EPL 2016/17: The Nacho Monreal conundrum: A look at Arsenal’s left-back situation
A look at how the competition to become Arsenal's first choice left-back is shaping up.
Football, for a lot of us, is much more than just a sport. Bill Shankly, even went on to say that it’s much more than a matter of life and death. Extreme hyperbole aside, football, for all of its captivating beauty, is made beautiful by the players who play the sport. Some do so with their skill and ability to manipulate the ball, while others are just characters straight out of a Loony Toons cartoon.
Arsenal have, for over the past two decades, had a litany of memorable left backs. While the likes of Nigel Winterburn stayed around and became club legends, the likes of Ashley Cole left for greener (bluer?) pastures much to the chagrin of the fans at Highbury and the Emirates. Then, of course, there are the likes of Andre “Good win gays” Santos and Armand Traore, whose tenures at Arsenal were… tragicomic, to put it politely.
Arsenal have, under Arsene Wenger, developed a sort of succession plan in that position when players bought from outside to fill that position don’t work.
Winterburn was displaced for a while by Sylvinho, only to be usurped by the rapid rise of Ashley Cole. Gael Clichy, understudy to Cole, looked solid but didn’t set the world ablaze with his abilities. Like Cole before him, he too left for a higher pay package, though to a lesser degree of animosity than his predecessor.
While Clichy was first choice at Arsenal, another young left-back was brought in to the club from Wimbledon when they split into two clubs (Wimbledon and MK Dons). Gibbs was a winger/central midfielder at his previous club, but Arsene and the coaching staff saw him as a left-back, perhaps even a worthy successor to Cole.
But as is often the case with so many young players becoming professional at an early age, injuries hampered his progress, and after being established as Arsenal’s first choice in the 2011-12 season, a combination of injuries, indifferent form and Andre Santos being sold at the start of the following season necessitated the purchase of another player to cover/compete with Gibbs.
Enter Nacho Monreal
The Spaniard was brought in from Malaga on deadline day during the winter transfer window of the 2012- 13 season. As with most purchases from a different league, Monreal took a while to adjust to life in England.
Over the next season, Nacho continued to develop, and Arsenal benefited from the healthy rivalry between the Spaniard and Gibbs, although the Englishman remained Arsenal’s first choice full back. Towards the end of 2014-15 is where the tide began to shift. Gibbs, much to his own disappointment, lost all of his good form despite staying relatively injury free.
Monreal, after spending time filling in for the injured Koscielny in central defence, learned to adapt his game to the style played in England. Despite some viewing it as a setback to his development after an initial struggle in that position, the player learned quickly, and on eventually shifting back to the left side of the defensive unit, he was almost a new player. His improvement has been so vast, in fact, that earlier this year, he was called up to the Spanish National team to cover for the injured Jordi Alba for the first time in almost four years,
Another factor that helped Nacho a lot was the signing of Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona. While the contribution of the Chilean in an attacking sense is unquestionable, his workman like ethic and boundless energy saw him run up and down the pitch to support his full back.
With that security in front of him, Nacho Monreal thrived, and, over the course of the season, people started wondering if Gibbs would ever have a way back into the team, what with the Englishman being used as a squad rotation player, or being brought on in the final minutes of a game to secure a lead Arsenal may have achieved.
Indeed, during the summer transfer window, rumours were rife that Gibbs was looking for a way out of the club, with Everton, West Ham, and Liverpool mooted as possible destinations. Those rumours were only compounded when Arsenal were strongly linked to Wolfsburg and Switzerland left-back Ricardo Rodriguez.
Eventually, though, nothing happened, and Arsene convinced Gibbs that there was still a future for him at the club.
The start of this season has seen Monreal suffer. He too often gets given the run around by quicker, trickier wingers. Even players who one might not expect to be able to do well against Nacho, given his quality, have enjoyed some degree of success down their right-hand side.
Some sections of the support suggest it might have to do with age. He turned 30 last season, and many believe that he might be slowing down further, as we’ve seen with Mertesacker.
Alexis’ emergence as a striker has affected Monreal
But to dismiss him altogether by saying he’s too old is irresponsible, and misguided. While his age is a factor, it is just a small part of a bigger picture. A big part of Monreal’s failings this season have to do with Arsenal’s style of play. The emergence of Hector Bellerin and Alex Iwobi is a contributory factor in this problem.
Bellerin’s attacking prowess has been incorporated into Arsenal’s attack, with the side heavily favouring the right flank in most attacks, particularly the counter. With the pace of Walcott and Bellerin, there are few sides that can defend against the speed of Arsenal’s attack.
What this means is, while attacking, Iwobi, one of the more inventive players in the team, often moves quite a way infield, often ending up right next to, or in front of Mesut Ozil. This leaves a huge gap on Arsenal’s left which Monreal has to cover. What makes matters more difficult is the fact that Iwobi, for all his attacking qualities, is slightly suspect when it comes to the defensive side of things.
There have been a number of occasions this season already where Iwobi has failed to track the opposition wing-back and left Nacho in a 1 on 2 situation, where he’s forced to decide whether to stick with his man or go after the runner, leaving one of the defensive midfielders to track the winger.
Compare this with Arsenal’s set up last season, where Nacho had Alexis Sanchez playing on the flank in front of him. The Chilean’s commitment to his defensive duties meant Monreal could focus on his man. The understanding between winger and full-back is vital when it comes to defending and attacking.
One needs to look at how well Bellerin dovetails with Walcott for evidence. Even in the recently concluded EFL Cup game against Reading, resident banter boys and BFFs Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Carl Jenkinson combined brilliantly while going forward and while defending. Unfortunately, that understanding is not yet present between Iwobi and Monreal.
Can Gibbs fight his way back?
Nacho’s strengths have been his positional awareness and ability to read the game. He uses those to be able to be at the right place at the right time. Gibbs, on the other hand, is more of an explosive player, in the same vein as Bellerin. And having those two players on either side is a slightly tricky proposition, as it threatens to disrupt the balance of the team.
Both players like to bomb forward, and have naturally attacking instincts. So much so that they both have a tendency to often end up near the opposition box while the team is attacking. The problem arises when the attack breaks down.
Bellerin, for all of his quality and undoubted promise, is still just a little suspect when it comes to defending. His lack of positional awareness is, thankfully so far, compensated for by his lightning pace. Time and again, we’ve seen him get caught too far up the pitch only for him to recover and get back in and make a timely tackle. Gibbs, although similar, lacks that extreme, searing pace, and it seems, over the course of the few appearances he has had so far, has slightly reigned in his instincts.
Having been at the club for over a decade now, Gibbs has become frustrated at his lack of progress, but he’ll be keeping a keen eye on how the situation with Monreal develops and he’ll be aware that this will be his best chance to convince the manager of his ability.
Over the course of the season, Gibbs will get his chances to give Wenger a selection headache. But one suspects that’s a headache the manager wouldn’t mind having. What this also does is put pressure on Monreal to improve his performances, something he will be keen to do anyway, given the high standards he’s set for himself.
Either way, the biggest beneficiary of this competition will be Arsenal. And with a few youngsters waiting in the wings to get their turn, this is one area in which the team will have an overload of talent. For now, we wait and see who comes out on top to become Arsenal’s permanent No.3.
(Video courtesy: ArsenalVideosHD YouTube channel)