to bribe them, Wenger had enough. “It is a shame. Once you don’t know any more if everyone is genuine out there, that is something absolutely disastrous”, he said to The Guardian in 2013. “I think we have absolutely to fight against that with the strongest severity to get that out of the game”. 

Wenger’s methods brought Monaco some long awaited success, and launched the French manager to stardom

Despite that, it can’t be said that Wenger’s time at AS Monaco wasn’t a success. His 87/88 title was the first one in five years, and would be the last for another nine. Apart from that Coupe de France, his team was runner-up in 90/91 and 91/92 and reached a Cup Winners’ Cup final (in ‘92) and a Champions League semi-final (in ‘94). 

The Tactics

Wenger set his team up in either a 4-1-3-2 or a 4-3-1-2, depending on available personnel and opposition. I’ve seen it branded as either a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1, but to me the deep nature of the holding midfielder and the clear demarcation of two strikers (albeit two very mobile ones) makes it one of the two mentioned shapes.

Between the sticks, the dependable Jean-Luc Ettori was first-choice for the entirety of the Alsatian’s reign. At 1,73 m. (5’8), he was short even for the time but was very agile, great on one-on-ones and unlikely to make costly mistakes. 

The back four, on the other hand, changed a lot, particularly the centre-back pairing. During the 87/88 league-winning season, it usually was (from right to left) Valéry, Battiston, Vogel and Amoros. The full-backs, particularly Valèry, were always up and pushing further, providing width and combining with the attacking midfielders, whilst centre-backs were mostly the last line of defence and aided with ball recycling.

Patrick Battiston receives the ball deep (1), then looks for a pass (2) to open up play (3). The French international’s passing range was key for Monaco’s build-up play.

The key man was Patrick Battiston, a highly skilled, imposing yet technically gifted defender, who would often conduct the build-up from the back. Watching him play, he instantly brought me memories of future prime Laurent Koscielny, venturing on forward dribbles to break the opposition’s shape and launching mid-range passes to open the game up. So much of Monaco’s build-up from the back came from Battiston that after he returned to Bordeaux at the end of the ‘89 season, they became a much more direct team until Lilian Thuram grew into the role.

Battiston picks up the ball from a failed Marseille throw-in (1) and goes on a one of his forward runs looking to play a one-two with Weah (2) who can’t find a pass back (3).

The midfield consisted of a deep-sitting defensive midfielder (usually Puel or Poullain), behind a trio of midfielders. On the right, Marcel Dib was an absolute dynamo and one of the side’s most creative influences. Playing a role that today we’d call a Mezzala, he went up and down the inside channel, took players left, right and centre with long driving runs and combined with the right-back to overload that flank. The opposite flank often saw a more withdrawn midfielder, with Ferratge, Puel or sometimes even Amoros playing a less aggressive version of Dib’s game.

Dib recovers the ball from a wayward Marseille pass (1) and instantly darts forwards to create a counter opportunity (2 & 3). Monaco was always looking for quick transitions

Upfront, the trio of Hoddle, Weah and Hateley wreaked havoc on the opposition. Positioning, once again, depended largely on personnel and rivals. On higher profile matches, Hoddle started from further back, as an attack-oriented central midfielder, with the licence to maraud wherever and whenever his instincts dictated it, something Hoddle himself loved. Wenger would then place two strikers upfront, a more mobile option (usually George Weah or Youssouf Falikou Fofana) and an out-and-out striker like Hateley, Ramón Díaz or Klinsmann. Against weaker opposition, instead, Wenger would play with Hoddle behind the pure striker, and an assortment of creative midfielders.

Hoddle drops into space (1) and spots Marcel Dib running behind the defence (2), so he plays a ball into space to him (3). Hoddle would pop up in all sorts of places at the final third, and even dropped like this time to assist runners.

Something that takes you by surprise when first analyzing the team is how fluid positioning is. Players pop up in all sorts of spots, shifting from the wide areas to the centre, switching flanks, getting wider to receive and then cutting in. Positional rotation was fantastic, with Puel often dropping deep to cover for the forward runs of Battiston or Valèry, and the strikers falling or going wide to cover for an in-cutting teammate.

Monaco’s pressing and high line

They also played with quick transitions and short passing combinations, either looking to double up defenders or beat their man one-on-one. They would also press very actively and formally (for the time at least), with several chances being born out of the strikers closing down passing lanes and putting pressure on the opposition’s build-up.

Wenger’s Monaco on Football Manager 2022

The most important thing to remember when trying to recreate any team’s tactics in the game is that… you can’t. Not to perfection. Like I often say, FM’s tactics toolbox is a very capable instrument, but not a limitless one. I feel often the key to a good tactics recreation is about capturing the key features of a team’s style of play. So, what are the keys to Wenger’s Monaco?

