After replacing Kieran Gibbs in the starting lineup, could Nacho Monreal be Arsenal’s most improved player this season?

In early January, primary leftback Kieran Gibbs picked up an injury to his foot, which promised to keep him out of action for a couple of months.

Arsenal fans everywhere let out a collective groan, not just because the talented youngster can’t seem to go more than a few months before picking up a knock, which usually translates into several matches away from the pitch, but also because his replacement didn’t exactly fill us with confidence.

Panic Buy

I’ve never had anything against Nacho Monreal.

We signed him from Malaga in the winter transfer window of the 2012/13 season as a necessity due to our lack of decent defenders. Gibbs had been ruled out for three weeks and our other options were thin. Monreal was known to be versatile and, as the BBC reported at the time, also had seven caps for Spain.

However, before the 2014/15 season, the 29-year-old had only made 22 Premier League appearances for Arsenal.

Gibbs, on the other hand, despite injury issues, was a seasoned pro in comparison, having made more appearances just last season alone.

Although Gibbs was known for not being reliable in terms of fitness, on the field he’d turned into a complete professional and his tenacity when he was on the pitch had earned him a place in most Arsenal fans’ hearts. His pace and hunger to get forward, as well as do the dirty work in defence is what still makes him an asset to the team.

Therefore, you can’t blame us for being a little bit edgy when Monreal was set to take his place for a prolonged amount of time.

Little did we know the quiet, unassuming Spaniard would manage to nudge Gibbs out of the first team upon his return to fitness and subsequently worm his way into our somewhat damaged and icy Gooner hearts.

Steady Improvement

Since joining the squad and, more importantly, playing regularly week in, week out in our first team, Monreal has improved hugely. Not just in terms of his actual defensive work, like his blocks, interceptions, clearances and tackle rates, which, on average per game, have all roughly doubled since last season.

His attacking prowess has become an integral part of our build up play. His pace, agility, ability to hold up the ball and decision making when it comes to getting forward has helped us get in behind numerous teams’ defences this season.

In addition, his new found confidence makes him almost unrecognisable on the pitch and it’s fantastic to see.

When he scored the first goal at Old Trafford in the FA Cup with what was one of the best finishes I’ve seen this season, I couldn’t have been happier for him.

Often, a defender’s job is a thankless one, as they don’t get the glory of scoring all-important winning goals. However, he got to experience that adrenaline and that recognition, which most Arsenal fans have been showering him with for most of the second half the season.

A noteworthy point is that Monreal doesn’t just perform in the ‘easier’ matches. Although his performances in games against Aston Villa and Stoke were nothing short of superb, his big game displays have been just as good, if not better.

I think a real watershed moment was his attitude from the start to the finish of the Manchester City match at the Etihad. He was composed and professional throughout and really solidified his position in the team and proved he was supposed to be there.

He and Francis Coquelin in particular remained assured and kept their wits about them to help ensure a well-fought victory that day, and it didn’t go unnoticed.

More recently, not only did he score in the FA Cup tie against Manchester United, but he put a tremendous shift into his defensive game to prevent us from conceding against a strong, star-studded attack (and Marouane Fellaini).

Even more recently, against Monaco away, while writing my notes for the Player Ratings, I noticed that Monreal would attack every ball – often coming out the winner – and his interception rate was admirable.

He never hides and works so, so hard to chase down the opposition, gain possession and make a positive, considered pass. His short passing in particular is incredibly accurate and when he does make a long pass, it’s intelligent.

Unfounded Anxiety

Were we right to be concerned about Monreal in the first place?

Not at all.

As ever, kneejerk reactions and the possibility of yet another player being out for a long period of time made us overlook the key facts.

Talksport brought up some interesting statistics around the time Gibbs got injured, which actually pointed out that our win percentage with Monreal is better than with the Englishman. In fact, Monreal had the third highest win rate (53.3%) in our whole team before Gibbs was even laid off. What’s more, is that Gibbs had one of the highest loss rates (27.8%).

Is it possible that we could be in a far worse position at this stage in the season if Gibbs hadn’t been injured and Monreal hadn’t subsequently taken his place in the first team?

As ever, we could drive ourselves mad considering ‘what if’ scenarios.

However, what is certain is that Nacho Monreal, originally a squad player, is now an integral part of our team and is finally getting the recognition he deserves.