Arsenal’s academy specialises in left backs.
In the Wenger years we have seen the likes of Ashley Cole, Gael Clichy and most recently Kieran Gibbs roll off the production line and enjoy significant success.
In fact, consistency in that position is something of a trademark, with just four regular left backs in 34 years. Bob McNab held the position from 1966-75, making 368 appearances in the process before Sammy Nelson came through the youth ranks to make 338 appearances between 1975 and 1981. Then Kenny Sansom (394 appearances) and Nigel Winterburn (579 appearances) covered the next 20 years in Arsenal history from 1980-2000.
Ashley Cole and Gael Clichy may not quite have achieved the longevity of their predecessors but they each amassed more than 200 appearances for the Gunners.
Kieran Gibbs now has 180 appearances and counting, 75 of which came over the last couple of seasons. He was finally handed the much coveted – and traditional left back – shirt on the departure of Bacary Sagna and at 25 he has now reached an age where he should kick on. More importantly, he’ll be doing that kicking on at Arsenal.
But there’s one little thing – or more accurately, one person – standing in his way: Nacho Monreal.
It’s a subject of much debate over at Daily Cannon Towers as to which of our aspiring left backs should be first choice. It’s a contentious issue, but here I come down on one side of the fence.
In 2014-15, Gibbs started as undeniably the first choice left back, and usually that would be that. But Monreal was drafted in to play alongside him at centre back, and impressed. It seems that all the things that have previously been issues for Monreal at left back were either useful at centre half or corrected by playing there.
Take his decision making – Monreal typically likes to stand off his player slightly which at left back leaves him on the back foot against pacy wingers who can go around him either way. At centre back it allows fellow defenders time to get back and means that strikers are forced to go wide or take him on when he knows where they would like to go.
Gibbs on the other hand has a tendency to commit to an interception or a challenge (compare tackle stats?) which means that while he can be overzealous he is also able to turn the team around and set them back on the attack more often. He also has a knack of making excellent saving challenges and goal line clearances – the game against West Brom on the last day of the 20xx season springs mind – it’s a handy habit to have.
There is no denying that Monreal is the better centre back option – he is better in the air, more conservative and more experienced.
However, Gibbs excels at getting up and down the left side, particularly with no support and reads the game better when it comes to making interceptions. He’s essentially a very solid defender who also offers a lot going forward.
Can the statistics tell us anything?
It’s difficult to compare the two players statistics wise, as a chunk of Monreal’s game time this season came in a different position, Gibbs has had a higher proportion of his games off the subs bench, and the team as a whole was set up better during the period Monreal played regularly compared to his English counterpart. There’s little to choose between them other than in the aerial department in 2014-15, and they were much of a muchness the previous season also, but this time Gibbs had the better heading figures.
Playing at centre back has definitely improved Monreal’s game leaps and bounds, but I would argue that improvement was much needed – he lacks Gibbs’ pace and has a habit of turning the wrong way when being taken on by the opposition wideman which meant that he was a weak link in our back four, particularly when regularly allied with the defensively apathetic Podolski. I still can’t shake the idea that if a tricky winger is running at my full back, I would prefer Gibbs to be the one standing in the way over Monreal, improvement or no improvement.
Gibbs has a good balance between committing to challenges when there’s cover, and stalling the opposition while others get back if there is not. With the energetic Alexis playing ahead of the first choice left back, and the disciplined Coquelin patrolling the width of the pitch, there is perhaps now less need for a full back who handles defending without support as well as Gibbs does.
However, the Englishman offers much more going forwards than his Spanish rival, getting to the byline more regularly and providing a better outlet when Alexis cuts in. It’s something that Monreal has clearly worked on, and his understanding with Santi Cazorla definitely helps in this area, but he still lags behind in dynamism if not in effort.
Finding the right balance
The beauty of having two quality left backs is that Arsene can play a tactical game and choose the best player for a particular match.
The difficulty with that tactic is that both Gibbs and Monreal notably play better when given a run of games in the team.
A conundrum then.
The answer perhaps lies on who nails down the other full back slot – Debuchy is a more natural defender than Bellerin, sitting deeper and in doing so offering the left back my license to roam, while the young Spaniard takes every opportunity to get forward and requiring a more conservative approach on the left.
Arsene has always shown a focus on this fine balance, with various centre backs deployed on the right to balance his marauding left backs. If he continues with this strategy then Gibbs will surely be the best man for the job. However, if Bellerin continues to cling tight to his place in the first team, Kieran may find he has to adapt to the more conservative style that has served Nacho so well this season.
In my opinion, Gibbs is the better player with the greater potential, but Monreal finds himself in a team that is displaying good balance at the moment.
If Gibbs can add to his game the ability to switch between marauding winger and solid defender in the manner that Ashley Cole mastered, he will become the player for every situation, where at the moment each of them has their day in the sun. Roy Hodgson clearly has faith in Gibbs, playing him in recent internationals despite not holding down his spot in the Arsenal team, so it will be interesting to see if Arsene does the same this season.
He may well be hoping that Gibbs can develop further into that role that Cole was able to play so well: being an extra man in attack when Arsenal needed a goal, yet switching into being a dedicated defender when we held a lead or needed to dig in. At 25, it’s Gibbs’ time to show that he can play with that level of maturity and versatility too.
In the meantime, I wouldn’t like to be Arsene Wenger.
Check back on Sunday (11pm BST) to hear the other side of the debate when Lewis will be making the case for Nacho Monreal.