18 May 2013

Kieran Gibbs will destroy Toon--and, if need be, Ashley Cole next week

I mean it, too. Gibbs will be the man we'll all be talking about after he leads Arsenal to glorious victory with a brilliant performance against Newcastle. In the past, I've gone with the cheap-and-easy picks (not that they've always worked out), choosing the headline-grabbing forwards and attacking midfielders. This week, to close the season, I'm going out on a limb to predict that Gibbs will make tongues wag. I'm not going out so far as to say he'll appear on the score-sheet, but his impact will be such that we'll be hailing him, and a certain charisma-impaired left-back will have been deposed, forgotten, and rubbished once and for all.

Since Cole (and Clichy) left, Gibbs has played off and on in that left-back position, but many Gooners have worried that we'd have to wait quite a while before seeing someone as good as Cole once was (note the past tense; it's very deliberate). After the misadventures of Santos, it's good to see Gibbs rounding back into form, and if he continues his ascendancy, he'll displace Cole on the Three Lions and may someday, sooner rather than later, emerge as the country's best left-back. In the early days, he played as a winger and attacking midfielder with Wimbledon and Milton Keynes Dons, so even if his runs forward are not yet as breath-taking or incisive as Cole's once were, he's starting to offer glimpses of those early attacking days, pressing forward to fill the spaces that Cazorla so often leaves open as the Spaniard drifts more centrally.

Against Newcastle, he's likely to see a lot of action from Ben Arfa, Cabaye, and Gouffran, but I haven't seen anything from them that Gibbs can't handle. I imagine (and hope I'm right) that he'll shut them down quite handily on Sunday. According to whoscored.com, Gibbs is 2nd on the team in tackles with 72 (behind Arteta's 108) and 3rd in interceptions with 63 (behind Arteta's 96 and Cazorla's 69). It's worth mentioning that Arteta and Cazorla have many more opportunities for tackles and interceptions; a more-telling statistic might be success-rate or opportunities converted, but we can't really gauge how many opportunities a player has to intercept a ball or make a tackle in the same way we might with shots on goal. I'd imagine we'd see Gibbs near the top of that kind of list.

Absent that level of analysis, we can hold Gibbs up for comparison against the current gold-standards for left-backs, those being [choke] Cole and Leighton Baines. At first blush, Baines emerges far and away as the Prem's best left back. However, using whoscored.com's statistics, Gibbs doesn't just compete with Baines and Cole, he leaves them in his dust in the categories that matter most to defenders: tackles and interceptions. Baines's superior rating is therefore largely down to his five goals and five assists (Gibbs has three assists, and Cole has one goal and two assists). As important as goals and assists are to any team, the foundation of the left-back position is defending, and on that score, Gibbs just can't be beat. He doubles Cole for interceptions and very nearly does the same on Baines, and he makes tackles more often as well.

With Cole at 32 years old and Gibbs just 23, it's only a matter of time before Cole is watching Gibbs from the bench for England, and it may not be too much longer before conversations about England's best-ever left-back starts with "Cole was amazing, but Gibbs..." In addition to Gibb's pace, determination, and strength on the ball, he has the noted advantage of having actual charisma. I know that a certain ruthlessness is sometimes required in order to excel, but it's refreshing, both for Arsenal and the Three Lions, to see a left-back who brings more to a squad than skill. Let's face it. Cole, for all of his excellence on the pitch, is hard to like, even in that "he might be a jerk but at least he's our jerk" kind of way.

As we go into the last match of the season, then, I'm looking to Gibbs to have the kind of performance that seals three points and 4th place for us. If the unthinkable happens and Chelsea labors to a draw against Everton at the same time, we might just see Gibbs outplay Cole on May 26th. Sure, they play about as far away from each other as two players can be, but it would be glorious and magnificent to see Gibbs is the hero who assists on the game-winner while Cole is the goat who concedes the goal on Gibbs's assist.

First things first, of course. Kieran, do a number on the Magpies. Then we'll see if Cole is up to the challenge.