After a torrid week, Arsenal returned to winning ways with a victory over struggling Aston Villa thanks to a brace from midfield maestro Santi Cazorla. While the Spaniard will take the headlines, it was their players in a position too often disregarded that were actually the key to their success.
The full-back is rapidly becoming one of the most important roles in the modern game, particularly for a team like Arsenal, who, perhaps unfairly with the third meanest backline in the league, are notorious for kamikaze defending. Last season’s shortage of personnel in this position coincided with a terrible run of results: one that only really ended when the first-choice full-backs returned.
So why is it so crucial to have two recognised full-backs? Well, it gives the defence a wider, more structured shape; it offers an offensive outlet in the form of a spare man to deliver crosses into the box, something that was demonstrated yesterday as Nacho Monreal was released by Jack Wilshere and cut the ball back for Cazorla to score what proved to be the winner.
Arsenal have often had to play Thomas Vermaelen at left-back, including on Tuesday when they were comprehensively beaten at home by Bayern Munich in the Champions League. The importance of having a recognised full-back is invaluable, as Vermaelen often finds himself sucked inside towards his more natural central position, leaving a wealth of space for his opponent to run into – something Philipp Lahm executed superbly for the Germans. One has to wonder how different the game would have been had Monreal been available. Certainly Arsenal coped far better with on-rushing full-backs yesterday than they did in the week.
The significance of the role is not exclusive to Arsenal, of course. Barcelona’s success during their golden generation arguably owes just as much to the works of Dani Alves and Eric Abidal as it does to the headline names of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. The position is slowly becoming more and more appreciated, as the form and subsequent praise thrust upon Rafael and Pablo Zabaleta at Manchesters United and City respectively testifies. Likewise, Ashley Cole’s achievements on the pitch, whatever you think of him off it, simply cannot be anything other than admired.
The irony is that, against Aston Villa, neither of Arsenal’s first-choice players in these positions - Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs - stepped foot on the lush Emirates turf; it was Carl Jenkinson and Monreal that occupied those roles. They undertook their respective duties with professionalism and efficiency, restricting any sort of threat from the wide areas.
From a personal perspective, I’ll admit to not being hugely convinced by Monreal until yesterday’s game. He had a decent enough debut without pulling up any trees, but seemed to struggle up against Stéphane Sessegnon at Sunderland, frequently being beaten by his man when caught one-on-one.
However, you don’t earn ten caps for the best international side of our generation by being anything other than a very good player, and his assist yesterday proved his worth. My personal qualms are minimal, as I appreciate players are given something of a settling-in period in which they are forgiven for errors whilst adapting to a new team, a new league and a new country. Monreal’s performance against Villa was encouraging and fans will be hoping for more of the same in the future.
Despite arguably regressing in most areas, Arsenal’s full-back situation is an improvement on last season. Jenkinson is a year older, and significantly more confident and mature, and his assured display yesterday was indicative of that. Meanwhile, cynics would argue that just about anyone, let alone an established international like Monreal, would be an upgrade on the since-departed André Santos, so in this area at least, the Gunners look in much better shape.
There were times when both full-backs delivered fine crosses into the box, only for Olivier Giroud, who had a bit of a shocker, to adopt a lackadaisical approach and not ‘gamble’ on getting on the end of them, or when he did, demonstrate that he left his shooting boots at home. In a nutshell, with more clinical teammates, Jenkinson and Monreal could have laid on a hatful of goals to make the game far more comfortable.
A wonderful photo was taken and subsequently leaked online of the Arsenal bench shortly after Cazorla netted his second. The likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Laurent Koscielny and Gervinho were statue-esque in their lack of movement and emotion after the goal, or perhaps it just appeared that way in contrast to Jenkinson behind them (he had been replaced by Lukas Podolski prior to the goal), who was pictured raucously celebrating, arms aloft.
The 21-year-old has made no secret of the fact he’s a lifelong Gooner, and has a touching, personalised brick outside the stadium dedicated to his grandfather with the message: “I hope you’re proud.” He’s by no means world class, although those at the club would argue he has the potential to one day reach a level tantamount to that overused tag.
But Jenkinson ‘gets it’. There’s genuine love and passion for Arsenal that flows through his veins: he’s locked in a marriage with the club that demands he give nothing less than 100% every game. More often than not, that’s all supporters look for, particularly when at Arsenal in recent years there have been plenty of, shall we say, less industrious players, such as Andrey Arshavin and the aforementioned Santos.
Both Jenkinson and Gibbs recently signed new deals with the club, to demonstrate their long-term commitment. Wenger has spoken of creating and maintaining a British core; to which these two are members alongside Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey. Longevity is often rewarded, and that will be the hope for Arsenal fans. The full-back positions at least appear to be well-stocked, and in safe hands.