In 1996, Arsène Wenger, already the Arsenal manager, returned to England from France to find himself surrounded by rumours that he had been sacked and then rehired. He held an impromptu press conference at the entrance stairs to Highbury, where he disposed of any sort of rumours: he had been just visiting his family. The press had been looking for an excuse to attack Wenger since before his arrival to London, but had now crossed the line, simply inventing facts to come at him. In the end, exhausted, he took his turn to pose a question to one of the journalists: “What do you know of my life, concretely?”. To his credit, the reporter acknowledged the truth, “We don’t know anything”. Game, set and match, Wenger.
However, that interaction epitomised in a way who Wenger had been for most of his career; a stranger, an outsider having to prove his worth. By that time, he was a French League-winning manager, and still, there were questions about him. Just like when he was appointed Monaco manager, or when he had to build himself a reputation in the lower leagues of French football. So who exactly was Arsène Wenger?
Wenger’s career started in his home town. 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. There, 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 league 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 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 reserve team 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.
For 1985/86 things would be a lot trickier. Les Chardons finished third from the bottom and had to face FC Mulhouse in 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”.
The Alsatian Revolutionary
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.”
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 everyone else, 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”.
With the dependable Jean-Luc Ettori between the sticks through his spell, Wenger set his team up in either a 4-1-3-2 or a 4-3-1-2, depending on available personnel and opposition. The full-backs, particularly Patrick 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.
In that first season, the key man was Battiston, a 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.
The midfield often consisted of a deep-sitting defensive midfielder (usually Puel or Fabrice 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 Jean-Marc Ferratge, Puel or sometimes even Manuel Aromos playing a less aggressive version of Dib’s game.
Upfront, the trio of Hoddle, George 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.
Something that takes you by surprise when first analysing 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.
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.
Death and Tax Loopholes
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 anymore if everyone is genuine out there, that is something absolutely disastrous”, he said to The Guardian in 2013. “I think we absolutely have to fight against that with the strongest severity to get that out of the game”.
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 by 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”.
Despite the lack of abundant silverware, 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).
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.
Japan was a strange destination for a manager who had been sought by European giants; not only was it a smaller club in a smaller league, but it also was one of the perennial strugglers of the division. However, it stands to reason it was one of the most important steps in the Frenchman’s career; it worked both as a learning trip, as well as a coaching job. The culture trade was as much a positive influence on Japanese football, as on the French manager.
For starters, we can look at the reason he took the job. The club was owned by Toyota, and the hiring of Wenger was just another step in the Japanese motor giant’s plan to make the club one of the biggest in the world…with an unusual time frame.
For Toyota, hiring the Frenchman was just another step toward developing the club. “The chairman, Shoichiro Toyoda, told me he wanted to make Nagoya the greatest club in Japan and in the world within 100 years”, said Wenger in an interview with L’Equipe Sport and Style. “That negates the pressure of immediacy in a fabulous way. What becomes a loss if you project your destiny on a century? I also found that idea extremely generous. Only being a conveyor belt in history, as a part of a movement that is much larger than you are. Being part of something that is beyond you”.
For football-crazed Wenger, who talks of feeling actual physical pain with every loss, and suffered at the hands of the Marseille match-fixing scandals, the possibility of working with sights on something that is well beyond those present-day struggles was both a gift and a lesson. “I was a cog, a part of their plan”, Wenger writes in his autobiography. “That tells you all you need to know about how they relate to time, about their staying power and their determination.”
Not only that, but Wenger also found a young league that had only formed three years before his arrival, and one which he could help shape and improve. “It was the beginning of an era for Japan because they had just created professional football”, he said in an interview for Arsenal’s media in 2013. “It was in a very important period and it was important that people come from Europe and work seriously. I must say it was a football experience as well as a human experience”.
However, Wenger quickly realised he was in a country that had none of the footballing culture he had grown up in, and this was a barrier he had to learn to traverse to do his job effectively. “I also learnt to compromise, to adapt my values and my coaching to their traditions, their beliefs. And I learnt to express my demands differently so that they would really hit home and be even more effective”, Wenger points out in his autobiography.
“At Monaco and other clubs, I had probably been a bit inflexible, hard, authoritarian. I adapted, I sought ways to compromise and understand, and this process of thinking about the game, about the best possible coaching methods, the particular culture of each country and even each club, enabled me to progress, to be more precise, to improve my coaching methods, to understand how better to communicate the messages that really needed communicating […] and what I could adapt or change, the principles I could afford to drop”.
How well would’ve Wenger adapted to footballing culture in England without this lesson in timelessness and adaptation? How capable would he have been of building bridges with the multiculturalism of his later sides without it? It stands to reason that his time in Japan was one of the most important steps in the Frenchman’s career. In 1996, after a year and a half in Japan, he took the job offer that would allow him to set his legacy in stone.