Could this be the reason Arsenal have improved in recent times?
In and amongst the pandemonium of Arsenal’s memorable two nil victory against Bayern Munich on Tuesday, there was a glittering sense of optimism that was palpable within the Emirates from the start, a genuine feeling of equilibrium against a side of the highest order. This was different to the days when Pep Guardiola brought his famous Barcelona team to the Emirates, played unbelievably, and left with a draw that no one could quite comprehend. You really could actually comprehend the credibility of this Arsenal win.
Plotting where exactly Arsenal have stepped up is fairly elusive, particularly in the past 12 months, but there’s definitely hints of a collective renaissance. Winning three nil against a now rejuvenated Manchester United side, only their second win against their old-rival since 2008, was another sign of that sense of genuine progression that has galvanized a team half-heartedly pondering its status in a much maligned industry.
That progression in itself is somewhat of a mystery, because barring the arrival of Gabriel Paulista and Petr Cech, Arsenal are a practically identical side to that of last year. The marked improvements, in fact, are the defensive wide symmetry of personnel: Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin. Easy to jump on bandwagon, maybe, after the incredible individual excellence of Bellerin in setting up Mesut Ozil’s goal for Arsenal’s second against Bayern, but the writing has been on the wall for a while.
It’s worth remembering that last summer there was a high element of doubt regarding the right back position at Arsenal. Bakary Sagna had departed and Arsene Wenger wanted to loan out Carl Jenkinson. Two new bodies were needed, and in came Mathieu Debuchy and Calum Chambers. Debuchy was probably a victim of his injuries while Chambers may well be suited more to the centre, but either way, Bellerin has not looked back since his ropey debut at Dortmund last season.
Notable is the Spaniard’s freakish acceleration and speed, a key facet of any successful full back wanting to simultaneously launch attacks while not exposing his team at the back. Bellerin beat Theo Walcott’s 40 meter sprint time in training, a noteworthy way to announce yourself as a youngster to an onlooking squad. Away from the exuberance of his youth, however, is an apparent tactical mindset that aids him well. Against United and three up, Bellerin maintained a disciplined stance to shut out the game by curtailing his onward rushes up the right. These qualities have always existed, but a run in the first team has just fine-tuned his confidence, won over the fans, and given him invaluable game time experience.
Monreal’s rise is slightly less straightforward. Signed, ostensibly, because he was that-guy-at-Malaga-who-played-with-Santi-Cazorla-who-at-the-same-time-couldn’t-be-as-bad-as-Andre-Santos, the Spaniard took time adapting to the rigours of England’s Premiership. Composed, calm, tactically aware, and fully attuned to the maverick tendencies of Alexis Sanchez, it’s difficult to name a better left back in England at the moment. Being signed in January 2013 probably didn’t aid his migration too well either, with no summer pre-season to adapt to a new team and city. The same could be said of Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic, both signed in January 2006, who Sir Alex Ferguson has confessed took time to come to their best. Monreal, like Bellerin, has grown in stature as his time on the pitch has become more assured.
To undermine the importance of Monreal and Bellerin, or fullbacks in any side altogether, would be a mistake. From a visually-impaired angle they might be perceived as peripheral defenders or non-important wingers, but therein lies their value. Jonathan Wilson, the author of the most comprehensive tactics book going, has always argued that full backs are in fact the most important players on a pitch. In his own words:
At first, it sounds preposterous, until you consider that every World Cup since has been won by the team with the best pair of attacking full-backs: Jorginho and Branco for Brazil in 1994; Lilian Thuram and Bixente Lizarazu for France in 1998; Cafu and Roberto Carlos for Brazil in 2002; and Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso for Italy three years ago.
Jack Charlton added to the analogy by pointing out that if a 4-4-2 plays a 4-4-2, full backs are the only players on the pitch who have no opposition players directly in front of them. Often, it is they who can receive the ball without a direct marker, providing a designated ‘defensive winger’ (a Dirk Kuyt or a Park Ji-Sung) has not been assigned to them, allowing them to make more open decisions upon a game than any other player.
Perhaps even more obvious is the evolution of the role itself. Full backs, for the most part in a team’s application, are modern day box-to-box players, collectively more responsible in every third of the pitch than any other. If they can simultaneously nullify an opposition winger and provide width to an inside winger, then they can transform the dynamic of a game. Bellerin and Monreal have found fertile soil at the Emirates this season and Tuesday’s victory will act as another yardstick in Arsenal’s upward trajectory.
Cast your mind back to when Arsenal found themselves in a tough period when they played Munich away in March 2013. They won that game two nil and went onto finish with eight wins and two draws to rescue a ‘mind the gap’ series against a Tottenham team who looked sure to finish in the top four. To have digested that galvanzing-beat-Bayern remedy in October- not March- could bode very well for their encouraging season. Monreal and Bellerin could be the missing jigsaw pieces as Monsieur Wenger finally launches a serious assault on the title.
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