For whatever reason, I felt that I had to start with Battiston’s role. He looked so influential and decisive in that first iteration of the team, with neither Mendy nor Thuram fully recapturing the magic of those forward runs and build up from the back. I set out to find a centre-back who could bring the ball up from the back, who could dribble the ball with a little bit (intentional wengerism) of flair, and who could pick a pass to progress the ball. I was also looking (as always) for a team outside the very elite, which meant obvious options like Van Dijk, De Ligt or Bonucci. My choice was Villareal’s Juan Foyth. 

As an Argentinian, I’m somewhat used to Foyth’s… less consistent features in his game, but he is, no doubt, a very talented ball-playing defender, who can fill the requirements and with flair to add. However, this amounted to nothing if we didn’t have the right players to carry out the remaining key roles, like that of Glenn Hoddle, George Weah and Marcel Dib. Luckily, Villareal has quite the capable side.

Dani Parejo could no doubt play as Hoddle did, particularly starting from deeper and moving forward. He has the creativity, the vision and the technique to pull the strings and unlock the opposing defence. The Englishman was probably slightly more physically imposing, with Parejo matching his 1.83 height, but with a leaner frame. Hoddle was, after all, brought through the English game of the 80s.

As for Weah and Dib, someone like Gerard Moreno could no doubt play that dynamic, technical forward; perhaps not a like for like match (the Liberian was incredibly powerful and creative, more akin to the likes of Thierry Henry or Harry Kane). For the task of the energetic mezzala, we look no further than Moi Gómez, who also has the creativity to attack the space with intent.

All in all, what we get is something like this.

In terms of Player Instructions, I asked Foyth (DCR-BPD/D) to Dribble More, to favour him running with the ball. I also asked Moi Gómez (MCR-MEZ/S) to Take More Risks, Dribble More and Run Wide With The Ball, with Capoue (MCL-BBM) being asked to Stay Wider to provide more width on that side of the pitch and Parejo (MC-AP/A) asked to Roam From Position to mimic more closely Hoddle’s mobility. Last but not least, both strikers were asked to Roam From Position and Stay Wider, emulating the tendency of both Weah and Hateley (later Fofana or Kurbos) to fall into the half spaces to overload.

From the get-go our high press was very effective, leading to chances and goals. We were also playing some good Wengerball, with close interplay and quick passing movements. We had a team that was constantly attacking free space, taking the game to the opposition. The combo of Gómez and Aurier was overloading the right flank constantly, creating problems for the rival defenders.

Originally using Foyth on a Defend duty, I had to move him up to a Stopper to up his mentality and encourage him moving up the pitch. It fits his playstyle, but moving ahead to intercept play isn’t something Battiston did all that often. However, he was very good at performing those forward runs and showed his passing range.

Foyth’s passing

The one factor I wasn’t quite seeing was Parejo in the Hoddle role. He performed well, dropping to organize play and creating moving the ball around, but struggled to make himself quite the determining factor. I hesitated between using him as an Advanced Playmaker on Attack (to encourage runs forward) and a Roaming Playmaker. There’s always the possibility that he could grow a bit more into the role as the season moved forward.

As for results, our greatest hour came no doubt in the UEFA Supercup where, going against Tuchel’s Chelsea, we not only managed to outplay them but come back from a goal behind to take the title. There we saw some of the best performances, not only in terms of the actual match but really imprinting the style of early AS Monaco to our game.

Closing Comments

Wenger’s Monaco was, in many ways, the first iteration of the French manager’s beliefs and ideas. Unleashed from the economic and footballing restraints of Nancy, he built the side he wanted to see on the pitch. You could see it as a proto-Arsenal, but I think the team is best enjoyed dropping the anglo-centric lens and focusing on what he did there, instead of how it anticipated what he would do later. 

This was an inexperienced coach taking on the biggest job he had ever held. However, he went with his head high and trusted his ideas. Part of this, of course, is part of who Wenger, even at that point, was. “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”.

But part of it has to be the fact that his ideas were simply irresistible. He was a man ahead of his time. In many regards, he remains one. Every once in a while, something shocks the world of football; call it the Superleague, VAR, the rule of super-agents or foreign money. Whenever that happens, there’s always some Arsenal fan plucking a Wenger quote from 5, 10 or 15 years ago calling it “inevitable”. 

At the end of the 1993/94 season, Bayern Munich came calling, but Monaco stood in his way. However, just four months later, Wenger was sacked after a bad start to the following season. Feeling disenchanted with French football, he moved to manage Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan. He’d stay there for just under two years, before taking the job that would make his career.

Published by fromero92

Argentinian writer and journalist

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