20 March 2013

The Problem With Two Left Feet, er, Backs

At the risk of knocking a good thing, I still find myself questioning the signing of Nacho Monreal. Back when it first happened, I questioned the move as a panicked signing forced on us by Gibbs's injury and Santos's poor form. Now that Monreal has prove that he does bring quality and with Gibbs back, my earlier objection is harder to sustain. However, I still maintain that, despite Monreal's quality, it was a dubious signing, especially considering other options and needs.

Let's remind ourselves from the outset that the balancing act is difficult. Clubs need the strongest starting XI they can find, of course, but finding second-string players who offer similar quality but who are willing to settle for coming off the bench is tough. Many such players look around and, to their credit as competitors, see that they could start, albeit for a lesser team. Once Wenger commits to Gibbs or Monreal as a regular starter, or if he platoons them, alternating them so they each essentially share 50-50, we have a dilemma in that one (or both) will be dissatisfied with the role they're handed. While this might motivate each to play to their best, strengthening the squad as a whole, it also poses risks that must be handled carefully.

Would Gibbs be more susceptible to feeling dissatisfied, seeing the position as his and sensing that Monreal was brought on due only to Gibbs's injury? Gibbs and Podolski had partnered well early in the season, but as Podolski's form wavered, the partnership itself faltered. As I've already implied, this seems be on Podolski more than on Gibbs. By contrast, the Monreal-Cazorla partnership arguably seems more stable, based on two's time together at Malaga. Again, though, this might be down more to Cazorla than to Monreal, so it's a bit of a wash. Heck, throw me on at left-back with Cazorla in front of me, and we'll partner well. More seriously, Cazorla seems at his best working as an attacking central midfield role, muting somewhat the question of who plays left-back.

In a more direct comparison, Monreal appears to have an edge, according to his and Gibbs's stats at whoscored.com. Monreal rates a 7.31 to Gibb's 7.12. However, look at the clubs each has played against and the ratings each earned. At the risk of being harsh on Monreal, he's faced much-lesser competition than has Gibbsonly Tottenham stands out as a threat. whereas Gibbs has faced two top-four teams (Man City and Chelsea), one that is chasing a top-four spot (Liverpool), and a team favored to win the UCL (Bayern). In other words, against markedly stiffer competition, Gibbs has done well. Were it not for the boost that Monreal's three goals gives him (one against Mallorca in La Liga), Gibbs might very well emerge with a higher score.

Beyond numbers, however, Gibbs is arguably a stouter defender and tougher tackler. I suppose you know which way I lean by now. Gibbs, having just signed a long-term contract and having only lost his position due to injury rather than doubts about his form or class, should be awarded the starter's role. What his means for Monreal is harder to assess. Is he willing to accept a second-string role after having just signed? Does he see himself as Gibb's sub or does he aspire to something larger? On one hand, it's a good problem to have as far as problems go, a significant improvement over watching through our fingers as Santos does whatever he calls what he does. Neither Gibbs nor Monreal seems like the kind to turn this into a distraction, and so it just might be possible for the two to thrive through the mutual competition for a starting spot I've discussed in previous posts.

Given a choice between the two, given that they are so close in quality, I confess that I go with Gibbs. At 23, his development suggests a higher ceiling and long-term contribution than does Monreal at 27. Without promising anything permanent, putting him on threatens no drop-off in quality in the short-term and suggests greater growth in the longer term. I wouldn't be upset to see Monreal feature, but I do believe that the club's best interests are best-served by Gibbs getting the nod.

With nine games to play, it's reassuring to ponder the possibilities rather than dread them.