When the line-ups were announced ahead of Arsenal’s trip to Newcastle last Saturday, a bizarre feeling swept through me.
It wasn’t the glaringly obvious omission of Mesut Ozil that caused a stir in my mind, nor was it the selection of Theo Walcott as the side’s spearhead. Instead, I found myself overwhelmed by a huge wave of confidence after a single glance at our back four. Its arrangement – though an illness to Per Mertesacker would certainly have influenced it – seemed absolutely representative of a potent and menacing gunners defence.
For the first time in many months, this sense of security – at least to my attention – hadn’t stemmed from the selection Koscielny, but rather the inclusion of Gabriel; a player with whom I have remained fairly unfamiliar since his arrival nine months ago.
In the half dozen or so appearances he has made since his January transfer, he hasn’t exactly set the world alight…but crucially, neither has he put a foot wrong. His performances in red and white have been nothing short of stellar, solid and effective; three things all fans want to see in their team’s central defenders.
As the game progressed, I paid extra attention to his game. His distribution appeared cool and collected, and his positioning equally intelligent. I watched as he intercepted, jumped high to meet the most challenging of aerial threats and marshalled his teammates during Newcastle attacks. ‘Why has this guy not seen more Premier League action?’ I remember thinking to myself at half-time.
The answer, of course, lies in Wenger’s reliance upon selecting a defence glued together by both Koscielny and Mertesacker. Why change a winning formula, after all? Well here’s why; because Gabriel and Koscielny would be even better.
I say this with derogatory connotations towards Mertesacker whatsoever. To be absolutely clear, I like Per. I’ve been a fan of his ever since the latter stages of the 2011/12 season, when he clearly cemented a firm partnership with Laurent Koscielny. After uncertainty and criticism in the first few months of his Premier League career, the German steadied himself and evolved into one of England’s most consistent defenders.
I just think that Gabriel’s time to stake claim to a regular starting position is now. Whenever he appears for Arsenal, he consistently impresses. At this point, there simply is no excuse for his constant demotion to the bench. His style and inclusion would represent a more rigorous, aggressive and no-nonsense look to our defence. And coming out of a disappointing transfer window, I think that kind of stability is exactly what we need.
I will at this moment in time, if I may, address the interesting comparisons to Thomas Vermaelen, and the catastrophic failure that was his partnership with Koscielny. For those fans out there thinking that a Gabriel-Koscielny core would be equally as flawed, I ask you politely to reconsider.
Gabriel is far more composed and poised when in possession of the ball – a trait he may have learned to develop on the streets of Brazil some years back – and much more stable in an aerial duel for such comparisons to appear credible. Paulista is young, at only 24 years of age, and has at his disposal a huge breadth of time to learn from and adjust to the onslaught of Premier League football.
If I am impressed by anything, it has been by his seemingly rapid and effortless transition into perhaps the world’s most physically demanding league. His capability and professionalism at this level can be a huge asset for Arsenal this season, but such opportunity can only be tapped into if Wenger does the right thing and breaks the Per & Laurent mould.
A swift acclimatisation of any player, but particularly a centre back, within English football is an impressive showing. The myth that he has thus far gone totally unchallenged too is laughable. Statistics show that per 90 minutes of football, he has been faced with an average of eleven defensive challenges, and his success rate shows he certainly isn’t shy of a tackle.
In addition, his one-on-one duel record is nothing to ignore either with a seventy four percent win rate; the highest ratio – you may be interested in knowing – of any of Arsenal’s outfield players.
As respected journalist Henry Winter tweeted shortly after the Newcastle game arrived at its conclusion: ‘Admittedly only intermittently tested, but Gabriel still impressive for Arsenal. Calm one v one and simple, sensible distribution.’ Apparently I’m not the only one noticing it.
An Arsenal side graced with Gabriel’s gritty and determined presence will transition into a much sterner and less feeble side to play against during the course of the upcoming season. Much emphasis has been placed in recent weeks upon our attacking capabilities, but I think a realistic Arsenal fan will at least acknowledge that we have the tools in defence to launch a productive and successful campaign.
And thus it is my unwavering belief that Gabriel will be the key defender in Arsenal’s pursuit of silverware this season, and not to play him regularly enough would be both an insult to him as much a lack of ruthlessness on the part of the manager. If Koscielny and Gabriel are not firmly established as Arsenal’s first choice centre back pairing come May, then Arsene Wenger will have indeed missed a trick.
I have a new found confidence in Arsenal’s back four, and for once it has absolutely nothing to do with Laurent Koscielny.