For previously unsung Nacho Monreal has emerged this season as the unlikely leader who has done more than anyone else to hold together a Gunners’ season which has once again not lived up to expectations.
The versatile defender’s importance was again shown when he was rested for Thursday’s Europa League last 32 second leg at home to Ostersunds, and the team were embarrassed 2-1.
Fortunately for Arsenal, Monreal played the away leg last week, scoring the opening goal in a straightforward 3-0 win which ensured they still progressed.
The contrast between the two results, and the two displays, was yet another reminder of how the quietly spoken figure has become such a key personality at the Emirates.
Monreal has won three FA Cups and three Community Shields since a below the radar €10 million transfer from Malaga in January 2013. He could add another trophy at Wembley on Sunday, but that will not make up for one more year of Premier League struggles.
“Winning would be a boost, but our objective is always to qualify for the Champions League and to battle to win the Premier League,” he said. “Because you look at the players we have and really there is no position where you say we lack what is needed. But each year we are up there, and then we drop points.”
Those words came just before Arsenal surprised Chelsea in last year’s FA Cup final, a result which gave more optimistic Gunners fans hope that this season they could finally win a first Premier League title since 2004.
But it has been deja vu all over again at the Emirates, and Arsene Wenger’s team are again way off the top four, after more false dawns and harsh realities.
“When we’re playing well, when we’re focused, when we are all together, it’s tough to play against us,” Monreal repeated last December.
“But we play two, three games at a very high level and then we have a dip. If we were more consistent we’d be fighting for more things at the end of the season.”
Such a winning attitude helps explain how Monreal has been a starter for most of his time at the club, first seeing off England international Kieran Gibbs and now Sead Kolasinac of Bosnia at left-back, and also filling in impressively at times at centre-back despite his slight 5’7” frame.
Wenger explained recently how the Basque was under-appreciated due to his “silent” way of going about his job.
“Maybe there’s a bit less focus on [Monreal] because he is not English and is not enough on social networks,” the Gunners boss said. “But our job is about performance and I like the world of silent leaders.
“People come to work, 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 in the team.”
Wenger, 68, can be forgiven for not following Monreal’s generally witty contributions on Instagram and Facebook.
Off the pitch this natural character is among the more interesting and grounded of footballers, a fan of the NBA and Lord of the Rings movies who has said he would have ended up working in the family business had football not worked out.
“My dream is what I am doing now,” he explained last year while swapping places for a day with Pablo Orbina, his former schoolmate turned internationally acclaimed music director, and attempting to conduct the London City Orchestra.
“Many players get lost along the way. That is not a failure, it is just that maybe this was not the career for them.”
However most Arsenal fans surely wish the veteran coach could make more of his players follow Monreal’s common sense example and share his desire to get the most out of their talent.
As higher profile teammates sulked or meandered their way through the first months of 2017/18, the defender has scored five goals in 27 games, including a header against Chelsea in the Carabao Cup semis.
Monreal’s worth is appreciated with Spain, where despite never being first choice at left back he has 21 senior caps and will go to the World Cup this summer. His status among his peers was shown last October when he was given media duty amid another storm around Catalan nationalism.
“We just focus on football and try and leave aside politics, as that is not our area,” he said calmly, in stark contrast to other louder teammates in the La Roja set-up.
Next summer is likely to see Athletic Bilbao again try to bring Monreal back to La Liga, with the Basque-only club having money to spend and a limited pool of potential targets.
Current Athletic manager Jose Angel ‘Cuco’ Ziganda was also Monreal’s boss when he came through at first club Osasuna.
“I’m happy at Arsenal, but you never know the future in football,” the player himself said last summer. “Cuco is maybe the person who helped me most to be where I am today.”
Monreal’s future plans will not be as hotly debated as those of former teammate Alexis Sanchez were, but his departure could be a bigger loss to the club.
Adding a Carabao Cup medal to his collection would make his 32nd birthday celebrations on Monday a small bit happier this year.
But the ‘silent leader’ clearly knows that occasional cup success is not enough for Arsenal.