This evening sees the first of two UEFA Champions League clashes between Arsenal and Monaco take place at the Emirates Stadium, one that will reunite the Premier League’s current longest-serving manager with the club that gave him his first taste of the pressures and demands of top-flight football, and, in the wake of a well-publicised falling out, ended up breaking his heart after seven fantastic years on the sun-soaked south coast.
After a modest playing career and a short spell as the assistant manager of French second-tier side Cannes, Arsène Wenger’s first substantial foray into the world of football management came in 1984 as the head coach of Ligue 1 club Nancy, but his first big break was presented to him three years later.
Despite failing to avoid relegation in his final season in charge, Wenger’s time at Nancy had attracted the interest of several other French clubs, as he had impressed with his ability to manage a side who, despite their extremely tight budget, were consistently punching above their weight and holding their own against the league’s big boys.
Even in the campaign that eventually led to their relegation to the second tier in 1987, Wenger had worked wonders with a notoriously leaky Nancy defence, and during that season they managed to record 17 clean sheets, an almost unheard of feat for a side that were struggling near the foot of the table for the vast majority of the campaign.
It is within this important statistic that we find what, arguably, drove Monaco to believe that they had found their man in a relatively unproved 37-year-old with just three years worth of managerial experience. His ability to impress with limited financial resources showed the wealth of promise with which he was blessed, not to mention hinting at what he could do with a bigger club and, subsequently, more money to spend.
Monaco had expressed their interest in Wenger throughout his time at Nancy but were initially unable to secure his services after the latter club’s president, Jacques Rousselot, refused to accept the manager’s resignation prior to the start of what would prove to be his final campaign in charge of Les Chardons. However, in the wake of their relegation to Ligue 2, Rousselot caved, paving the way for Wenger’s relocation to the south coast.
He arrived in the principality in time for the start of the 1987-88 season and quickly set about building a championship-winning team. The financial might of Monaco presented Wenger with his first opportunity to create a club in his image, one that he would be able to slowly nurture into a force to be reckoned with.
He showed an immediate eagerness to give youngsters a chance to prove themselves in the senior side alongside established names that he had plucked from across Europe; Glenn Hoddle, for example, signed from Tottenham Hotspur on a free transfer, whilst Mark Hateley, enticed by the presence of fellow Englishman Hoddle in Wenger’s new-look side, joined from AC Milan.
Wenger’s impact was immediate. Monaco impressed in his first season in charge, with his well-disciplined, attack-minded style of football guiding them to their first Ligue 1 title since 1982, losing just six league games in the process.
Despite finishing third at the end of the following campaign, Monaco would make it to the final of the Coupe de France, only to lose 4-3 in a thrilling game against the league champions Marseille. However, they finally got the better of the French giants two years later, with a last-minute goal from substitute Gérald Passi delivering Monaco their first Coupe de France trophy since 1985.
In the heart of Monaco’s starting 11 was a youngster by the name of Emmanuel Petit, to whom Wenger had given his first senior appearance at the tender age of 17. An exceptional talent who blossomed under the newly appointed head coach, Petit would prove to be one of many exciting young players that were given their first breaks by Wenger.
Lilian Thuram, who currently holds the record of being the most capped player in the history of the French national team, followed in 1990, as did Thierry Henry, first as a youth team player and then as a member of the senior side in 1994. A healthy reliance on talented youngsters would prove to be a feature of Wenger’s Monaco team, as would later be the case at Arsenal.
Coupled with Wenger’s belief in giving promising youngsters a chance was his intense scouting of the world market, and it paid off in spectacular style, as, in 1988, he unearthed a talented 21-year-old Liberian striker by the name of George Weah, who was plying his trade for the Cameroonian club Tonnerre Yaoundé. Wenger gave the impressive youngster his first opportunity to prove himself on the European stage and, well, we all know where he went from there…
Wenger’s tenure in Monaco also presented him with greater access to technologically advanced facilities, allowing him to further develop ideas and methods that would go on to blossom at Arsenal. He became one of the first managers to extensively use videos and data collection programs as part of his pre-match preparations, whilst a greater importance on players’ weight and diet was enforced, as well as the introduction of a plethora of specialist coaches and physiotherapists.
The young manager’s innovative thinking had an immediate impact on Hoddle, as he stated in an interview with FourFourTwo magazine:
He introduced so many new things to me; his training methods, the warm-ups and warm-downs. In all my years at Tottenham, we had never done a warm-down! We had vitamin injections – all legal, of course. The thinking was way ahead.
As his time at Monaco wore on, Wenger took further advantage of the facilities at his disposal and progressively developed his forward-thinking methods, spending hours holed up inside the club’s training ground, pouring over videos and piles of data.
He was quickly becoming one of the most sought-after managers on the continent, with plenty of potential suitors pining after his services, and, in one of the most memorable moments of his time in the principality, Bayern Munich approached the Monaco hierarchy in 1994 in an attempt to lure Wenger to the Bundesliga, only for their offer to be flatly refused. Bayern would go on to appoint Giovanni Trapattoni, whilst Wenger, after a poor start to the 1994-95 season, was shown the boot anyway, denying him the opportunity to prove his worth at one of the biggest clubs in Europe.
It is disappointing that Wenger’s splendid seven-year spell at Monaco had to end in such a way, but, in hindsight, it is an indisputable fact that Bayern’s loss was Arsenal’s gain. As one of the longest-serving managers in English football history, his influence on the game is far-reaching, and many of the methods that are commonplace nowadays were first brought to the table by a young, determined and forward-thinking Wenger, who was given the time and money to develop his ideas at Monaco.
Whilst it ultimately ended in negative circumstances, his time in the principality should not be forgotten, as it arguably shaped him into one of the finest, and most influential, managers the game has ever seen.