This story first appeared in the July 2016 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
“I like to watch Arsenal, and sometimes players don’t get the credit because you just expect them to always do a good job. Every time I have seen Monreal play this season he has been faultless.” Andrea Pirlo was certainly not alone in recognising Nacho Monreal’s efforts during 2015/16.
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Arsenal legend and former left back Nigel Winterburn described his performances as “outstanding”, with Arsène Wenger praising the doughty defender’s “absolutely fantastic” attitude. Nacho came into the season battling with Kieran Gibbs for a starting spot and ended it as Arsenal’s first-choice left back, with 45 appearances, plenty more plaudits and a new contract under his belt.
Nicknamed ‘Mr Consistent’ by some, Nacho can count himself slightly unfortunate not to have joined compatriot Hector Bellerin in the PFA Team of the Year after a campaign in which his defensive competence and increased willingness to get forward earmarked him as one of the Premier League’s foremost full backs.
Perhaps his very best display came against Bayern Munich in a 2-0 Champions League group-stage win. Nacho stifled Thomas Muller’s threat to such an extent that Wenger described his performance as “a lesson for any young full backs in concentration, determination and positioning."
That the boss was so keen to tie Nacho down on a long-term deal just a month before the defender turned 30 emphasises just how important he has become to the club. “He’s calm, focused and dedicated,” Wenger said after Nacho put pen to paper. “He’s well-accepted and loved by his partners. He has the modest approach of a player who wants to give his best to the team. Everybody senses that.”
Nacho, while still harbouring thoughts of what might have been, was “pretty happy” with how he performed in 2015/16. The defender feels completely settled at Arsenal, having spent three and a half years in north London and, as he exclusively tells us, believes this squad are well equipped to ensure next season ends with silverware.
Nacho, let’s start with your overall opinion on Arsenal’s season…
Overall it’s been a good season but we are left with a feeling that we could have done more. If we had been more consistent, we could have won the League. Unfortunately, a couple of months ago we had a slump and lost a lot of points. We lost our edge and the chance to go for the title.
All things considered, it has not been a bad season but we are ending it with a bittersweet taste in our mouths. Our aim is to win, of course, so if we don’t win anything, we have to be self-critical while remaining ambitious.
What can we be particularly proud of?
The team is going from strength to strength. There is always room to improve further, of course. Since the day I arrived at Arsenal the squad is growing and has got steadily stronger. It is very competitive and that pushes up standards. We are on the way up.
And what are your biggest regrets?
Our biggest regret, of course, is not winning the title. It has been an a typical year. No one expected Leicester to achieve what they have. They have been the most consistent team in the League for the whole season. Inevitably we end up thinking that if only we had been more consistent, if only we had not dropped points in certain matches, we could have won the title, but things have turned out as they have.
We fought for the title much of the season, what do we need to do to make that final step?
Primarily we need to be more consistent. We are a team that is ambitious, that wants to win, that has a real hunger to win but we can change from one day to the next into a team that lacks those qualities. We must be more consistent and fight for everything from the first minute of the game until the last to ensure we get those three points. We have to improve. We’ve got a lot that’s really good. We have quality players but at times we are a bit complacent and maybe do lack that hunger.
And what can you say about Leicester?
People are saying it’s one of the greatest upsets in the history of all sport - not just football… I think Leicester are worthy title winners. They have been the most consistent side throughout the season. From the first game of the season until the last they knew exactly what they were doing. In every game they played the same style of football. All the players were committed and fought hard from the first minute until the last. All this has led to them being worthy winners.
Are people in Spain as surprised about Leicester? What do they say?
Yes, absolutely. People are surprised all over the world. No one expected that a team that were nearly relegated last season would win the League this season. No one saw it coming apart from a few Leicester fans maybe. But it goes to show if you work hard, do things well and the whole team pulls together, these things can happen. Ultimately it’s good for sport. Maybe it’s not so good for us as we lost but such an occurrence is good for people, good for the spectators, good for football in general.
When you look at Leicester, does it make you think of when you were playing for Malaga and Osasuna and if a similar scenario could have been possible there?
I’m not sure. Leicester had a really clear style of play. All their players defended and they relied on a few really fast players, such as Mahrez and Vardy, to counter attack. We may have tried a similar strategy at Osasuna but we did not have the same class of player and that makes a huge difference. Ranieri knows his squad really well and he played to their strengths perfectly.
