“What is important is that you bring in players who can strengthen your team, or you do nothing, you’re strong enough to do nothing. We could do with top quality, one more, but you have to find him. If I bring a normal player in, I give the club a problem.” – Arsene Wenger
There was much debate that the mighty Arsene Wenger would let us down yet again in the transfer window and that he would not reinforce the team with the necessary parts to at least qualify for Champions League next year. However, it appeared the old, wise man still had a trick up his sleeve and he deceived us all. At the 11th hour of the January 31st transfer deadline, Arsene perhaps pulled off the most significant coup in the January window: Malaga’s starting Left Back, Nacho Monreal.
Before you rush to proclaim that Chelsea did good business with Ba and Newcastle with Yanga-Mbiwa and Sissoko, you need to understand my criteria for rating Nacho as the highest quality signing. Nacho was one of the few transfers not subject to: 1) a buy-out clause or an expiring contract, 2) under performance at his respective club or 3) a falling out with either the manager or club. He’s also a Spanish International playing back-up to one of the best LBs in the world in Jordi Alba, and the whole Spanish squad itself is considered to represent the golden generation of football.
Nacho was a former product of struggling side Osasuna before making the first major move of his career to Malaga in 2011. Last season, Monreal out-dueled Eliseu for the starting LB role, and was an integral part of their surprising Champions League qualification and 4th place finish in La Liga.
It was rumoured that he started learning English last year in preparation of a move to Arsenal this summer, and that our very own Santi played a huge role in persuading the Spanish International to join him at the Emirates.
However, the process was immediately sped up due to Kieran Gibbs’ injury yesterday. This short-term injury could end up being a blessing in disguise, since we had an immediate need for cover at LB and Nacho is widely considered to be the second best LB in La Liga by a host of Spanish papers. This is particularly impressive when you consider some of the LBs currently plying their trade in La Liga: Fabio Coentrao, Marcelo, Filipe Luis, Aly Cissoko, Adriano etc.
He has a relatively good track record for avoiding injuries and the only significant time he missed was two months in both 2008/09 (malleolar injury) and 2010/11 (meniscal laceration). This season he dealt with some back problems in October that kept him out for just over a month, but everything seems to be cleared up now.
I’ve had the pleasure of watching Nacho play with Malaga for a little over a year now and I truly believe we have bought a special player who is astute at both ends of the pitch. Defensively his positional play and awareness are good, he’s not afraid to get involved physically and is noted to be quite decent in aerial duels. Still, like most Spanish players, he is better known for his great ball control and the innate ability to play tiki taka football to escape pressure. Nacho has good pace and the stamina to run up and down the pitch for an entire game, with a penchant for good link up play with his forwards.
With that said, Nacho’s game is not flashy and he doesn’t have one particular skill that will blow you away. He doesn’t have blistering pace or slick dribbling skills; he’s a well composed, steadying presence at the back that Arsenal will be able to rely on game after game. His tackling and ability to close down on players one on one is quite outstanding, as he’s had an 83% tackle success rate this year, compared to Kieran Gibbs’ 69%. Nacho has averaged 2.1 tackles and 2.1 interceptions per game, while also contributing 1 goal, 2 assists, 0.8 shots/game and 0.4 key passes/game in 14 appearances for Malaga in La Liga this year.
In his Osasuna days, he really had to work on his crossing and delivery since the aerial attack was the focal point of their offense (Osasuna’s playing style is the closest thing to StokeCity in La Liga). Despite Nacho’s statistics showing that he has only successfully completed 6 of 25 crosses this year, one must bear in mind that Malaga’s attack is focused around playing the ball along the ground, with a balanced approach down the wings and through the middle. I suspect that Nacho’s crossing ability has been under utilized at Malaga and believe that Giroud can be the immediate beneficiary of his early or late crossing ability; now that Nacho will be given the license to do so more often.
There has been a lot of praise about the blossoming partnership between Podolski and Gibbs, and fans were particularly concerned when Gibbs went down with a hamstring injury for the second time yesterday. I see no reason why the partnership cannot continue, and most likely improve, with Nacho at the LB position – his passing is more accurate and his defensive play is stronger since he was brought up through the ranks as a genuine fullback. One must bear in mind that Gibbs was originally a winger who was converted to a fullback and this is the cause for his occasional mental lapses in defensive zone coverage.
One might wonder what the signing of Nacho means to the long-term future of Kieran Gibbs. Fortunately, Nacho is not seen as a long-term replacement for Gibbs since he will turn 27 this February, and will bring some much needed competition, experience and depth to the LB position. Nacho will act as an invaluable mentor and his natural talents in crossing, positional play and technical ability can be passed on to Gibbs.
Gibbs’ injury history has been well documented and this will give him the opportunity to not be so heavily relied upon, and the necessary rest to prevent injuries. However, Nacho is cup tied with Malaga and will not be able to feature for Arsenal when they take on Bayern Munich on February 19th. Luckily, Gibbs may be back to full fitness by then and Arsene can ensure that when he does return, he will not be unnecessarily rushed back into the first team for both Champions League and domestic games.
Going forward this purchase will undoubtedly be a massive boost for our team and perhaps reignite the play of our own little creative wizard, Santi, who formed a fantastic partnership down the left with Nacho at Malaga last year. It’s also a signal of intent to the rest of the Premier League that Arsenal is still capable of attracting top quality talent and actually has the financial resources at its disposal. Don’t be fooled by the relatively modest £8 million transfer fee involved with the purchase of Nacho Monreal; Arsenal were just fortunate to once again capitalize on the dire financial situation plaguing Malaga CF and most of Spain.
Here’s to wishing that Nacho has a successful Arsenal career and that his transition into our squad is seamless!
Written By: The Gooner