For Joe Montemurro, being a head coach is all about the journey.
Next month marks three years since the Australian first took charge – and he has overseen wide-ranging and tangible progress since then.
Under Montemurro we smashed countless domestic and club records to win our first Barclays FA Women’s Super League title since 2012 and, in doing so, qualified for the Women’s Champions League after a five-year absence.
A couple of near-misses have followed but instead of dwelling on the disappointment, the 51-year-old’s focus has always been on the future, and behind the scenes he has put a lot of his energy into improving the support network around the team.
After all, it’s the Australian’s attention to marginal gains that has set him apart from his peers. A new philosophy which featured Montemurro’s ‘style rules’ – three or four mottos for players to adhere to – was implemented on the pitch, while off it we appointed a full-time goalkeeping coach and analyst, as well as bolstering our backroom staff to include two physios and two strength and conditioning coaches.
“Apart from building the team and maintaining that success, we've also had to build the organisational structure behind them,” our head coach explains to Arsenal.com. “That's been a key process for us to go the next step.
“Last season, we actually thought there were some really good improvements and really good structural and organisational improvements that we felt we were going to take that next step. But then obviously the worldwide pandemic dented that, but we've just had to adjust to the situation. It's been great and one of the big things for me is to have built the backroom structure so that we can support our players in the best way possible.”
By his own admission, Montemurro is a ‘project coach’. In addition to building a group and developing a DNA, it’s also about making sure each and every individual is involved in the process to make the club as successful as possible for many years to come.
It’s not a new thing for our head coach to look ahead to the future, though. The former Treviso midfielder hung up his boots aged 28 not due to injury, but because he knew he would have to return to Australia in order to embark on his coaching journey.
So he re-joined former club Brunswick Juventus as a junior coach back in the nineties and the rest, as they say, is history.
“The reality is that I've always thought in long-term scenarios,” Montemurro says. “I've never thought in short-term solutions, it's just not the way I am or the way I do things.
“The biggest thing for me is that most successful clubs and managers usually think long-term. I like that project, I like that process of growth, I like those little layers that you keep adding to get better and better and better.
“I honestly think that in our current situation with women's football, there are these little layers that we've got to keep adding. I'm lucky enough to be part of this growth, I'm lucky enough to be at a club that is forward-thinking in that sense.
“I actually quite like that and the fact that we need to be creative with what we've got, instead of trying to do things that we know we can't do because that comes back to bite you. I like the fact that we have to be creative, grow steadily, grow properly, because once you have those solid foundations they last forever. I'm very clear and positive on that and the project that we've got here at the moment.”
Montemurro smiles as he finishes that final sentence. With the flurry of National Women’s Soccer League players joining WSL sides on short-term deals, there must have been a temptation to make a move for the likes of Alex Morgan, Samantha Mewis or Christen Press when they confirmed their availability over the summer.
But he’s proud that even under the added pressure of our league rivals bringing in big-name signings, we stayed true to our recruitment approach.
“Succession planning is creating a good platform, a solid platform, a whole-club platform in that we're not doing things that are beyond our means which could come back to bite us,” Montemurro says.
“I think building those solid foundations both from a structural perspective with staff, operations and a good working environment, and also in terms of the squad and its ability to have players who are coming through underneath those that could move on, to make sure you have that level of success and maintain the playing style.
“We're very clear on the type of player we want to bring in. Malin Gut is the next player coming through that will underpin Lia Walti as a No 6. Having a clear, defined way that we want to play is important but with that comes a clear, defined way that we want to recruit. We know exactly what we want to recruit, so it's never messy.
“What’s more, it's very clear that this is the type of player that will be coming in at that age. The age is very, very important because it's about giving them the opportunity to develop but then also giving them the opportunity to get plenty of football to then take that baton from the player that's then moving on.”
So what is an ‘Arsenal type of player’? What are the key characteristics and attributes that make Montemurro sit up and take note?
“They need to understand there are no shortcuts,” he says. “They need to understand that there's a process to becoming the best. Being part of that process is where they become stronger, where they become better and that they understand as human beings that things don't just happen all of a sudden.
“There could be situations where they go to clubs where they're going to be guaranteed gametime, sure they'll play, bit of training here and a bit of that... but then if they want to be the best, they have to be in the best environment. They're the questions I ask from a characteristic point of view: where do you want to be? What are your ideas on the way football should be played?
“Then obviously there is the talent and the ability to fit in, to play the brand of football we want. We have a pretty specific sort of profile from a positioning perspective but that perspective isn't set in stone. It's also the ability to adapt in certain areas.
“You've seen that with the squad when we play three at the back, four with one or two holders, inside wingers, whatever that structure is they need to be able to adapt to those different scenarios. Then we challenge them from a football perspective because in the end, the biggest thing we try to create is a football culture.
