No Dip In Form As Nacho Looks Crisper Than Ever
The state of Arsenal leaving 2014’s January transfer window was markedly different from the previous year. Arsenal were down in sixth, the lack of depth at centre forward was even more pronounced than it is now and the day before the window shut, they lost Kieran Gibbs for ‘up to 6 weeks’. With André Santos playing like Father Jack Hackett after going through a bottle of bleach, they were in desperate need of a new left back. A day later, Nacho Monreal’s £8m signing was confirmed – a deal apparently organised for the following summer, but brought forward upon necessity.
Monreal was the ideal signing, for both the circumstances and as an example of the purchases the club must look to make in the future. Unless the players you have are the best you can possibly get, no top level club should really look to buy squad fillers or backup players; new buys should be in the name of progress rather than preservation of what already is. Monreal and Kieran Gibbs play at similar levels, constantly challenging each other, and competition appears to be bringing out the best from both.
Impressive, If Unremarkable
Monreal’s first two performances, 1-0 wins against Stoke and Sunderland respectively, were impressive, if unremarkable – which works well enough as a description of Monreal himself. His assist for Santi Cazorla’s 84th minute winner against Aston Villa was his first really notable attacking contribution and instance of resurrecting his combination with Cazorla from their days together at Málaga.
Despite starting well, he was not blameless in the shambles at White Hart Lane, and can be accused of being at fault for Aaron Lennon’s goal. That said he, like the rest of the team, seemed far more comfortable and secure after it. With Gibbs now fit, Arsène Wenger erred towards using Gibbs in home games, where Arsenal would look to play on the more assertive side and Monreal away, wherein comfort without the ball was more valued.
Le Boss’ use of the pair and rotation of them is illustrative of their different abilities and styles. Gibbs is significantly faster and having spent most of his youth as a left winger, the more inherently attacking player. He plays wider, and tends to go right to the byline when attacking, making him far more useful in stretching teams. His pace allows him to take more risks on the defensive side, often relying on his recovery pace to make up for how high he commits up the pitch.
Monreal, however, is the more reserved. His attacking play generally consists of contribution from closer to the 18-yard line and although Gibbs is the more committed with his attacking, Monreal is more decisive and productive. He cannot rely on keeping pace with the quicker wingers as Gibbs can, so must position himself even better. The most notable difference between them with regard to defending is Gibbs’ greater strength facing players one-on-one, where Monreal – at present – is the stronger reader of the game.
Monreal’s return to pre-season was delayed by the Confederations Cup. Gibbs started the season exemplarily, playing like someone who knew he had to prove he deserved keeping his place. What’s more, in the absence of Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott, the width Gibbs supplies became far more essential to Arsenal’s play.
Monreal’s main role before November was as a defensive impact substitute, used to close out wins. He played well in the cameos and occasional (mostly League Cup) starts, and once the league starts followed he played as Gibbs had in the early part of the season: with renewed purpose.
As is his way, he has been quietly superb, in the most part. He had poor games away at Manchester City – though so would 2004-era Ashley Cole for all the protection Wilshere and the midfield game him – and, recently, Southampton away, where he struggled with little protection from his midfield (Gibbs himself also struggled when playing alongside the pairing of Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini, most memorably away at Manchester United and Napoli). Otherwise Monreal has been consistent, deserving of his place and again combining with Cazorla to great effect.
While he works well with his compatriot, he does not work so well with Podolski. When Cazorla plays on the left, it is really in name only. He has total freedom to wander around the pitch with the left side merely his base position when Arsenal do not have the ball. Monreal’s narrow sitting, alongside Cazorla, Özil, Wilshere, Ramsey and even Giroud at times, all of whom generally pitch themselves just outside the area, makes for the best and slickest combination play in the final third.
Though Podolski, like Monreal, prefers to sit narrower; closer to the edge of the area. With the two together, either Podolski cannot make runs from his favoured area because Monreal is already there and the opposition full back can easily follow him, or Podolski is forced to try and ingratiate himself with the midfielders as Cazorla does – which the German is not really technical or inventive enough to do. Arsenal are a narrower side with Cazorla on the left but a far more inventive one; with Podolski, they need Gibbs’ width to add that extra dimension to their attacking play; this was evident in the first half on Sunday against Crystal Palace.
The great advantage of having such high quality and stylistically different depth in the left back position is that Wenger can rotate depending on opposition and options further forward. My hope is that he reverts to the idea of the end of last season, using Monreal mostly in away games and Gibbs at home. He may well feel differently now but the most important thing by far is that he has the luxury of a choice without fretting or worrying about which player he does select.
Monreal worked hard from the bench in the early season to re-earn his place and has done very well since doing so. Both Monreal and Gibbs offer things very different from each other in many respects but on a fundamental level, both are highly strong defensive and offensive outlets, while the Spaniard’s adaptability has been crucial in allowing Arsenal to close out games so effectively at various points this season. Good left backs are difficult to find: Arsenal are lucky to have two of them.
(Thanks to the excellent Christian – @CSJDKK1 on Twitter – for chipping in (ahem) with help for the headline)
Follow Michael Keshani on Twitter @RoamingLibero