This season, the competition for places in the Arsenal XI is intense. Nowhere is that more true than at full-back.
On the right-hand side, the exciting youngster Hector Bellerin is locked in fierce competition with experienced France international Mathieu Debuchy. Meanwhile, on the left flank, a similarly close battle is being fought between Kieran Gibbs and Nacho Monreal.
In some respects, it’s a surprise there’s a debate at all. A year ago, the idea that Monreal could be Arsenal’s first-choice left-back seemed somewhat fanciful. The Spaniard was coming off the back of a very difficult season, with several appearances—such as a diabolical display in the 6-3 mauling at Manchester City—proving memorable for all the wrong reasons.
However, by the end of the 2014/15 campaign, Monreal had climbed above Gibbs in the pecking order.
He initially broke into the team as a centre-half. An injury crisis combined with a lack of transfer activity saw Arsene Wenger forced to shift Monreal inside to an unfamiliar role. Although he had played briefly as a centre-back in a back three with Malaga, he’d never previously filled the role in a 4-4-2.
It must have come as a shock to the Spaniard, but he adapted impressively to the new position. Monreal’s spell in the centre reminded the Arsenal fans—and, crucially, Wenger—of his intelligent positional play and man-marking skills. Although he was occasionally outmuscled by the league’s burlier centre-halves, such as Swansea’s Bafetimbi Gomis, he did adapt surprisingly well to the physical nature of the role.
Sometimes being deployed out of position can damage a player’s confidence. Andrey Arshavin endured a difficult spell as a centre-forward that precipitated the decline in form that led to his release from Arsenal. Monreal’s career might have gone the same way. His transition from reserve left-back to emergency centre-back might have been the end of him.
However, he responded to the adversity superbly, showing a toughness that he retained when restored to his preferred position. Ever since then, Monreal has been a player transformed. He went through the fire and emerged the other side as a more competent full-back.
Over the same period of time, Gibbs’ progress appears to have stalled. There were high hopes for him when he broke into the team as a teenager. His athleticism and attacking instincts were reminiscent of a young Ashley Cole—like Cole, Gibbs was also an academy product who had begun his career as a winger.
However, he has not kicked on as Wenger might have hoped. Although now over the injury problems that dogged the early part of his career, Gibbs is still guilty of some of the errors that littered his younger years. He likes to push up the field and play on the front foot, and that can lead to him being caught out of position.
That was particularly obvious in 2013/14’s 6-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge, in which his starting position seemed to be around the halfway line.
What’s more, for an attacking full-back, his contribution in the final third can be somewhat limited. He has the speed and stamina to get to the byline but not always the necessary craft to fashion a goalscoring opportunity. Despite several years in the first team, his crossing has not improved significantly.
From a defensive point of view, Monreal is the more solid option. Arsenal have attacking players with the ability to unlock defences—what they need is to pick a back four best equipped to protect their own goal. In the last couple of years, a greater degree of pragmatism has crept into Wenger’s tactical setup. At the present time, it seems the Frenchman recognises that Monreal offers more protection than the erratic Gibbs.
For example, he won 54 percent of his duels last season as opposed to Gibbs' ratio of 48 percent*. The major difference is in the air—Gibbs won just 39 percent of his aerial battles, while Monreal triumphed on a remarkable 62 percent of occasions. That’s a pretty impressive stat. By way of comparison, the towering Olivier Giroud has only a marginally better success rate at 67 percent.
Monreal and Gibbs are exactly the same height, yet the Spaniard is comfortably better in the air. Remarkably, it seems it all stems from that spell at centre-half. It accelerated his acclimatisation to the Premier League and readied him for the physical battering that’s inevitable when teams target full-backs with long cross-field passes.
Back in 2013/14, Monreal won just 43 percent of his aerial battles. His improvement since then has been dramatic and definitive.
There’s also a balance issue to consider. Wenger tends to field one attacking full-back and one who is slightly more conservative. When he had the solid Bacary Sagna tucked in alongside Per Mertesacker, Gibbs was the more complementary choice. However, now that Bellerin has burst ahead of Debuchy in the race for a starting place, Monreal makes more sense. While one Spaniard bombs on, the other can sit back and provide cover.
The one advantage Gibbs has is that he seems to have struck up a decent understanding with Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal’s customary left winger. When the Chilean drives infield, Gibbs makes the overlap and ensures the team still plays with width on that flank. However, it’s also worth pointing out that picking Monreal liberates Alexis from much of his defensive responsibility and enables him to go safely wandering. He remains the safe choice.
Monreal is four years older than Gibbs. His development, aged 29, suggests there is still time for Gibbs to kick on and become the player many assumed he would be by now. However, for the time being, Monreal has the edge.
In the modern game, there is room for rotation. Due to the sheer number of fixtures Arsenal face, both players will get plenty of game time.
Nevertheless, when it comes to the crunch, Wenger will want to have his best back four in place. Make no mistake: Nacho Monreal is a key part of that. Gibbs will have to bide his time while the Spaniard reaps the benefit of his eye-catching transformation into a highly reliable Premier League defender.
*All stats via Squawka