During Kieran Gibbs’ nascent seasons in the first team, popular opinion suggested that the barriers his barriers to stardom were purely physical. He turns 25 in September and his bill of health has been relatively clean since a calf twang in January 2013 forced Arsene Wenger into the abrupt purchase of Nacho Monreal. Whilst his growing pains appear to be behind him, there is a sense that Gibbs has stagnated in much the same way Gael Clichy did shortly before his departure to Manchester City.
Gibbs spent his formative years as a winger, only graduating to left full-back as he toed the precipice of the first team. Wenger persisted during his injury ravaged youth because Kieran was in the lateral style of full back that the manager so covets in a left back. Gibbs’ strength was to provide width and penetration from the left, with Arsene opting for a more precise and economical right back. Gibbs lost his place last season as the scales of the flanks of Arsenal’s defence were tipped by the form of a pair of Spaniards.
Gibbs lost a good ally on the left hand side in Lukas Podolski, with whom he struck up a symbiotic relationship. Likewise, when Santi Cazorla was stationed on the left hand side, his proclivity to wander in field left Gibbs with space to gallop into to supplement the Arsenal attack from wide. In fairness, Kieran has also developed a good relationship with Alexis Sanchez, now firmly ensconced as the go to option on the left. Alexis’ spring goal drought coincided with Gibbs’ exclusion from the team. Alexis broke a goal duck of eight games when Gibbs returned to the side at Loftus Road in March, teeing up the Chilean with a beautiful decoy run.
At the end of last season signs of a blossoming relationship between Alexis and Monreal were beginning to become evident. It might have been advisable for Kieran to purchase a Spanish dictionary over the summer break. Monreal has a small but distinct advantage utilising his native tongue; Alexis, Cazorla and Özil (a fluent Spanish speaker) are three of the first names on the teamsheet. Bellerin is a regular starter and Gabriel (also a fluent Spanish speaker), Ospina and Arteta are firmly established players. Certainly when Monreal looks to build attacks from his left-back perch, he’ll almost always be looking to combine with someone that knows his lingo. That said, a defence consisting of Cech, Mertesacker and Koscielny would surely communicate in English in defensive situations.
With his buccaneering runs down the left, Gibbs looks like an effective lateral style full back, but the truth is that his delivery in the final third has often been inconsistent (though he’s in good company here since Clichy and Sagna were never the most productive in that regard). Nacho Monreal is more precise, a prober with a good technical level. He behaves more like a central midfielder, which has become more valuable to Arsenal’s build up play, relying on combinations to inch Arsenal further up the pitch. After a spell at centre half, Nacho has also become more attuned to Arsenal’s defensive style.
Since Steve Bould was appointed as assistant manager, it is noticeable that Arsenal prefer to defend by maintaining shape. One of Nacho’s great strengths is his anticipation, his ability to nick the ball from in front of an attacker. For his flaws, this was André Santos’ great strength and goes some way to explaining why Arsene Wenger took a(n ultimately failed) punt on the Brazilian prior to Monreal’s arrival. Arsenal’s defensive style accentuates this quality in Monreal and, as a result, he has been able to show himself to be a wilier defender than Gibbs within that shape based framework.
Gibbs’ fate has also been reversed by the emergence of Héctor Bellerin at right full-back. The young Spaniard, also a winger in his developmental years, is also a full-back in the rangy, lateral style. But his end product is vastly superior to Gibbs’. Having been reared at La Masia, football’s answer to Laboratoire Garnier, he has the technical level required to riff with Arsenal’s ball hoarders in midfield. So Gibbs is effectively competing with Monreal and Bellerin simultaneously, which explains his relegation of sorts in 2015. A pair of Spanish hombres have stolen his mojo.
Wenger’s defensive permutations at the Emirates Cup were interesting. On day one against Lyon, he started with Debuchy and Gibbs, who would have been considered the first choice full-back options this time last year. Against Wolfsburg on day two, he reverted to Bellerin and Monreal, which furthers the impression that Arsene prefers to mix fire and ice between his right and left backs. That being the case, Gibbs is probably just as invested in Mathieu Debuchy forcing his way back into contention ahead of Bellerin as he is in his own personal struggle with Monreal.
Generally, supporters are a little too hasty to declare players in Gibbs’ position as surplus. Arsenal are set to play close to 60 games this season, so there will be plenty of chances for Kieran to play and to impress. Monreal may pick up a long term injury. In fact, Nacho’s ascent into the starting XI is itself an apt demonstration of how quickly the deputy can become sheriff. David Ospina, Héctor Bellerin and Francis Coquelin ended last season as bona fide first teamers; they certainly did not start the campaign with that status.
Whether Gibbs has plateaued or stagnated is probably a matter of opinion. To become Arsenal’s first choice left-back again, he is going to have to show improved end product in an attacking sense and demonstrate that he has the concentration and positional discipline to groove to Steve Bould’s defensive tune. Too often, he finds himself over committed to attack and, though no slouch in a sprint, he doesn’t possess the recovery pace that Bellerin does. Playing for England against Slovenia in June, Gibbs was caught napping at the back post which is a failing we have seen from him in Arsenal red too. (In fairness, this is an area where Monreal could also improve).
Gibbs signed on his current terms in December 2012, along with other members of the ‘British core.’ Pretty soon, a decision is going to have to be made as to his next contract and though Arsene Wenger would probably not consider him totally disposable, conversations about his future are sure to follow. Contract talks bring footballing decisions to a head and the truth of the club’s position will always be nestled neatly in the figures on offer. The testament of a club’s faith sits nakedly in the zeros. Whether Arsenal and Kieran Gibbs decide that their futures are entwined, will largely be decided by Gibbs’ performances this season.
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