02 March 2015

Gabriel answers the call; BFG is put on hold...

Amidst the glow of a win that sends us back to third place (and, apparently, increases our chances of a top-four finish to 84.4% if you believe GoalImpact), one stand-out performance was that of Gabriel Paulista, who made his Prem debut and overcame some early-match jitters to deliver a stellar performance. While he did very well in his first start against Middlesbrough in the FA Cup fifth round, he had to adjust to playing alongside three new teammates (Ospina, Coquelin, and Bellerín) and to the somewhat more-intense challenges posed by Everton. Don't let their table-position fool you—on paper, this is still very much the squad that briefly eclipsed us a season ago. Gabriel stepped up to deliver a competent if not commanding performance, one good enough to earn him a 7.56 in our ratings-poll. Was his performance good enough to bench the BFG permanently?

To be fair, it would be unfair to relegate Mertesacker to the bench on the basis of his performance against Monaco. After all, almost everyone performed abjectly on that outing. Taking a broader look, Per's pace and aerial weaknesses have long been sore-spots that are exacerbated by our tactical tendency to send wide defenders forward to join the attack. Much as I admire Mertesacker, he bogs us down in attack and exposes us in defense. I'll hardly suggest that Gabriel, after just two matches, is ready to supplant him outright, but a gradual handing-over of the position over the next three months might be what we need over those next three months as well as going forward in the longer term.

Consider that this was Gabriel's second-ever appearance of note at this level in the Prem. Yes, there was that heart-stopping moment when he all but handwrapped a goal-scoring opportunity to Lukaku in the 17th minute, lamely tapping the ball back towards Ospina, forcing the Colombian to charge out to beat Lukaku to it and then tackle the Belgian outside the box. Let's attribute that to early-match jitters and focus on the larger body of work Gabriel turned in. While admitting that statistics only tell part of the story, it is worth noting that he contributed six tackles (best in the squad) and 10 clearances (second-best). On a broader level, he helped to stabilize a defense that had shipped three goals in the worst of ways on Wednesday, earning a clean sheet against a squad that only lost once in its last 11 outings, and that in part because a late red-card gave Chelsea the advantage at Stamford Bridge (as if such an advantage is needed. Then again, Mourinho's conspiracy theory...).

Back to Gabriel. His was a swash-buckling performance in which he overcame his early-match jitters to deliver a superb performance. It might be a bit early to start chiseling his statue outside the Emirates, but, in addition to a skillful tackle on Lukaku inside the six, he added a bit of grit and verve to a defense that has all too often relied on closed eyes, crossed fingers, and clenched sphincters to see us through. As someone who sees all of his matches on the telly, I'm often confronted with a screen that shows eight or nine Arsenal defenders on attack with only Per and the keeper to stop counters. It took me most of the first half to come to terms with the fact that, not only did we have Gabriel's pace and aggression to deny those counters, we also had Koscielny in a more-liberated role that spared him the energy and effort of covering for Mertesacker.

I have had my concerns regarding Mertesacker for a while. Against the likes of Costa, Agüero, Hazard, and others, it's hard to make a case for Mertesacker's lack of pace and physicality. Gabriel may not be ready to take over for the more-experienced Mertesacker; then again, given a choice between Mertesacker's positional awareness and Gabriel's pace, I might have to choose the latter nine times out of ten. How many times have we seen Mertesacker risk a clumsy tackle, missing entirely or committing a foul—in either case, leading to a goal-scoring opportunity if not a goal? I say all of this with a heavy heart because I do like the man. He seems like a good one. However, I worry that the time has come for him to become a squad-player, someone who steps in to give first-choicers a break.

It's a bit too early to grant to Gabriel the starter's role. After all, he's only played two full matches. While this might be enough to prepare him for a visit to Loftus Road on Wednesday, would he be ready to play for a third time in a week at Old Trafford for the FA Cup sixth round? That's a tough call to make, and I'm glad (as we all should be) that I'm not the one to make that call.

For now, I'm content with the notion that we now have a few options at centre-back. We now have an actual rotation available, with Gabriel, Koscielny, and Mertesacker as actual centre-backs, supported by Monreal and Chambers as needs be.

Without making too much of Gabriel's role in the win over Everton, then, his potential emergence as a first-team player could just go a long way towards stabilizing our claim on a top-four (third-place?) finish. Works for me.