Nacho Monreal: From back-up to Mr Arsenal

Two years ago this week, Nacho Monreal was lining up alongside Nicklas Bendtner, Ryo Miyaichi (FC St Pauli, to save you a Google), Carl Jenkinson and Lukasz Fabianski to face Chelsea in the Capital One Cup. A Blues side featuring Juan Mata, Kevin de Bruyne, David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta as an actual right-back won the game 2-0. It turns out Bendtner, Miyaichi, Jenkinson and Fabianski weren’t good enough for Arsenal.

At that point it looked very much like Monreal wasn’t good enough for Arsenal either. One set of player ratings that described Monreal that night as ‘wasteful and occasionally timid’ summed up the Spaniard’s 2013. Arsenal had apparently paid £8m for a back-up left-back. He wasn’t quite Andre Santos bad, but nobody would have been too surprised if he had shuffled back to Spain in the summer of 2014 to be largely forgotten.

By the end of that season he had played just 1176 Premier League minutes – most of those thanks to the brittleness of Kieran Gibbs – to put him in a similar bracket to Tomas Rosicky and Lukas Podolski. Fast-forward a year to the summer of 2015 and Monreal was looking back on a 2311-minute PL season that only Per Mertesacker, Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez could top. The change in status was remarkable and entirely deserved as Monreal defied science to somehow become taller, faster and braver.

Now it’s the end of October 2015 and Monreal has not missed a minute of this Premier League season; no other outfield Gunner has managed that feat. He is now so vital to Arsenal’s title campaign that Arsene Wenger kept him wrapped up on the bench even as Arsenal huffed, puffed and cried out for experience at Hillsborough on Tuesday night. Watching Gibbs look like a man who has somehow forgotten how to play football, Wenger knew he could not risk Monreal. An awful lot has changed in two years.

There was an almighty fuss made about David Ospina being selected for the Gunners’ opening two Champions League matches as a seemingly kind gesture to the Colombian, but there was little mention of Gibbs being at left-back ahead of Monreal. When Wenger admitted that maybe they “could be a little suspected of not taking the first two games seriously enough”, he might as well have been holding up pictures of Ospina and Gibbs; Cech and Monreal duly returned to face Bayern Munich; Thomas Muller barely got a kick.

If I had told you in October 2013 that the Spaniard would sit in second place on the Sky Sports Power Rankings in October 2015 you would have a) asked what the f*** the Sky Sports Power Rankings were and b) suggested that Monreal would be nowhere near Arsenal by that juncture. So what changed? When did a jobbing back-up left-back become amongst the best in his position in the Premier League? The man himself provided the answers in an April 2015 interview:

“I feel really good living in London, I’m very happy living here and playing for Arsenal. I think I’m more British now. It’s always difficult, coming to London. It’s another country, another language, different football.

“It’s never easy, the first months are the worst because the life is not easy. You have to find a house, you have to meet other players, learn English as quick as possible, it’s never easy.”

Does a settling-in period of over a year sound too much? Are you one of those scoffing at Diego Costa for apparently failing to settle in London? Did you laugh at Mario Balotelli saying he was homesick for Italy? The default amongst some fans and journalists is to suggest that earning anything over £20,000 a week should make you settle anywhere pretty quickly. And yet it’s something that very few English footballers even attempt.

Louis van Gaal likes to refer to the ‘total human being principle’, which roughly translates to the crazy idea that footballers are human beings first and sportsmen second. Monreal struggled like any normal human being and now he thrives like a top-level sportsman. There’s a lesson there for all of us who judge too quickly.


Sarah Winterburn