Arsenal FC have enjoyed a good run of form in recent weeks, albeit winning most of their matches by a margin of 1-0. With 2 games left to be played and Arsenal’s Champions League aspirations not entirely in their own hands, the Londoners can leave nothing to chance in the run-in. With Giroud suspended for 1 more game and Wilshere not at 100%, the team mostly picks itself. Except for the left-back spot. Gibbs had a slight thigh strain on Saturday against the R’s as a result of which Monreal started at Loftus Road. When Arsene Wenger bought the Spaniard back in January, the signing was celebrated unanimously by Gooners as it signaled the end for Brazilian calamity defender Andre Santos at the club.
Both Gibbs and Monreal have impressed and made sure they don’t give up their place to the other without putting up a fight and this is exactly what gives Arsene Wenger a dilemma. Which of the two starts next season as first-choice will depend a lot on Gibbs’ fitness and what happens in the summer pre-season training camps but looking at the current status of things, the decision will be marginal and hardly conclusive. What it will mean though, is a fierce sense of competition within the squad which can only be a positive for a side that aspires to compete for titles. Keeping each other on the toes, who will come out on top by mid-August when the next season kicks off? Only a comparative study of both the players will help us get a better picture of why, how and who fits the gaffer’s plans more and deserves to be the first-choice left-back for the Gunners.
Style of Play
Monreal is one of those more defensive-minded full-backs who cautiously join the attack when the attackers are playing high up the pitch. A major reason for this could be his consciousness about his pace or rather the lack of it, that makes him hold himself back to avoid getting caught out of position.
Pace isn’t a problem for academy graduate Gibbs, who is one of the quickest full-backs in the league. The Englishman is a balanced defender, joining in attacks at every opportunity, providing options when counter attacking and also dropping back when defending. Not just that, their defending style is as different as chalk and cheese. Monreal tends to just keep up with the attacker, tracking him, shadowing him, trying to second guess the attacker until he is in a threatening position.
Gibbs on the other hand attacks the ball more. tends to commit to the tackle and thus tends to commit fouls more often. Though the positive is that Gibbs goes for the ball higher up the pitch rather than waiting for the attack to reach it’s ignition point unlike Monreal who tends to close spaces.
Tackling and Defending
Both of Arsenal’s left-backs have had solid seasons thus far, with most opponent attacks coming down the right hand side of defence rather than the left side. Monreal in his time at Malaga earlier this season average 2 tackles per game, while Gibbs before Monreal’s arrival averaged 3.1 per game. Monreal. despite lower tackling numbers tends to foul as often as Gibbs, something that indicates his discomfort at getting too close to the attacker and not very certain when to put in a foot. Both the players have almost equal fouling numbers(0.6 for Nacho and 0.7 for Gibbs) but what stands out is the area of the pitch they concede the fouls. Most of Monreal’s 6 fouls have been in the attacking third with only 1 being in midfield.
Gibbs, on the other hand, despite conceding 17 fouls this season in the league, has only conceded 10 of those in the final 3rd, 5 in midfield and 2 in the attacking third. This forms a good basis to judge their desire to get the ball and reading the opponent’s build-up play. Another similar feature to both players is their knack of intercepting the ball by stating off early and thus breaking up play. Mikel Arteta is the only Arsenal player to have made more interceptions than Monreal and Gibbs, who average almost 2.5 interceptions per game. When seen in isolation the interception numbers could make one wonder which of these two protect their flank better, but when seen holistically alongside the tackles and fouls conceded, it gives a clearer picture about their defensive nous. Against QPR, Monreal conceded a critical foul on Townsend on Saturday and looked extremely susceptible throughout the game due to his hesitant tackling.
Gibbs, despite his injury troubles, is a better recovery defender and trumps Monreal not only in terms of pace but also in terms of getting back after losing out on the ball once. In a team that isn’t very comfortable defending deep, it’s Gibbs who suits the team more, though if Wenger needed to make a decision on being the more reliable defender, especially in tough away fixtures, Monreal should have a better shout, being more of a waiting and more cautious defender.
Passing and Attacking Threat
Andre Santos was the most attack-minded left-back at the club and despite neither of Gibbs nor Monreal being as attack-minded, they are extremely comfortable on the ball. The Spaniard is slightly more conservative in attack, providing the extra width in attack
but seldom does he look to find space and play a one-two if possible. Though he can be credited for being more liberal when it comes to shooting, taking shots from distance if and when required. One of which brought the crucial breakthrough against Swansea in the league and happens to be the former Malaga man’s only goal for the club.
Gibbs, on the other hand, is more of a pass-and-move player, and has the tendency to look out for players in better positions, going to the byline and making cut backs or floating the ball in the D for one of the attackers to attack the ball. Gibbs attempts more crosses, trying 0.6 crosses per game whereas Monreal only averages a lowly 0.3 crosses in a game though with a superior accuracy. With most of the wide players on the left – be it Cazorla, Podolski or Gervinho, all tending to drift in more often than not, the full-back provides another dimension in attack.
Key passes become a vital entity and it’s no surprise that Gibbs leads the charts by quite some distance. In fact, only Cazorla, Wilshere and Ramsey have made more key passes per game than the young Englishman, who averages 1.1 key passes per game way more than Rosicky and Arteta, 2 of the better passers in the side. Monreal, on the other hand, averages 0.7 key passes per game. Not a bad number for a defender but when seen comparatively alongside Gibbs, only highlights how much of the attack flows through Gibbs when he’s playing. Earlier on in the season with Podolski playing in front of him, Gibbs not only played his best football but also brought the best out of Podolski as well allowing him more opportunity to float in and out from the left. Monreal on the other hand, is a good passer of the ball but it’s his lack of innovation in the attacking third that limits the team’s attacks. Against QPR and Fulham, he was pinned down for almost the entire game in the defensive half, and his lack of pace limits his participation in the quick breaks as well.
Arsenal has always produced some of the top left-backs in the country and with Monreal joining the club, the Gunners can now boast of two brilliant left-sided defenders in the country who will compete with each other for the starting spot. Healthy competition within the ranks is the signature of team depth and is a good headache for the manager to have. Full-back is one of the most important role in football today and the Gunners are lucky to have two such competent candidates to choose from.
As things stand, Gibbs will need to stay fit along with performing whenever given an opportunity. His presence on the left makes Arsenal look a lot more threatening attacking-wise than without him. Monreal is a solid defender and will be more important in away games where teams will be expected to push Arsenal back in the bud. Pace could be a problem both in attack and defence and could just the force the issue in favour of Gibbs. However what this situation means for the club is that there is a good healthy competition for places and gives Wenger the opportunity to rotate and have different options for different situations. As long as both remain fit, and continue to put in top drawer performances, no one is complaining.