TWM: The Three Amigos

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Arsenal

Much can be said of the morning after. Usually, you’re either afforded clarity of thought regarding the events that occurred the previous night; or you suffer the consequence of whatever transpired, typically a severe hangover. Or both. The event I’m referring to is of course Arsenal’s 5-1 dismantling at the hands of Bayern Munich. The more defensive, one-track minded Arsenal fan will tell you, this was more a highlight of how thin the Arsenal squad can run with the now almost annual injury crisis. While injuries definitely did play a part, they still can not be a justifiable excuse after all years of their recurrence. All in all, what can we really say apart from: “typical Arsenal”. Now, the side faces the daunting possibility of dropping into the Europe League, and are again faced with the task of winning 2-0 away, this time at Olympiacos, other results not withstanding. Déjà vu. The infamous groundhog season seems upon us Arsenal fans again. But enough on Arsene Wenger and Arsenal’s underachieving nature for now. Let’s look back to the events in the game versus Sheffield Wednesday, namely the almost comical loss of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott in quick succession. Both to supposed avoidable muscle strains. The rapid duo joined Aaron Ramsey, Danny Welbeck and Jack Wilshere among others on Arsenal’s perpetually occupied injury list. This thought threw my memory back to a time when the club seemingly had a new-found hope.

In December 2012, Arsenal announced the awarding of new long-term deals to five players: Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs, and Carl Jenkinson. A lot was made of this “British core”, with the players, joined by their fellow countryman Theo Walcott, being put on display in front of the Emirates Stadium, as a symbol of hope for the future. Three years on, and only two of the six players paraded around that day are part of Arsenal’s current first team, while the rest suffer from injury or struggle to show the necessary qualities to be part of Arsene Wenger’s XI. No, instead there is a new force that has come to the fore. The Spanish trio of Héctor Bellerín, Nacho Monreal and Santi Cazorla are proving to be vital cogs in the Arsenal machine. Let’s take a look at these three players and the unique qualities they bring to the team that makes them almost indispensable, starting with…

Héctor Bellerín…

I first heard of young Hector back in late 2011 to early 2012, a few months after his move from Barcelona that summer. There was a buzz in the more involved Arsenal community about an exciting youngster putting in impressive performances for the under-18s. Of course news of an exciting young player at Arsenal is so frequent (and so frequently overhyped) that I took this with a pinch of salt, and decided to check him out for myself. But so impressive was his performance for the team that day that many touted him as the next player to break through to the full side. What no one could have predicted was the meteroric manner he accomplished this feat. When the opportunity presented itself with an unfortunate Debuchy injury at the start of the 2014/15 season, the then 19 year old Bellerín grabbed his chance and has been improving almost constantly since. Tenacity and pace are the standout features of his play as we saw versus Bayern, where he snatched an under-hit pass and sped past another defender to set up Arsenal’s second of the night. But what sets him apart is his creativity and composure in the opposition’s third. About two weeks, it was announced that no one in Europe’s top five leagues has created more clear-cut chances than the young fullback, sharing the spotlight with names such as Messi and Isco. Defensively, Hector is no pushover either, and although very impressive for his age, he is still yet to learn certain tricks of the trade. Though what he does not lack is commitment of the highest level as we saw versus Swansea making up a 30 yard head start to scuttle a Gomis chance, or injuring himself against the post to clear an Ayew shot off the line. Bellerín’s performances and form have been so imposing, that he has managed to relegate Mathieu Debuchy to a role on the bench, a fact that shows no sign of changing any time soon.

Santiago Cazorla…

Undoubtedly the most talented and accomplished of the trio, the little magician is also the most technically-gifted player on Arsenal’s roster. Signed from Malaga in the summer window of 2012, Cazorla burst on to the scene playing in the attacking midfielder role either behind the striker or on the flanks. Notable moments from his exciting start included being awarded the man of the match award on his debut and scoring his first goal for the club versus Liverpool away at Anfield. Arguably though, his necessity to the squad was cemented with his move to a deeper midfield role. This added a new dynamic to Arsenal, with the midfield maestro plying his trade by pulling the strings from deep. Receiving the ball from the defence, his ability to use either his left or his right foot, makes the transition so much more quick, with his accuracy and ability when finding a pass give Arsenal the extra edge. Cazorla’s almost ridiculous ability to retain the ball even when crowded by two or three towering opposition midfielders, helps relieve pressure on the team and nullifies the chance of counter attacks. All this combined with his years of experience make Arsenal are more fluid machine not only in attack but also more importantly in defence. His presence in the middle helps retain the shape of the team, taking some of the strain off Coquelin while giving those in front the comfort to exercise some artistic license. Santi’s role in the middle is so undeniably essential, that he has exiled Aaron Ramsey to the right wing role, and rightly so. Anyone thinking that there is a better option is wrong, because he is without a doubt the best player for the current system in that position.

Ignacio Monreal…

While probably the least fashionable of the three, Nacho’s rise is definitely the most remarkable. A personal favorite of mine, and rapidly becoming an Emirates favorite, Nacho is the Cinderella story of the group. Signed on deadline day of the January 2013 transfer window, Monreal did not get off to the greatest of starts. You have to remember that the club had just sold club captain and talisman Robin van Persie to bitter rivals Manchester United, and Arsenal fans had spent the last 4-5 months since watching the Dutchman score on almost a weekly basis for his new club. The signing of Monreal did little to appease the furor, and with that atmosphere there would be almost zero patience, tolerance or sympathy for anything less than exceptional. Struggling to achieve the necessary level, Monreal was largely considered as a back up to Kieran Gibbs, only guaranteed starts by the virtue of his English counterpart being so injury prone. For the first 8-9 months of  his Arsenal career, Monreal was hardly popular among many Arsenal fans. But the turning point for him was ironically due to a “naive” Arsene Wenger oversight. Choosing to head into the season with only 2 senior center backs, one of whom was returning from a World Cup winning campaign, Arsene soon started to see the effects of his miscalculation. With an achilles injury to Laurent Koscielny, Monreal was left to fill in the center back position. Unfortunately for Nacho, he became the scapegoat for all of Arsenal’s defensive instabilities. But with the eventual return of Koscielny, Monreal returned to his preferred left back position and we began to see a new player. Confident on the ball and in his decision making, the transformation from the player he used to be was uncanny. His tactical astuteness is apparent in his positioning, the spaces occupied, the passes played, and the timing of his runs. This change is obvious in the defensive side of his game as well, with the most recent example being his handling of the excellent Thomas Müller just over two weeks ago. And now, where it was once laughable offense to even consider Nacho over Kieran Gibbs, it seems almost impossible to imagine an Arsenal defence without him.

So there we have it. The three amigos. While these players may remain underrated and unappreciated by majority of Arsenal and premier league fans, their good form is instrumental to the shape and performances of this Arsenal, and this cannot be understated. With the latter two players approaching their 30s, the influence of the trio looks to be short-lived. But for the rest of this season and hopefully the next couple, their good performances will aid the team and lead them on to a serious title challenge.

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