Gabriel in the Middle – Why He Fits Into the Arsenal Back Line
Since joining Arsenal in the 2015 January window, Gabriel has had a few short runs of games. He has very much felt like a supplemental player, adding needed depth to the center-back position. Koscielny and Mertesacker have been Arsene’s mainstay pairing, but as we know all too well, injuries and other circumstances necessitate that a side have multiple options. Calum Chambers hadn’t (and still has yet to) fall snugly into a position, so the manager went out and bought Gabriel.
While Gabby hasn’t experienced a fully sustained run of games yet, there are still some things we can gather from his play that provide some insight as to what he can bring to the side. In my opinion, there’s enough there to make his case as a viable long-term starter in the back line.
The easiest and most tempting way to analyze a player is with the eye test. What does he look like on the surface? What are the most salient features of his play? Since we are analyzing whether or not Gabriel could be implemented as a starter in a consistent pairing, it makes sense that his comparison base should be his cohorts in competition, Mertesacker and Koscielny.
It doesn’t require the most scrupulous of observations to realize how Gabriel is different from Mert. Obviously the five inch disparity in height is a contributing factor in how differently the two play. Gabriel operates as much more of a sweeper, whereas Mert is a pure stopper. Gabriel’s hand consists of pace and the ability to run players down while Mert holds face cards in height and presence in the air.
Koscielny, on the other hand, is very similar to Gabriel on a superficial level. The two are nearly identical in build and both play a sweeper role. Both have acceptable pace, are comfortable with the ball at their feet, and make up for their relative lack of height with aggressiveness in the air. Neither shy away from a tackle or an attempt to thread a pass into the midfield. Where Mert is very measured and cautious, the other two are a bit bolder.
Alright, fine, enough with the conjecture! Let’s dig a little deeper and look at comparative statistics. See the table below for the Premier League match numbers behind this next bit.
The trio are very similar in their passing, hovering around the same average passes per game and pass percentage. There’s not much else to take away from these numbers except that the side is not gaining or losing any significant passing quality by choosing one possible pairing over another. They are also similar in their ability to clear the ball, which is another positive when choosing a pair to play.
We do see a significant difference in the categories of interceptions and offsides. As sweepers, Gabriel and Koscielny are more apt to rack up interceptions. Their game consists of cutting out passing lanes and roaming the field to clean up the play. Mertesacker spends much more time making sure he doesn’t get caught out and marking any potential aerial threats.
While Mertesacker is extremely concerned with not getting caught out, Gabriel plays a bit riskier game. This is corroborated by the offsides stat. Gabriel realizes that he can play the offside a bit more often because he possesses the pace to close down the runner, as he did notably against the pacey Josh King of Bournemouth. Mert knows that he doesn’t have the pace to do so, and therefore sits back a bit further to prevent getting torched by a speedy forward.
Of course Gabriel has had a little trouble with letting players in behind. I would attribute this to a combination of his aforementioned playstyle and the fact that he probably still hasn’t fully adjusted to the relentless tempo of English football. He’s still making his way up the learning curve, but I have no doubt that he will get there.
Now that we’ve covered the players on an individual level, let’s look at the dynamics of the different pairings for Gabriel. The more traditional combo would be to play him alongside the lumbering Mert; the classic complement of pace and height. Mert can deal with the aerials while Gabriel can motor around and clean up the back. Admittedly, this wouldn’t be much different from the Mertesacker-Koscielny pairing we are so used to seeing. There’s truly nothing groundbreaking here, and it’s easy to see how it could work.
What interests me more is the Gabriel-Koscielny pairing, of which we have seen much less. I’m a bit tired of the obsolete/outdated notion that there has to be one stopper and one sweeper in a center-back pairing. Just like life in general, the game has changed shape and consistency. We don’t ride horse and buggy to the market anymore. We don’t churn our own butter or light our homes with oil lamps (for the most part), and we certainly don’t have to play one “big” and one “small” anymore.
I would argue that the similarities of Gabriel and Koscielny make for a more versatile defense. Though they may not be 6’6, neither player is lacking in aerial ability. They both go up strong and assertively, often winning balls over larger opposition. Even if height may be a concern for set pieces, Giroud is often on the pitch to bolster the battles in the air.
The presence of two pacey center-backs means that they could also play the offside trap a little more, as they both have shown that they can close down space on quick opposition. This brings a different dynamic to the defense that isn’t seen as often when Mertesacker is on the pitch.
A pairing of Gabriel and Koscielny also offers more protection against pace in general. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see the two side by side against Leicester on Sunday. Vardy definitely possesses the pace that can scorch defenders, so a little extra pace in the Arsenal back couldn’t hurt.
Gabriel is the swingman of the back line, providing some much-needed versatility to how the Gunners approach things at the back. You can use him in a traditional sense with Mert to give Koscielny a rest, or you can play the speed option for a different look out of the back. In today’s game, flexibility is a key factor in giving your side the best chances of winning.
The potential to effectively pair Gabriel with either of our mainstay center-backs shows his legitimacy in the side. While he has been mainly used in a supplemental fashion, his versatility and compatibility provide him with the possibility to start in any given match. As far as I am concerned, the only thing holding him back is experience in the Prem. Once Gabby starts to get more games under his belt, I don’t see any reason why he couldn’t be a consistent piece in the Arsenal back line.