I am going to cut to the chase here; I think Saturday’s mixed bag of a display from Arsenal identified more problems on Arsenal’s left than was exposed by the speed of Barrow. Selecting a team to challenge in any given match and indeed for the Premier League has to be about the right balance and full use of the larger deeper squad Wenger has at his disposal. Wenger traditionally is not a huge rotator within the squad and likes to adhere to a winning formula when he finds one but is that the way to win the title? Loyalty is commendable, as is the old adage of ‘you have the shirt son, keep playing well and you will keep it’ but are they outdated sentiments in this modern era?
I am the biggest Montreal convert but there are signs that his excellent positioning, which had seen him make the left back spot his own, and earned him the ‘Mr Consistent’ tag may not always be enough. I am not sure if he has lost a yard of speed but since about March he had been left stranded on several occasions. Obviously Mane on the inside in the season opener and Barrow on Saturday are among the quickest wide men he will face but the former left Nacho as a statue cutting inside and the latter on the outside.
Not that we should be too swift to discard the Spaniard who had just earned an international recall, far from it. But if we accept that Arsenal have 2 players for each position then might we not take advantage of that? Monreal is 31 in February and not about to get quicker and Kieran Gibbs is 27 with his peak years arguably ahead of him. Gibbs has over 200 games under his belt by Arsenal, 10 international caps and most crucially has more speed and quite possibly a better chance of recovery when beaten by a winger. Is Gibbs as good a defender as Monreal? I would say no but he is certainly a very capable left back and more than able to take his fair share of games this season and beyond. Perhaps in games where the opposition wide midfielder or winger is about pace rather than trickery it should be Gibbs given the nod.
To some this may seem an odd suggestion it one is better than the other but not if the attributes required and strengths are different. Of course there is a very recent precedent and template for success using this model. Both Mancini and then Pellegrini have won the Premier League with Man City rotating their left backs. Most recently in 2014 the roles was shared almost equally with Kolarov starting 21 games and ex Gunner Clichy 18. But here the interesting observation made in that last winning season in a Bleacher Report:
“Gael Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov share left-back duties almost equally; the ex-Arsenal man is Pellegrini’s choice when faced with a side who offer pace in wide positions, while the Serbian is selected against teams with less intention to go forward.”
I would argue that the above theory put into practice by the Chilean with much success must be on Wenger’s mind.
In addition though the left back position cannot be considered in isolation give the way Wenger’s Arsenal are setting up of late. There is little doubt that in attack the team are still pressing forward in the conventional , though more fluid 4231 BUT this season when not in position it appears to me that the team retracts as a 4411 or 442 with Ozil seemingly given lighter defensive responsibility and staying closer to Alexis. This has given greater emphasis on the front to back work for the 2 wide men, Iwobi and Walcott and surprisingly to me and to most fans, it is the England International that has risen to the challenge with more gusto. Having watched the work rate of Alexis and to a degree Campbell in recent seasons the penny seems to have finally dropped with Walcott. Playing with Alexis through the middle and dropping off has given Theo some licence to drift inside and offer a goal threat. It is working very well but out of possession his work rate in support of Bellerin has been commendable. Of course the young Spanish fullback is so fast the support may not be needed as much as it seems to be on the left.
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So what is the solution given that Alex Iwobi almost counter-balancing Theo’s attacking desire and playing as a second playmaker to Ozil gives us attacking balance? Well the obvious one is suggested above in playing Gibbs when facing a strong counter attacking threat or just a fast winger but that alone is not satisfactory. Iwobi is young and still growing in his body and at present is either physically not up to playing at full tilt for 90 minutes or not fit enough to do so. I think he has only finished about 2 full matches in the Premier League since his debut in 2015. Surely though this is a slight cause for concern. In the second half against Swansea despite all his good work in attack by early in the second period when Barrow was an increasing influence in the game and attacking Monreal one on one the young Nigerian seemed to have nothing left in the tank. The expression ‘blowing out of his arse’ comes to mind.
I am not sure what the answer is in the short-term but taking Iwobi off after 70 minutes in every game cannot be it. Surely for a young man with so much natural talent, vision and maturity a personalised fitness regime should be an easy fix? Or is it just a talking to and a gentle kick up the arse he is too often blowing out off. Either way if this is out set up and Iwobi a long term solution, which I hope he is, it needs to be addressed. In the meantime as with Paul Merson at the same age, talents need to be handled with care, rested periodically and not played week in week out. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on a played with a degree of maturity against Swansea and I think he and Gibbs might start the match on the left in the Champions League tomorrow.