Australian coach Joe Montemurro talks to his to his high-flying Arsenal team. (Twitter: @ArsenalWFC)
In the corner of a foreign field, an Australian is quietly overseeing a dramatic revival of one of European football’s great names.
This week marks a year since Joe Montemurro first walked into Arsenal’s north London training ground to take up his role as head coach of their women’s soccer team.
His impact has already been felt, within and beyond the Emirates Stadium.
In sixth place and drifting when he joined, Arsenal are currently top of the table with a perfect record of seven wins from seven in this, his first full season in England’s Women’s Super League.
In the process they have scored an extraordinary 34 goals (conceding just four). Only one other team, the generously resourced Manchester City, has reached double figures.
Dutch striker Vivianne Miedema has scored 14 goals in seven starts for Arsenal this season. (Twitter: @ArsenalWFC)
Arsenal were the dominant force in English football in the first decade of this century, completing a domestic and European clean sweep in 2007.
However, it last won the league title in 2012 and the lustre had faded.
“The reality is that the Arsenal name in women’s football is synonymous with success, and with an identity and attractive style of playing,” he told the ABC.
His first task is “to get it back in to the upper echelons of European football consistently in Champions League”. And then develop the players that will keep them there.
“It’s about bringing back that holistic process of what Arsenal means around the world,” he says. “And making sure our brand of football is one that fans want to come out and watch.”
A labour of love
For Montemurro there is an added, emotional dimension to his work that makes it more than just a high-profile job.
Joe Montemurro takes an Arsenal training session as he plots a league title success. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)
He fell in love with the game as a child in Melbourne, staying up late at night to watch Arsenal’s men playing in FA Cup finals.
“Arsenal were an amazing team at the time,” he says, remembering idolising players like Liam Brady.
“There was the 1979 FA Cup final, Alan Sunderland scoring, the yellow shirts…”
A starry-eyed fan, he now he finds himself holding a pivotal role at the club.
A 3-1 win over in-form Birmingham City consolidated Arsenal’s lead at the top of the Super League. (Twitter: @ArsenalWFC)
“It is surreal, every day,” he says. “I came to work an hour ago, and just driving through those gates and seeing the badge on the main building is amazing.
“I just get this feeling it’s going to end very quickly, someone is going to pull the rug from under me.”
A student of the game
Montemurro’s family arrived in Australia from Italy after the end of World War II.
As an adult it was in Europe that he followed his dream of becoming a professional footballer, most notably spending four years playing for Treviso, several tiers down from Serie A.
A “mediocre player” by his own assessment, his reading of the game from a position as a deep-lying midfielder nonetheless pointed towards a future in the dugout after he retired from playing at 28.
As he embarked on his coaching career he retained an affinity for the game in his parents’ homeland, enrolling at Coverciano, Italy’s highly respected coaching centre of excellence and finishing school for managers, graduating in 2014.
Part of that education required writing a dissertation. Montemurro choosing to explore the question of whether elite players naturally become effective coaches.
“The simple and clean answer to that is no, it’s not necessarily a recipe to becoming a great coach,” he says.
Arsenal manager Joe Montemurro speaks with Jordan Nobbs at half time of their FA Cup semi-final with Everton. (Action Images: Ed Sykes)
“There are all kinds of experiences that lead you to becoming the person that you are. The reality is you’re in the people’s game, and your personality, your beliefs and your honesty are the things that really stand out.
“There are some ex-mediocre players who are doing some great things as coaches.”
He doesn’t name them, but that theory is borne out by other foreigners enjoying success in the UK, such as Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool and Jose Mourinho at Manchester United.
It is Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola, however, with whom comparisons have recently been drawn. And not just because friends and family back in Victoria know Montemurro by the same abbreviated first name.
It could be the Catalan speaking when Montemurro explains his playing philosophy.
“We want the ball … with the ball you’ve got control,” he says.
“We work a lot on that. And on positional play. That creates the framework for players to be innovative and creative within it and express themselves.”
A marriage of philosophies
After jobs coaching age group teams in Victoria, he was appointed manager with Melbourne Victory’s W-League team, taking them to second place in the ladder in 2014. From there he was recruited by Melbourne City to lead their first foray into the competition.
Arsenal scored a staggering 34 goals in their opening seven matches of this Super League season (Twitter: @ArsenalWFC)
Two Premierships followed, including a season undefeated. He also assisted the men’s team under both John van ‘t Schip and Michael Valkanis.
He sees no difference between coaching men and women, only differences in the styles and ethos of different teams and clubs.
“For me it’s just football,” he says.
“It’s great to see that the clubs are recognising that women are elite sportspeople and deserve everything that any other sports person should get.”
While there have been “some amazing gains” in women’s football in Australia, when the chance was presented to test himself in Europe, Montemurro didn’t hesitate.
Joe Montemurro feels “honoured” every time he takes training at Arsenal. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)
“The English league now is, if not in the top two, then definitely in the top three in Europe — in terms of the quality of players and investment available to the top Premier League clubs moving in to women’s football.
Beyond the greater resources, Arsenal was also a perfect fit of footballing philosophies.
“I don’t think I’d probably be here if I was a long ball, second ball, channel ball sort of coach,” he says.
“[Living up to Arsenal’s traditions] is an extra stimulus — Arsenal got me here because they understand my style of football, it’s the way I want to play and the way I believe football should be played.
“I feel blessed and honoured to be working here every day.”