At a time in which many bemoan the lack of quality defenders, it’s a joy to be able to write about one. It’s time to take Gabriel Paulista seriously.
When Gabriel joined Arsenal in January 2015, it was very much a case of “Gabriel who?” for many Arsenal fans, and those fans generally less familiar with La Liga. Though Arsenal bought the Brazilian centre-back from Villarreal, he had only been there for 18 months since transferring from Vitoria in the Brazilian Seria A.
What Arsene Wenger was looking for at the time, was a clone. The following is an opinion not shared by many who don’t regularly watch Arsenal, but it is my belief that Laurent Koscielny is subtly one of the, if not the finest central defender in the game. His pace, leap, agility, aggression, reading of the game, ability to cover his partner and ability on the ball are all second to none. Most defenders have one or two of these attributes, the better ones have three or four. It is so rare that you unearth a player with all of them. If you watch Gabriel closely, however, you’ll notice that Arsenal have done exactly that. Again.
There are times when watching Gabriel that you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching Koscielny, save for the Brazilian’s rather Keown-esque features. In the 2014/15 season, Gabriel started five games for Arsenal, and the side won all of them, conceding only three goals in the process. The team also won the two games in which Gabriel was brought on as a substitute last season, conceding none after he entered the game.
You may look at these relatively basic stats and say that they mean very little. Perhaps. But what they mean to me is that a player with just 37 games in European football who can barely speak a word of English stepped into a high-functioning, elite team at a crucial time in an important season, replacing either Koscielny or Mertesacker and if he didn’t make the side even better, he certainly didn’t hinder it. His individual stats are impressive too. I won’t go into them but rest assured, no matter which website you use or whatever metric, Gabriel rates very highly indeed.
On Monday we saw him having to deal with Benteke. With Mertesacker and Koscielny both out, Gabriel lined up alongside Calum Chambers. While centre-back looks like it will be Chambers’ position in the long run, to date he has barely played there and his nervousness and inexperience were on show for all to see. Chambers’ wayward passing as well as that of the midfield meant that Arsenal suffered through a chaotic first half, with Coquelin intervening just in time on a few occasions. But throughout the game and in his first time out as the more senior of the two central defenders, Gabriel was a rock. He won headers, anticipated and intercepted, covered for Chambers’ lack of pace and distributed well from the back.
Here’s a video of his performance. I want to pick out a few key moments that I think really demonstrate Gabriel’s ability.
- 1.57 – Look at that challenge
- 2.40 – Look at the pace.
- 4.04 – Making a harmless but cynical foul is not something Arsenal have been good at recently. Here, Gabriel brings Benteke down and takes the yellow to stop a counter attack. More Keown about him than just his face.
- 5.14 – exemplary defending. Guides the attacker to where he wants him and then makes a perfect sliding tackle.
- Throughout – not many win aerial duels with Benteke but Gabriel won his fair share.
In my humble opinion, the sky is the limit for Gabriel. I’ve said he is a clone of Koscielny, but his ceiling is perhaps even higher. Arsenal bought Koscielny when he was 26, and his first season was rough. Over the next two, the Frenchman ironed himself out until he became the frankly world class defender we’ve witnessed in the past couple of years. At 24, Gabriel already appears to be close to Koscielny’s current level, and that is scary.
With the latter a doubt for Arsenal’s Saturday trip to Newcastle, the Brazilian will once again get the chance to impress. I get the feeling that it won’t be long until he’s widely considered one of the world’s best. Feel free to laugh now – you won’t be later.