On Tuesday last week and Sunday this weekend I think we saw the first signs of a changing of the guard at the heart of our defence. With Gabriel making his third game in a row in all competitions, it is clear that Arsène has decided that the Brazilian needs to get a run of games in order to prove whether he can make the step up and become a regular in the side. That makes sense to me. He’s younger than Big Per, faster than the German, as well as better on the turn. With Mertesacker exposed in the channels like he was against Chelski, perhaps Arsène finally relented to general sentiment and decided that if we’re to see the best out of ‘Gabby’, then he needs to build some momentum by playing more regularly.
He has always had the potential and we’ve seen glimpses of it in sporadic appearances, but he’s never really been able to sustain any kind of run in the team. I understand why. Arsène likes consistency in his sides. He likes the players to build small partnerships all over the pitch and Mertesacker and Koscielny have been a pairing for a few years now. But football leaves little room for sentiment and players will always come along that are faster, or better on the ball, or are better at positioning. At this moment in time it feels like Gabriel is on the cusp of that. He’s not 100% guaranteed yet though.
On Sunday he had his moments. The way Pugh got past him did have an eyebrow raised, but the guy did manage to get past Gabriel with a flick of his hand, so there was an element of fortune about the way the ball presented itself to Pugh. So perhaps Gabriel can be given the benefit of the doubt.
Koscielny has certainly been suitably impressed with his recent partner, but with the defence as a whole and whilst we have all been quick to point out the deficiencies in the attacking section of the team, the back four have only conceded two goals since Anfield about a month ago. You only have to look at the Pugh chance mentioned above to see the importance of developing an understanding between defenders, as it was Bellerin who managed to track back and win the ball, saving Gabriel’s potential blushes. There’s been a lot of talk about the impact of Cech in goal and rightly so, because he’s been magnificent for us this season, but the back four should also be looking to take some plaudits too. You don’t have one of the best defences in the league because your ‘keeper saves you every game. You get it through organisation.
Now, having said that, we have looked shaky at times and there’s no doubt that we have pressed the occasional self destruct button. But if Arsène can find a formula to prevent those balls being fed in to the channels and for the players to cut out any individual errors, we have a platform with which to build on, so we need to maintain consistency.
For me it means Gabriel comes in on a permanent basis and I hope we see him at Leicester. As he grows in to his status as a number one choice he’s going to make mistakes, but as long as his defensive partners have his back, we will be able to cope. With Vardy and Mahrez being all about the counter too, it seems prudent to have two centre halves who will not be completely outdone for pace every time a diagonal ball is lofted in to our half, so I can understand why Arsène has decided that now is the time to build up Gabriel and Koscielny’s “automatisms”.
But where does that leave Big Per? Probably with a pitch side view of what is happening on the bench, but with the games soon to start coming twice a week from next weekend onwards, I suspect he’ll be preferred in FA Cup games and possibly any league games where teams play with a target man rather than a pacey forward who can turn him quickly. Perhaps it’s the curse of the Arsenal captaincy, because with Arteta soon to have his contract expire, that would leave Big Per with the armband and plenty of time to think of what to write in the captains notes in the official matchday programme.
I feel for him if it does happen and he loses his place to Gabriel, but football is a evolutionary as life, just ask Debuchy. Or ask Thomas Vermaelen. To my untrained eyes it looks and feels very much like the time Big Per first started playing more regularly than the Belgian. That started out due to injury to Vermaelen as opposed to suspension, which is what Mertesacker has had, but the premise is the same. A player has come in, taken his chance and will probably now be afforded a regular slot in the side. If he stays in its great for us because it means he hasn’t made many mistakes! So for my two penneth worth, I hope this is a partnership for the rest of the season, because we need to keep our consistency at the back and chopping and changing in defence will help nobody.
So let’s hope that we see the best of Gabriel in the coming weeks. We’ll need to with the run of tough fixtures we’ve got.