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Nacho Monreal, Management Material

A lasting image of Arsenal’s 2015 FA Cup triumph was manager Arsène Wenger hoisting the trophy with left back Nacho Monreal. Wenger’s joy, as unrestrained in his sixth win as in his first, warmed many supporters’ hearts.

The moment was all the more stirring because Wenger shared it with Monreal. The Spaniard had shone in the two decisive victories of this cup campaign, the final and the quarterfinal win over Manchester United, and had been one of the season’s most important contributors. He deserved to accompany the manager for this image of triumph.

The shot was symbolic, too. It captured two Arsenal leaders, one the obvious public face of the organization, the other a less visible but influential figure. As time passes, we may look back on this moment and see the emergence of Wenger’s protegé.

Monreal isn’t the current player most observers expect to become a top-flight manager. That’s probably captain Mikel Arteta, who indeed seems to possess many of the qualities of intelligence, leadership, and communication required of modern football managers. There are also signs of a future manager in Monreal:

  1. The way he thinks and talks about the game
  2. The growing influence he is having among his teammates
  3. The club’s reliance on him as a public spokesman

Expressing a manager’s mindset

In 2015, Monreal has shown he can convey a complex understanding of football. That’s a vital capacity for a successful managerial career, and Wenger has clearly influenced Monreal in his development.

I first noticed this ability after Monreal’s outstanding performance in the Cup quarterfinal at Old Trafford. His post-match interview on Arsenal Player relied on managerial discourse. “We have to keep going in the same dynamic,” he urged. “We have to win every single game. That is our mentality. Only thinking in the next game, and get those three points against West Ham.”

The shift from the bigger picture — the necessity of a winning run — to the focus on the upcoming match was classic Wenger. (See “Arsène Wenger’s Management Acrobatics.”) The use of the word “dynamic,” too, raised Monreal’s commentary above that of the typical player interview; his was the Spanish-inflected voice of Wenger.

Monreal has given thought and expression to other management-grade issues. For example, how should rotation of the squad be addressed in the middle of a successful run? “In these moments, I think the most important thing is not to change the team.”

At the same time, Monreal has been keen to promote competition within the squad and support teammates who find themselves among the substitutes. He has spoken at length about his direct competition at left back, Kieran Gibbs:

Kieran is an amazing player. I can imagine it is really difficult for the boss to choose between Kieran and me. Obviously, in football only 11 players can start the game. The boss can choose between him or me. I think it is a good thing for the team. I have to give my best every day in training, or I wouldn’t play. I think in this position we are lucky, as we have two good players.

Again, this sounds like a Wenger statement, attending to the confidence of a current second choice and valuing talent throughout the team. This priority on the collective is part of what I described as “Arsenal’s Defining Mindset.”

Wielding influence in the team

By seeing the team’s growth and objectives through a manager’s lens, by displaying a knack for communicating this progress in a second language, and by making an impression on the pitch, Monreal has earned the respect of his teammates.

As midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain said of him in his “Meet the Team” profiles on Arsenal Player, “He’s picked up English like an absolute genius. He gives it a go – you’ve got to give him that. And he’s just a top boy.”

This for a teammate who’s keeping Chamberlain’s “sensei,” Gibbs, out of the starting XI.

Monreal’s influence is especially apparent among the team’s Spanish-speaking members. He provides the cerebral and serious side of leadership while Santi Cazorla takes the playful side. Monreal often serves as the go-between with referees when a player is injured, and he helps the team’s Spanish speakers during promotional appearances. As a result, Monreal has become a kind of authority among equals.

This could all come down to his facility with English. But his commitment to learn the language underscores his professionalism and, perhaps, hints at his aspirations in the field of football management, where English is the lingua franca.

Entrusted by the club

The Arsenal hierarchy has recognized Monreal’s growing stature and has made him a prominent messenger of the club’s plans and ambitions.

He was one of two players, the other vice-captain Per Mertesacker, chosen to review the season on the club’s Website. Among his comments was a signal that the club and its players intend to build on their success: “I imagine the club will sign new players, but I think in this moment, we are building, we are making a good group, and this team, it will help us for the next season.”

Not earth-shattering stuff, but soon after, Monreal represented the first team at the Arsenal Soccer School in Dubai, where he emphasized his desire to extend his contract and his interest in acquiring “one or two top players.”

Then he returned to England and was the club’s pick to meet with a group of bloggers at the launch of the new home kit. Here, he drove home the message — one the club must have approved, otherwise it would not have given him this prominent role — that the club need “one or two top players,” particularly one to provide goals.

As I wrote in “Arsenal’s Title Ambitions,” Monreal’s statement aligns with Wenger’s previous assessment of the squad. He also delivered this analysis in detail, in a second language, in an unscripted forum.

His ability to excel in this setting suggests more than a few similarities with Wenger and hints that he may one day follow in the Frenchman’s footsteps. Until then, a well-deserved contract extension should await this emerging leader.

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