Nacho Monreal has gone from being a decent left-back, to a key central defender for Arsenal in 2017, and has been the Gunners’ most-improved player of the year.
In truth, there are several players who would qualify for this title, but I feel the Spaniard’s surprise renaissance in a new role is worthy of commendation.
Arsenal started the year poorly. Their title challenge completely collapsed, and woeful form between February and April saw them drop out of the Premier League top-four entirely.
It wasn’t until April that the team rallied for a top-four finish, as well as winning the FA Cup – their third in four seasons.
During that time, Nacho Monreal looked an unremarkable and declining left-back. The 2016/17 season saw a number of sides target him in games due to his declining pace and the lack of assistance he got on that flank. He wasn’t an obvious weak link, but it was becoming apparent that his ability to keep up with pacey wingers was waning.
The change of formation in April gave him a new lease of life. Initially, he moved up into the left wing-back role. While he didn’t have the pace, the timing of his movement enabled him to be a threat going forward, while the additional centre-back provided him cover up against those wingers he struggled with earlier in the season.
It was from this position that he scored in the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City. The right wing-back, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, produced a magnificent cross to find the Spaniard steaming in at the back-post. With the confidence of a seasoned centre-forward, he volleyed it in first time to get Arsenal level.
Injuries and suspensions to Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny meant Monreal had to fill in at centre-back. He was no stranger to this position, having operated there numerous times during his Arsenal career, so it was no surprise to see him barely put a foot out of place in the FA Cup final against Chelsea.
The assumption was, going into this season, that Monreal would be relegated to back-up for new left wing-back Sead Kolasinac. However, he clearly did enough to convince Wenger he could be a more permanent option in the back three. All of his appearances this season have come as part of the three-man defence.
Monreal won’t impress us with his physique or athleticism, but his reading of the game and confidence when stepping out of defence in possession show he’s enjoying a new lease of life. He’s a snug fit in our defence, so much so that thoughts of needing a new centre-back have been put to one side for the time being.
He’s formed an excellent understanding with Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi, helping Arsenal to become a more solid defensive unit, while frequently topping the defensive stats in games.
So accustomed to going under the radar, he’s now front and centre of Arsenal’s best players this season. At this rate, he could be a contender for Player of the Year. It’s quite an improvement for somebody you’d barely notice playing in the past.