Of course you are an Arsenal player now - and this season you’ve played more games than in any previous season, does that make you proud?
I’m happy. Since the day I arrived at Arsenal until now I feel I have enjoyed the full support of the club. I have been in the starting XI for most matches this season. At a personal level I am pretty happy with my performance this season. My aim is to carry on working hard, carry on showing the manager that he can rely on me to produce a similar performance next season.
You’ve developed a great relationship with the fans too - that must please you…
Yes, of course. When I first arrived in the UK, I found it really hard for the first few months, even the first year. It was a huge change and I found it very hard. I wasn’t playing at the level I knew I could. The fans were critical - that’s to be expected. It’s all quite psychological. I was aware of my abilities and I had to tell myself that if I carried on working hard, it would pay off in time.
Fortunately, that’s what has happened this season and it’s reflected in every aspect of my work: I have played in virtually all our matches and I also enjoy the support of fans. That makes me very proud. It’s quite simple - when you play well, the fans thank you. When you don’t play well, they are more critical and that’s quite right because we are playing at a level where they should expect us to deliver.
What would you say were your personal highlights of the season - when did you finish a game and think ‘I played as well as I possibly could then’?
It’s difficult to pick out just one or two occasions. It’s going back a long way but the Community Shield match against Chelsea stood out for me. It was at Wembley, there were loads of Arsenal fans there, a fantastic atmosphere and we won the match. Another match that stands out is our 5-2 win at Leicester. It may not have seemed that important at the time but it does in retrospect given that Leicester only lost three matches all season.
You’ve become one of the league’s most consistent full backs - do you like the title ‘Mr Consistent’?
I don’t pay much attention to such things. What I focus on is working hard, doing my best and helping the team. I’m not bothered about getting a title for being the best player or the most consistent player. All I want to do is help my team mates and my club.
Full backs need to be good athletes but also excellent readers of the game; do you think - having just turned 30 - that you are at the point in your career where you have the best of both?
Yes I do. The reality is when you’re young you just have so much energy and you feel great. As soon as you finish one match you can’t wait to play the next because you feel fine and you recover really quickly. On the other hand you lack experience at that age. With time you lose a bit of physical fitness but you gain huge experience.
You understand far better where to place the ball, how to read the game and what the team needs. I feel I am at a point now where I am combining well those two elements. I feel great physically and I also have the benefit of many years’ experience which helps in tricky situations.
Your friend and fellow full back Hector Bellerin was named in the PFA Team of the Year and has got to a very high level while still very young. How would you describe his season?
He has had a fantastic year. He is still a really young player but at the age of 21 he seems to have a maturity beyond his years. He is so confident too. It’s as if he’s already been playing for many years. He is a very physical player and that helps him a lot in the Premier League. He has a real hunger to win. There are still things he has to learn but he wants to learn them all as soon as possible. We are looking at a world-class player. We mustn’t forget he is only 21 and he is already playing at this high level.
Someone at the other end of his career is Mikel Arteta who has retired this summer. How important was he when you first joined Arsenal?
He’s probably the player who helped me most when I arrived at Arsenal. I didn’t speak English and he was the one who always looked out for me, made sure I had what I needed and explained things that I didn’t understand, so I am very grateful to him. Furthermore, it’s been a real privilege for me to play alongside him.
Apart from being a great person, he is also a great player. He’s had a long and successful career. He may be approaching the end of it but I believe he’s not ready to hang up his boots yet. It’s not easy. For the last year and a half he hasn’t always made the starting XI but I think he’s still got a lot of football left in him.
Mikel has stayed in the game in a coaching capacity, could you see yourself doing something similar in the future, and would you consider staying in England?
To be honest at this point I’m not really thinking about life after retirement. I’m focused on playing and I believe I still have many years ahead of me. When eventually I’m facing retirement, I wouldn’t mind being a coach. It’s not a long-term plan at this stage but it’s definitely something I would consider. Football is my life. If I can’t play football any more I would love to be involved in the game in some capacity.
Finally Nacho, how do you plan to keep your fitness up during the summer to make sure that you’re ready to build on your convincing season when the Premier League kicks off again in August?
Well there’s time for everything during the summer. To maintain fitness we are given a programme to follow so we don’t waste six weeks doing nothing. Otherwise your body would relax so much that it would be really hard work at the start of the new season. We have two weeks of total rest then we start the programme of running and gym exercises. The programme is important but it’s also important to relax.
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