When Nacho Monreal signed for Arsenal two years ago, his arrival was a welcome one. At that point, Kieran Gibbs was predictably injured, leaving Arsenal to either play Andre Santos or Thomas Vermaelen at left back. Vermaelen was as unsuited for left back as he was for a starting role at centre back, and Santos, by that time, was a mistake waiting to happen every time he stepped onto the pitch. Arsenal fans would've been happy with anyone, let alone a Spanish international.
Yet Monreal has not had a completely easy time in North London, often unfairly criticised for defensive mistakes that were hardly his fault. Last season, he was often relegated to a crucial but back-up role, whereby he would come on to protect a lead from an advanced left-wing position, or as we called it, the Release All the Fullbacks protocol. Kieran Gibbs' pace was preferred, with Bacary Sagna offering a steadier presence at right back.
This season, Monreal was given the #18 shirt, which coupled with his somewhat French-sounding last name, meant that he automatically became Arsenal's 4th choice centre back; it's how it works. After Laurent Koscielny succumbed to his long-standing Achilles problem, Monreal was called into action. After a shaky start against Hull, Monreal gradually improved at full back, providing a decent foil for Per Mertesacker.
After Koscielny returned, Monreal resumed his protecting substitute role, but injury to Kieran Gibbs provided Monreal to chance to start, and since the new year, Monreal has played all but one game at left back, and Arsenal have a kept a clean sheet in each one. Monreal's start this past weekend against Aston Villa confirmed that he is first choice, and with good reason. Monreal's time at centre back strengthened his defensive ability, with the Spaniard becoming stronger and more aggressive, improving his one-v-one defending and ability to stand opposing players up, and the result has been that Monreal makes more interceptions and wins more tackles. With Monreal's passing more varied and often more dangerous than Gibbs, Arsenal have a more threatening outlet from left back, as well as a fullback who compliments Héctor Bellerín really well.
One of Monreal's strengths is the intelligence of his runs and the good timing he shows when he chooses to get forward. Despite not providing an overlap too many times against Manchester City, he made his runs count, winning the penalty that put Arsenal 1-0 up. That allows Héctor Bellerín, who is still developing that part of his game, more freedom to get forward, as Monreal balances the defence much as Bacary Sagna did last year. The new fullback pairing also has allows more variation for the rest of Arsenal's lineup.
Bellerín, the converted winger, likes to push forward when Arsenal are in possession. He has the pace and the energy to provide overlapping runs, while being able to get back into position quickly and intelligently, and thus not expose Per Mertesacker. Monreal, on the other hand, rarely bombs forward when Arsenal are in possession, but makes runs in support of the wide player on the left, either on the outside or the inside, as the chalkboards show below.
With this in mind, the positioning of Arsenal's two wide players is connected. Theo Walcott looked far more threatening from the left hand side on Sunday, and while Mesut Özil was equally effective on the left as on the right, he is more comfortable on the right hand side cutting in. Furthermore, with Arsenal playing more on the counter attack, trying to spring Walcott behind, as they did for his goal on Sunday, he has less need of an overlapping run, since the main aim is to play a through ball behind, which, if it fails to come off, puts Arsenal at risk of being exploited on the counter attack if a fullback provides an overlapping run. With Monreal less likely to make an immediate overlapping run with Walcott, that is less likely to happen.
While Özil is an important part of Arsenal's counter-attacking game, he is also heavily involved in Arsenal's possession play, and with the freedom to drift off his flank and combine with Cazorla and Ramsey in the middle, there is more need of a fullback providing width, which is more likely to come from Bellerín in the immediate build-up, with Monreal pushing up as needed. In that sense, Monreal is better for Arsenal's balance, and with balance the key part of Arsenal's revival in recent weeks, Monreal's run of form, and recognition, should continue.