At 31 years old, Nacho Monreal faced a crossroad last spring.
Much like the club itself, Monreal desperately needed a change. He struggled for form at left back during most of Arsenal’s toxic campaign. The implementation of the three at the back was the change he needed, but not the change most expected. For every physical intangible one might desire in a centre-back, Nacho Monreal misses the target across the board. He isn’t tall, strong, or good in the air. But what he lacks in physicality he makes up for in his smart and crafty play. Nacho Monreal put his intelligence to work and was simply a revelation in the final weeks of last season’s campaign.
Despite all his success, and as much as the Spaniard continued to star towards the end of the previous campaign and even during pre-season, supporters were rightfully looking for a legitimate centre-back to play alongside Koscielny and Mustafi. Arsenal’s summer, again, ended in failure. Among other frustrations, the club let go of multiple defenders and received none in return. Other than hope of a continued Rob Holding emergence, and an outside chance of Calum Chambers, Monreal remained Arsenal’s only other option at the back.
As an “out of position” player, Monreal has also been the subject of much debate and subsequently an inordinate amount of criticism, especially when the club struggles for form. In the first few matches of the 2017-18 campaign, Arsenal’s defense struggled mightily. Among woeful displays from the entire squad, Monreal was placed front and center in the media’s blame game. While discussing his picks for an Arsenal-Chelsea combined XI, Paul Merson claimed that, “Nacho Monreal wouldn’t get in if I was picking a combined XI against a bottom-half team…”
Nacho started the premier league season slowly, but he was not alone. Defensive issues and a weak midfield presence have plagued this club for years. But in the case of Monreal, he takes an enormous amount of undeserved heat for his play. To prove why Nacho Monreal is unequivocally Arsenal’s “unsung hero”, take a look at the statistics behind Montreal’s “dreadful” early season performances that deemed him reserve worthy to Merson and other critics. Through the first few games of the season prior to Merson’s comments, Monreal posted 0.25 defensive errors per 90 minutes and a 90% passing accuracy. Although his defensive errors at the time weren’t sublime, they were far from the horrendous mess described. In fact, none of his errors led directly to a goal. Fast forward to the present, Monreal currently leads Arsenals defense almost every defensive category. He leads the squad with 14 total tackles won (3.2 per 90 minutes), 15 interceptions and 23 clearances [per Squawka]. Yet, he still remains largely “out of his depth,” rather than a deserved starter.
Can he can be frustrating to watch at time, yes. His height makes him liability in the air and he is simply not trained (or built) to be centre-back, but he is one of the hardest working players on the pitch and refuses to give a game away, regardless of the circumstances. In a side that puts their heads down quickly, Nacho is the first to hold the other players accountable on the pitch and rally the troops. Arsenal’s inconsistent and sloppy play to start the year has caused Monreal’s consistent effort to fly under the radar. Sead Kolasinac, already a cult hero, has received enormous praise for his play thus far, but it’s important to recognize the partnership he and Nacho have built to make Kolasinac’s deep runs into the attacking third a possibility.
At the end of the day, Monreal may not be Arsenal’s most talented, fastest, strongest, or even most consistent player. He, however, remains invaluable to the squad and his play on the pitch directly correlates with Arsenal’s success. It shouldn’t take an incredible goal line clearance to get the recognition he deserves.
Update (1 Oct 2017): Monreal scored the opener against Brighton, just for good measure.