This season presents Arsene Wenger with arguably the greatest squad depth he has enjoyed in the last ten years. Although none were household names, the summer acquisitions who made made their way to the Emirates this summer have plugged major holes in the Gunners’ squad; Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi and Rob Holding have added much needed steel to a team that was too often bullied last season, whilst Lucas Perez some firepower to a front-line that was too often static.
These signings were obviously then going to create competition for places, due to both their quantity and quality, and push certain players that had been stuck in a comfort zone for too long. However, one of the stories of the season so far is the competition for a place that saw no new acquisitions, and one that has been dominated by the same man for the last 18 months – the battle of the left-backs.
After enduring a slow start in England since making the pilgrimage to North London from Malaga in January 2013, Nacho Monreal has very much made the position his own in the previous two seasons. In doing so, academy graduate Kieran Gibbs has been limited to a role on the substitutes bench, and appearances only in domestic cup competitions, fueling endless speculation of a potential move away. However, the proverbial tide seems to be shifting this season, and after a handful of stellar performances, the question now has to be asked – the Englishman or the Spaniard?
Putting the wobbles of this season aside, the sheer consistency of Monreal over the last two years cannot be ignored. After replacing Gibbs in the side, it’s hard to remember a time the Spaniard put a foot wrong, which is outlined by the statistics. According to Sky Sports, Monreal won more duels than any other Arsenal defender last season, which outlined his defensive reliability. This is a skill that is especially crucial for Arsenal fullbacks as, due to the ‘all-out attack’ nature employed by the wide-midfielders, a fullback who can stand his ground without the cover of his winger is crucial. In addition to his defensive prowess, the former-Malaga man also created the most chances out of all our defenders last term, as well as the most successful passes. These indicate how much of an ‘all-rounder’ he has become since settling into English football, a trait that, due to the inconsistencies of Gibbs, is admired greatly by Le Professeur.
However, this consistency appears to have escaped him during the season so far. Although there are no glaring errors to report on or comedy own-goals, the drop in his form has been noticeable. With only one assist to his name this season, Monreal appears less-comfortable on the ball and off it, and only the pace of his fellow defenders has let him off the hook after being caught out of position on numerous occasions. Although some point to his age now that he is 30, I feel this is somewhat misguided, as he spent the last four months of last season being the same age, and he was great. The problem appears to be the same one that allowed him to replace Gibbs originally – after a long, unchallenged run in the team, he has become complacent.
The situation of Kieran Gibbs meanwhile appears to be almost the exact opposite, as he now plays the part of the homewrecker, trying to claim his position back. After being booted out the team for his Spanish-counterpart two season ago, the Hale End Graduate has, in the few appearances he’s made, looked a heck of a lot more like the end product we’d all hoped he would become. As well as his defensive abilities looking a great deal better, especially in one vs one situations, he also has a new-found decisiveness in the final third; this decisiveness was outlined in our 4-1 victory over Basel on Tuesday night, a game in which Gibbs claimed three assists in 47 minutes (3 times the amount Paul Pogba has managed all season). Strength sessions have also ensured that he trumps his rival physically too, another trait that, in the Premier League especially, is vital.
After analyzing these points, it’s clear that, while this is a dilemma for Wenger and one he ought to sort, such is the quality of both players that neither one can be considered a significant downgrade on the other, such is the quality of the squad. That being said, squad depth is there for a reason, and that is to provide competition for places, so that when the form of one dips, another can step in and provide a quality alternative for the team. Therefore, it is hard to argue against the case to give Gibbs a run in the team; Monreal has not been terrible, but he has not been convincing at times, and Gibbs has looked more than solid when called upon, and gives a different outlet from defense – if he is not used now, you have to ask yourself, when will he be?