There is currently a massive problem at Arsenal Football Club. One that is being quietly spoken about amongst friends. It has not yet reared it’s ugly head on the terraces, but it is getting to a point where the crowd are on the verge of turning. Arsenal have a problem with their left hand side.
The weakness on our left hand side is becoming more and more problematic. It is simply not working. From both a defensive side and an attacking side.
In the summer, there were massive reports linking us to many a left back. From reports that we were set to trigger Ricardo Rodriguez’s minimum release clause to interest in Leicester youngster Ben Chilwell and Celtic’s Kieran Tierney. In the end, we stuck with what we had, Nacho Monreal and Kieran Gibbs.
Even reports that we were after a left sided centre back who could then cover full back failed to materialise as we ended up with Shkodran “I am still having to Google his first name” Mustafi – a right sided centre back.
So it left us exactly where we were last season. Two solid left backs of similar level.
Now it was easy in the summer to make a case of why we should not go for a new left back. A centre back, defensive midfielder, right winger / striker were more important. We signed one of each.
But 3 months after the window shutting, left back has now arguably become our weakest link.
I have been a massive fan of Nacho Monreal in an Arsenal shirt.
Not blessed with the extreme pace many a full back now has, he has always been more of a Bacary Sagna of the left. Or a Pablo Zabaleta. Someone who recognises their job is to defend, and understands how to go it. A strong defender, using positional and game awareness.
But this season he has had a bit of a shocker.
He has been beaten numerous times too easily on the outside. Average wingers seem to be blasting past him without much effort. And he seems to be diving into challenges with poor decision making. Perhaps a sign that he lacks confidence in himself. Committing early on to the challenge in the hope if he does not win the ball, at least he is being beat high up the pitch.
I do not know the stats, but I would hazard a guess a lot of our goals this season have come from our left hand side.
Of course, it is not just about the full back, you work in pairs, so some of the blame has to go to whoever has been ahead of Monreal for the season.
Against Manchester United, a game where their opener came from our left hand side, it was Aaron Ramsey. Not a natural left winger.
For the majority of the season, Monreal has played behind Alex Iwobi.
Iwobi offers little defensively. You rarely see him busting a gut to get back, chasing his opposing full back, leaving Monreal in a 2 on 1 situation too often.
Even when Iwobi get’s back, his lack of defensive positional awareness becomes exposed. He does not seem to know when to show a player outside or in, who to pick up, what run to follow, or where to stand to cut out the pass. He offers nothing.
Of course, he is just 20, so has a lot to learn, but with Monreal out of form, Iwobi needs to be helping his full back out more.
Football is all about partnerships. From centre backs, to midfielders, to strikers. Leicester City won the league last season because their team was greater than their individuals. Better players in other teams failed to link up with team mates as well as Leicester. We see that on Arsenal’s left hand side. Defensively, Monreal & Iwobi have no gelled.
Then we come to going forward.
Alex Iwobi has started 8 of 12 games in the Premier League for Arsenal this season, and 3 of the 5 Champions League games. Of those 11 games, he is still yet to scored, and has made just 3 goals.
Some would say he has gone backwards this season, that he has been ‘Wengered’ (what the hell does that even mean?), but the truth is expectation is now higher this season.
He has been a first team regular, and he has simply not done enough this season to justify his continual selection. He is not ready for week in week out at Arsenal’s level.
And as a partnership going forward, Monreal and Iwobi have not linked up.
Monreal is very different going forward to Hector Bellerin on the right. He makes shorter runs, hits the bye line, and gets dangerous balls in. He is also a very good passer, even in close situations. But Monreal has done little going forward this season. He has simply not been a threat.
Part of this might be due to his lack of confidence in his current defensive form, so he does not want to be caught out high up the pitch. But what this results in is the opposite of Iwobi not defending.
Monreal not attacking leaves Iwobi isolated. Often with the opposing full back and winger surrounding him. He cuts inside and has a central midfield in his face. 3 on 1. Normally, having dragged 3 players inside, he could flick the ball outside to Monreal in space. But Monreal is not there.
Nacho Monreal and Alexi Iwobi are not linking up. Not gelling. Not performing. They are playing like two individuals with no confidence. They are not a partnership.
And even when they have been rotated out, it is not much better. Kieran Gibbs has not done enough this season in his handful of appearances to usurp Monreal. But he does perhaps deserve a bit of a run in the team. Maybe start him against Bournemouth, mid-week against Southampton, and take it from there. It will then give him 3 games in a row, at least.
And then forward of Monreal, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been inconsistent, and the likes of Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey should not be considered on the left. So what options does this leave Arsene Wenger?
The most obvious one is move Alexis Sanchez back to the left hand side. He will give Monreal (or Gibbs) the cover they have missed. Also attack is the best form of defence. A full back will not be bombing forward when they are faced against Alexis Sanchez like they are against Alex Iwobi.
Of course, this then has implications upfront, where Sanchez has performed exceptionally so far. Return Olivier Giroud back to the forward line on a permanent basis.
The other option would be to give Oxlade-Chamberlain a chance on the left.
A new partnership of the Ox & Gibbs would be worth giving a go.
In the last few days, Arsenal have been heavily linked with Hull City’s teenage left back Josh Tymon and forever linked Julian Draxler.
Over the next 2 transfer windows, Arsenal need to sort out their hard left, before it plunges the club into crisis.
Note: This blog was written before the Bournemouth victory which saw us win 3-1 with Nacho Monreal crossing for one of the goals. He also gave away the penalty. We did however look a lot stronger with Monreal & Oxlade-Chamberlain.