“It is difficult. Even if I had not played a lot last season, in my head I would return to start after my recovery. But, at the Community Shield against Chelsea, Wenger chose him, Bellerin. It was a surprise and a disappointment. Let’s say it [leaving] crossed my mind.”- Mathieu Debuchy.
Football is indeed, as they say, fickle. Technology and advancements in sports science and psychology have revolutionized the beautiful game. Just think about it, in September kick-off for a League Two clash between Plymouth Argyle and Wycombe Wanderers was delayed for seven minutes because Wycombe Wanderers’ players had GPS tracking vests on under their jerseys; vests which supposedly record and relay data such as the number of sprints made per player per game, one’s overall workload, and how much “damage” this workload inflicts on the player’s body, which then means coaches know how much one can handle, and when players should be given a break due to accumulated fatigue, or when one is “in the red” as Louis van Gaal puts it. Or sample this, you might have heard that in the MLS Division 2 in the United States, referees are set to start trial on video technology in a manner similar to the T.M.O video refereeing in rugby. For instance, whenever the referee is about to give a penalty, he would communicate with a team of officials whom he would ask: “Is there any reason why I should not give this penalty?” And the video referees would then advise based on their reviewing of the play on a set of monitors. All fascinating stuff really.
But, as always, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Chance and good fortune still plays as big a role in football as anything else. We could not have foreseen, for instance, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain both getting crocked after just 18 minutes of League Cup action. Such injury crises resulted in good fortune as it turns out for Arsenal, first with the emergence of Francis Coquelin who was only recalled from his loan at Charlton Athletic after injuries to Mathieu Flamini, Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere. And, more to the point of this article, the emergence of fullbacks Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal. Going into the first game of last season our two starting fullbacks were Kieran Gibbs and Mathieu Debuchy, and they did okay before injury struck. Ankle and shoulder injuries robbed the Frenchman months of his career, and while Gibbs’ injury woes were not as lengthy, it proved enough time for Arsene Wenger to find himself two gems in the Spanish compadres, Bellerin and Monreal.
We have been waxing lyrical about Bellerin since January, and with good reason too. I’m willing to bet the first thing everyone knew about Bellerin was that he broke Theo Walcott’s sprint record over 50 metres, yet it was his intelligence and awareness on the pitch that allowed him to use his pace to great effect. Playing at a higher average position for a fullback, almost as a wingback if you will at times, he added dynamism and a different dimension on the right while using his recovery pace well to get back whenever needed. His greater attacking impetus from the right saw him score two goals of the highest order, against Liverpool and Aston Villa at the Emirates, but the greatest thing about Bellerin is he has not rested on his laurels. The young lad continues to improve various aspects of his play, which when added to his all-round game, makes in plain to see why Debuchy can’t get a look-in at the moment.
|Tackles*||1.55 (48%)||2.1 (48%)|
|Take-ons*||1.5 (59%)||1.8 (69%)|
|Headed Duels*||0.95 (37%)||1.1 (50%)|
*Statistics per game
Not only has he improved on his number of successful tackles, take-ons, headed duels, clearances and chances created, he also has increased his proficiency in these parameters, as illustrated by his improved success rate (in brackets). Yet there remain the intangibles which no statistic can aptly describe, like that interception and driving run beyond David Alaba to provide an assist for Arsenal’s second goal against Bayern Munich. Or the look of utter disbelief and embarrassment on Bafetimbi Gomis’ face when Bellerin caught him up from the half-way line to pick his pocket when the striker looked set to score yesterday. Or when he risked breaking his ribs when he collided into the post while keeping out a goal-bound effort against Swansea, even though it was ultimately ruled offside. It’s also worth noting that of the 11 chances he has created so far this season, seven of them (64%) have been “big chances”, which Opta basically defines as chances you would expect a player to score from, such as one-on-one scenarios with the opposition goalkeeper.
Nacho Monreal, upon being signed in January 2013, was viewed as no more than good back-up to Gibbs. Indeed he would often be targeted as the weak link in the Gunners backline, and more so when a spate of injuries saw Monreal given a run in the side at centre-half. But he appeared to gain greatly from his spell at the centre of defence as he eventually ousted Gibbs from the starting XI. Like Bellerin, he has gone from strength to strength this season:
|Take-ons*||0.21 (46%)||0.82 (75%)|
|Tackles*||1.7 (51%)||2 (52%)|
|Headed Duels*||2.75 (62%)||2.73 (68%)|
*Statistics per game
There you go. Not only did Bellerin and Monreal unseat Debuchy and Gibbs, they continue to cement their first-team roles through gradual, continual improvement. Monreal for example has already created as many chances and one more assist than he did the whole of last season.
Safe to say then that things are looking bleak for Debuchy and Gibbs, but the bigger picture depicts a more stable, efficient and proactive Gunners defence. Bellerin and Monreal have definitely been, in my eyes, the best fullbacks in the league this season, and not to pay tribute to them for this would be unfair I feel.