“Once you've got them with the football philosophy, methodology and style, then they start watching the game in a different way. It's interesting because we have our certain style rules and players will watch whoever they watch - a game in Argentina for example - and they're watching it within our style. To me, that's what it's all about. It's a big learning process.”
Some new signings are able to come in and adapt seamlessly. Lia Walti, for example, started the first 12 WSL games of our record-breaking 2018/19 season following her arrival from Turbine Potsdam and went on to establish herself as a key component of Montemurro’s system.
Then there are others, like Jill Roord, who take a little longer to click. The Netherlands international managed five goals and as many assists during her debut season, but bettered her goal tally within 150 minutes of the new campaign.
And Montemurro says we’ve barely scraped the surface of Roord’s potential.
“When we scout, they obviously need to have the qualities to step in now and do what they need to do, but also we're looking at where they can improve,” the Australian says. “Where can they be better? What are the areas that we feel could bring that next level of footballer within our style?
“Jill is the perfect example. She's got talent to burn, she can change games with the ball, but then there were areas we needed to work on too. We needed to work on her defensive positioning, we needed to work on her continuity, doing what she does consistently not just two weeks and go missing for two weeks. Can she do it in big-game occasions, in the big moments?
“These are the challenges they have. They've already got the base to be exceptional footballers but now that next step, that next big-stage step is where we challenge the players. Jill, even Viv [Miedema] and Beth Mead, are in a young bracket and we want to challenge them to get to the next level.”
There is a very clear focus on combining youth with experience in Montemurro’s squad. Kim Little, Jen Beattie, Viki Schnaderbeck and Danielle van de Donk are there to lead by example and with the likes of Vivianne Miedema, Caitlin Foord and Katie McCabe all entering their peak at the same time, the younger bracket, which includes Lotte Wubben-Moy, Malin Gut and Fran Stenson, have ready-made role models to follow.
“They could have probably gone to other clubs where they would've been guaranteed minutes, not been as stressed or put under as much of a stimulus with high-level professionals and top players,” the head coach says.
“But here, they understand that their growth is going to happen naturally because they're training at high intensity, high level, high quality every single session, every single day in every single moment. Whether it's in the gym, whether it's on the video analysis, they're with the best.
“When a player understands that, that the environment is more important than the minutes, I know that we've got a player that understands where we are and what we want to be. They understood that just the environment alone would lift their professionalism and their attitude, their tempo, their rhythm. Everything.
“Then game time is part of what they need, so it's about being very strategic in how to integrate them, when to integrate them, where to put them in and when they can be of value because they understand that they need to contribute too. There's a couple of factors: the environment we create but then also putting them in at the right time under the right environment.”
Gut and Wubben-Moy were just two of our five arrivals over the summer. Noelle Maritz joined from Wolfsburg while Australia internationals Steph Catley and Lydia Williams also moved to north London, with five of our senior players heading in the opposite direction.
In fact, such is the vast turnaround in our dressing room that 17 players have arrived and 18 have departed since Montemurro was appointed back in November 2017. But as our head coach reveals, every decision is made with an eye firmly fixed on the future.
“It's not about just bringing someone in, using them and then that's it,” he says. “I've never been like that as a person and I've never done that with the people or groups that I've been in charge of. To bring someone in is very important and they're making big decisions in their livelihoods as well.
“We're getting people coming from different countries to represent this club and they want to contribute. I hope to be part of that contribution but not in a short-term perspective, I always think long-term. One of my biggest things is leaving some sort of legacy and I've been lucky enough to have started franchises or clubs, and Melbourne City is one of those.
“The day that I left, I knew that they knew which type of coach they needed to bring in, the players they needed to bring in to continue that success. It's also the obligation of the leader to make sure you leave the place in a better state than what you inherited.”
With WSL and League Cup titles under his belt, Montemurro is on course to do just that but there have been dark days too. Defeat in the 2018 Women’s FA Cup final at Wembley was followed by back-to-back League Cup final losses over the last two seasons.
But responding to setbacks is all part of the process and for the Australian, a crucial step on the journey.
“The hardest thing for a coach is when you have your beliefs, you're very solid with your core foundations, the data shows that in the long run you'll come out well, but then you go through some tough times,” he explains.
“You go through times where the team probably isn't winning. Now with the introduction of social media and all the platforms, you've got other external forces that exaggerate what you're doing. But like anything, you need to be strong in your beliefs. I’m very clear in mine and I'm very clear in the beliefs the players have in what we're doing. That's important too.
“I think the core values that you have always give you that longevity, whether you have that succession. It's quite interesting because I'm actually doing a thesis on what is ongoing success, what does it mean? How do people do it? What are the bits and pieces that coaches use to sustain success over long periods?
“I think in the end it's strong values, it's strong people, strong culture, that rides the waves in all the good and bad times. When it becomes a whole-club scenario, when it becomes staff, players, operations and everyone knowing where we're heading, then you know everyone's got your back. That's really important.”
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