The Spaniard arrived not as a marquee signing but has proven as important as one.
Nacho Monreal woke up and reached for his phone. To his puzzlement, he saw two missed calls from his old friend Santi Cazorla. The pair hadn’t been in regular contact since Cazorla had left Malaga the previous summer, and his first thought was that it must be bad news. Monreal tapped Cazorla’s number and called him straight back.
“Nacho. Do you want to come to Arsenal?”
“Yes, of course!”
The day was 31 January 2013, and having woken up as a Malaga player, Monreal would end the day signing a contract with Arsenal. “It was a really, really strange day,” Monreal would later remember.
If Monreal was delighted to be swapping the financial cadaver of Malaga for the Premier League riches and Champions League ambition of north London, not everyone was so elated. It’s easy to forget now, in this new and unsettling world where Arsene Wenger forks out £52m on a striker and goes back for more six months later, just how tired Arsenal fans were getting of the club’s stadium-enforced austerity. As the Manchester clubs and Chelsea flexed their might, as transfer fees disappeared skywards, Arsenal’s record purchase was still Jose Antonio Reyes, a decade earlier. More infuriating still, for Arsenal fans, was the fact that Wenger almost seemed to take a perverse pride in his frugality.
As the January window opened, Arsenal were linked with the usual galaxy of Europe’s top names: Yoann Gourcuff, Yann M’Vila, Stephan El Shaarawy, David Villa. Wenger announced that he was prepared to “spend big” if the right player came along. The stage was set.
And then: very little happened. Days and weeks ticked by. The stories continued to flow. David Beckham was spotted at the training ground, only for Wenger to douse the speculation immediately. It appeared Arsenal would go another transfer window without strengthening a squad that seemed to be slipping further and further behind the Premier League’s elite.
So when Monreal emerged at the very last minute out of a fog of inaction, Arsenal fans were unsure how to react. This was not the marquee signing they craved. Few, indeed, had heard of him. And yet, this was real money, being spent on a real first-team player, a signing for the present rather than the future. Monreal was thus greeted with a curious cocktail of emotions – instinctively underwhelmed, and yet secretly quite grateful.
That precarious balance would pretty much sum up Arsenal fans’ response to Monreal over the following five years: broadly positive, few complaints, and yet if were Arsenal to splash out on an expensive replacement, few would mourn. He would do for now, at least until someone better came along.
And yet, over the last few months, Monreal’s performances have begun to upset that precious balance. His versatility was a big part of making Wenger’s switch to a three-man defence work, and a big part of why Wenger has switched back to a four in recent weeks. He offers solidity in the centre, creativity on the flanks and an underrated physicality in the air. He has even begun to chip in with goals: three this season, doubling his entire Arsenal career tally. In a largely ho-hum season, Monreal is becoming perilously close to indispensable.
Here again, he was imperious as Arsenal reached their fourth Wembley final in five seasons with a
2-1 victory over Chelsea in the Carabao Cup. It was his header, twice deflected, that gave Arsenal a crucial early equaliser, and yet his most telling contributions were made at the back. His defensive header to fend off an advancing Antonio Rudiger at the near post was almost as important as his earlier assist. He made more blocks and tackles than anyone else on the pitch. Such was his mastery over Victor Moses on the Chelsea right that Antonio Conte was forced to replace him with Davide Zappacosta for the last 20 minutes.
Does Monreal get enough credit? “For me, he gets very much credit,” said Wenger after the game, flashing us the cheeky little grin he often gives when he is entirely satisfied with life. “But maybe, there’s a bit less focus on him because he is not a candidate for the English national team. He doesn’t make many statements. Or maybe he is not enough on social networks.”
This much is undeniable. Monreal is an unfussy sort of player, a man of simple pleasures, who when not training is most often to be found in the Colney canteen. “He has, like, three lunches every day,” his team-mate Hector Bellerin revealed in a YouTube Q&A recently. “I don’t know how he does it.”
Wenger, for his part, refers to Monreal as a “silent leader”: an exemplar, the sort of player who gets unfussily on with business and yet inspires others to emulate him. “The world of silent leaders,” he explained, “is when people come, they perform, they don’t talk, they go home, and they come in the next morning, train well, and then the next day they do it again. They are the real leaders.”
A critic – and heaven knows, there are quite a few of those – might be tempted to speculate that Wenger’s preference for quiet leaders is symptomatic of a team that could probably do with one or two noisy ones as well. But for now, Arsenal are on their way back to Wembley, and the quietly excellent Monreal – with the emphasis on “quiet” – is one of the main reasons why.