Q: How do you keep two left backs happy?
A: Change to a back three so you can play one of them at left centre half and the other at left wing back.
We’ve seen Arsene experiment with Gibbs as a left midfield to offer extra protection for Monreal as we look to close out matches. Generally, though, it’s been a case of either or.
Most of the Daily Cannon gang met up for last week’s clash against United – those who are local to London plus our esteemed colleagues from Croatia anyway! As we whiled away the evening in the Tolly, talk turned to which of Arsenal’s left sided defenders we each favour. Opinion was divided.
The trouble is: Gibbs and Monreal have very different strengths and weaknesses. Switching between the two completely changes how we play.
They’re ying and yang
Kieran Gibbs has long been regarded as the heir to the left back throne, similar in theory to one Ashley Cole who – for all his personality flaws – was a fantastic full back.
He’s very quick, comfortable on the ball and has been at the club so long that claiming Arsenal DNA wouldn’t be that radical.
Nacho Monreal arrived on the scene in January 2013, 18 months after the departure of Gael Clichy. The Spaniard struggled to permanently displace Gibbs – with Bacary Sagna a non-existent threat on the right side of defence, the team wasn’t set up to function with a second conservative full back.
Technically very sound, Nacho lacks Gibbs’ explosive pace and plays much closer to his centre back in a back four. He’s often been preferred for his extra height too, especially since we moved to zonal marking from set pieces. Since Hector Bellerin claimed the right back berth, his more cautious approach has aligned better with the team’s needs.
And that’s the key – in a four man defence you need balance, but Arsenal’s two recognised left backs serve the team in different ways.
Different defensive approaches
Where Nacho is king of the interception. His relative lack of pace means that he can’t get caught in a foot race with wingers – the player himself has said he prefers (and is more successful) playing against tricky players rather than speed merchants. Moreover, when he does have to track an opponent, Monreal has a habit of turning the wrong way to change direction, turning his back on player and ball, and in the process ending up in a bit of a pickle.
So instead, his reading of the game is critical. He is able to close passing lanes and time his movements to cut the ball off at source. When players do get beyond him, we have problems – it’s not an uncommon sight to see Nacho flying out towards a winger about to cross the ball, but from too far back, too little too late – no wonder then that he prefers to prevent those situations arising in the first place.
Gibbo, on the other hand, tends to close down opponents to stop them progressing up the wing, rather than preventing them getting the ball in the first place. He’d back himself in a foot race, so as long as he gets tight quickly enough, they can’t get a running start on him.
His recovery pace has another consequence too. He has a proven track record of making last ditch, game-saving covering tackles. Think 3-2 away at West Brom in injury time on the last day of the 2012 season – a win that gave us 3rd place at Spurs’ expense and saw them miss out on Champions League football due to Chelsea’s success. Or at 2-0 down in the 2014 FA Cup Final. Those contributions effectively gave us European qualification and a trophy.
Different attacking approaches too
Gibbs also tends to have more of an impact in the other half of the pitch. His pace serves as an asset for getting to the byline and allowing him to cut back a cross, and he’s more comfortable making a run in behind than Monreal. The Spaniard is perhaps more involved in the deeper build up play, prepared to carry the ball forward, but rarely will he made an overlapping run beyond the likes of Alexis Sanchez.
It shows in the numbers. Since Nacho’s first full season, Gibbs has 2 goals and 11 assists, and Monreal 2 goals and 8 assists. The Englishman’s numbers have come in significantly fewer games though, starting 93 compared to 149 for his Spanish teammate. On a per start basis, that works out at double the attacking contribution – 0.14 per game compared to 0.07.
More notably though, Monreal’s numbers have picked up since getting a steady run of games in the team, while Gibbs had a particularly poor season in 2015-16 when he made more substitute appearances than starts and contributed a solitary goal and no assist from his 29 games. No, form is clearly a key influence in performance for both players, and to the naked eye Gibbs has definitely looked less confident this season, especially in attack. Small wonder when he didn’t start consecutive league games at all this season while we fielded a back four.
Let four become three
The truth is, neither man is a born full back. Monreal is a touch too conservative by most metrics, while Gibbs is perhaps slightly too far the other way. Monreal likes to play holding his centre back’s hand, while Gibbs prefers to get touch tight on the sideline, leaving a gaping hole between him and his centre back partner.
The switch to a back three at such a late stage in the season, and therefore without having worked on it enough in training, sees us look vulnerable at times. We haven’t worked out who should pick up each man when an opposition overloads the wing back – more on that another time. However, it has allowed us to bring Gibbs and Monreal into the same team, utilising each of their strengths and relieving the pressure on their weaknesses.
Monreal is able to play close to the central defender, but his experience as a left back also makes him the ideal candidate to sweep out to cover the wide channels in the same way that Azpilicueta has had much success. Meanwhile Gibbs is able to play with chalk on his boots, and bomb up and down the wing all game long without overly exposing his side to counter attacks.
As a full back, each has his flaws. As a left-sided partnership, it might be that we’ve finally found the answer to both their individual problems and the collective vulnerability.
But we wouldn’t want to get ahead of ourselves now, would we?!