Monreal and Gibbs – Partners Not Competitors

Posted: October 29, 2013 in Arsenal, Premier League
Nacho & Gibbs (courtesy of MSN Sport).

Nacho & Gibbs

It’s quite common within the Arsenal fan base that the arrival of a player instantly means that a current one will be challenged for his spot and may lose his status in the squad. Whilst this is true in some cases, it’s far from it in others: Nacho Monreal and Kieran Gibbs, in this instance. Nacho was signed, according to Wenger, to be a “left-sided defender” – not a left-back, explicitly. Nacho has the ability to operate in a more advanced role and can then work with Gibbs as a flexible and versatile combination which sees the two intertwine in positions when on the pitch at the same time.

Monreal was signed on the final day of the January transfer window due to Kieran Gibbs being sidelined for “four to six-weeks”. The Spaniard joined Arsenal for circa £8.5million and was seen as merely competition for Gibbs. Some thought Monreal was a panic buy but, shortly after the deal was announced, it was also met with the news that Arsenal had already agreed a deal with Malaga and that Monreal was set to join in the summer; the process was sped up due to the aforementioned Gibbs injury. Monreal left La Liga as one of the best left-backs in Spain and arrived at Arsenal to do so much more than just fill in for Gibbs’ injuries and provide competition for the Englishman.

Upon joining Arsenal, Monreal was placed up against two of the most physical sides in the Premier League: Stoke City and Sunderland. The Spaniard completed eight out of eight tackles in those two games and showed the Arsenal fans how solid he is when it comes to his defensive actions. After receiving praise from fans, Wenger went on to say that Monreal can be an attacking threat for Arsenal as a “left-sided defender”. Whilst it was perceived that Wenger meant he’s good at going forward, it turns out that Wenger meant he can play much further up the field. Is this surprising? Not really. Monreal played as a left-midfielder/winger for Malaga, at times, when Eliseu would start as a left-back; the positions were never fixed as both players would combine and change roles throughout the entirety of the game. If you look even further back to Monreal’s career, he also carried out the exact same role with Azpilicueta at Osasuna under Jose Angel Ziganda. This came after Osasuna had been hit with injuries to their full-backs. Azpilicueta moved over to left-back whilst Monreal operated as the man further forward.

Monreal possesses the traits to play further up the field as he is mobile, has a good left foot, is a great crosser of the ball and excels in combination play. Monreal can cut infield and provide Arsenal with the extra man in midfield as his ball retention and passing are exquisite in the final third – these two traits are essential if Arsenal are looking to press higher up the field and force the opposition into creating errors. Monreal’s crossing is another great asset of his. At Osasuna, he played with the likes of Walter Pandiani, a recognised target man, as well as Roque Santa Cruz at Malaga. Giroud could really flourish from getting on the end of these crosses as the usual ones that enter the box are quite inconsistent and erratic from those who deliver them.

It’s obvious that Wenger didn’t sign Monreal just to pose a threat to Gibbs’ squad status. Monreal was brought in as someone who can operate on the same pitch as Kieran Gibbs and offer an attacking outlet that none of Arsenal’s other full-backs can. This is a recurring theme, surely. Andre Santos, as much as he was ridiculed and maligned for his inability to defend, was actually an adequate player going forward. The difference is, Wenger hit the nail on the head with Monreal as the Spaniard can defend as well as he can attack unlike the bowling-ball-like Brazilian. Wenger targets left-backs who won’t tamper with Gibbs’ progression, or directly challenge him, but instead he targets ones that possess the ability to build partnerships with Gibbs on the left flank.

Most of Gibbs’ time in the academy saw the Englishman actually play in central-midfield as well as a left-winger. Gibbs, much like the aforementioned players, has developed his attacking game phenomenally. He can time runs, use his pace to perfection and is an adequate passer; his only faults in that area are his final balls and decision making. Ultimately, this is why Wenger targeted Monreal and Santos because they share the exact same traits in a forward position. What this means is that Gibbs can switch roles with Monreal and operate as the man further ahead as well as Monreal can. This gives Arsenal an air of unpredictability on that left-flank as well as the ability to switch from Gibbs’ pace to Monreal’s quick, incisive passing and pin-point crossing.

It’s not all about attacking, though. Monreal is usually brought on to help keep Arsenal’s shape and reinforce their left-side in order to keep the opposition at bay or hold onto a vital result. The fact both Monreal and Gibbs are excellent defensively, and going forward, means that they can switch roles to shut out different passages of play from the opposition and mark different players that someone like Cazorla or Podolski, on that left-side, wouldn’t usually mark.

Overall, the point I’m getting at is that Monreal isn’t at Arsenal just to play second fiddle to Gibbs and fill-in when the Englishman is in the “red-zone” or injured. Monreal is here to pair Gibbs on the same pitch in order to help hold on to a result or provide a unique attacking outlet like no other full-back in the squad. Wenger once said that “Monreal can be an attacking threat for us”  and that he’ll be looking to experiment with the two on the pitch at the same time. I think it’d be far too basic and superficial to look at Monreal just as back-up. Wenger has shown that he can play further up the field and will, undoubtedly, flaunt that option and experimentation more often as the season grows old and fixtures start stacking.

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