Gabriel has signed, he has been announced, and now it’s time to let his play do the talking. With his singing, and the return, or arrival, of William Saliba, many will have high hopes that Arsenal can put the worrisome future of their backline behind them. At 19 and 22, and long-term deals for both, Arsenal appear to have hedged their future bets by ensuring both of these youth starlets have the time they need in north London to etch their names into The Emirates’ history.
But the path is likely to be far from linear. While both will want to carve themselves the space and reputation needed to be the defensive pairing game in and game out, by all accounts that will take a bit of time to achieve. After all, Gabriel and Saliba are fairly raw talents. Saliba has made 36 first team appearances in 2 years, while Gabriel made 52 in his last two seasons. Comparatively, Luiz made 50 in the 2018/19 season alone and another 44 last season for Arsenal. That’s not to say these two should be at the point of “veteran Luiz” playing time, it’s simply to say the testing these two have undergone is limited making them raw. Exciting. Very exciting. But raw.
It’s this reason that I believe monitoring the left center back role will be one of the most interesting and exciting aspects of Arsenal’s 2020/21 season and I’m looking forward to it.
What about other positions people are challenging for? Well Saliba should maintain the right center back role in time with maybe a few challenges from Rob Holding, but it’s likely to be his. The goalkeeper position is likely to be solved with the sale of someone, same with the right back role fight between Maitland-Niles and Bellerin, and the midfield will probably have a pretty obvious semblance by the end of the window. I mean Arsenal will likely purchase someone, loan in Ceballos, find a spot for Willian and off we go.
Finding the right combination in the midfield will certainly be a large task for Arteta and one that hopefully we be more exciting than frustrating, but I believe it will be pretty clear come October 6th when the window is closed.
But at left center back, Arsenal have David Luiz, Gabriel Magalhaes, Kieran Tierney if in a 3-4-3 formation, and Pablo Mari who is mending but will be fighting tooth and nail to earn himself playing time. At 27 Mari is in his prime, meshes with the Brazilian squad composition, and reportedly has qualities that Arteta liked enough to buy long term just a few months ago. With Arteta’s desire to eventually switch to a 4-back system, the available spots in back will be cut by one and the battle will become cutthroat.
How Arteta handles the blooding of his two young defenders and the slow inclusion will likely be crucial to their early success. Seeing as Arsenal are likely to start their season in a 3-4-3 formation until their transfer business is complete, Arteta has the option to play both Gabriel and Saliba with Luiz central in efforts to help them through this experience. But is that too much untested youth to begin with in the lineup? If so, does Arteta opt for a only one of the two to be in the back at the same time?
The idea of a Saliba, Luiz, Tierney back three with Saka potentially as the left wing back (assuming Maitland-Niles has either been sold or occupies the right) seems like a much more consistent and stable surrounding for Saliba to grow. Similarly, a Gabriel, Luiz, Holding back three with Tierney at the left wing back role offers Gabriel a good amount of experience to find his footing. The problem is, that limits the amount of match time Saliba and Gabriel are getting, and if the goal is to have the pair be playing together sooner rather than later, it limits their time on the field together.Throw Mari in the mix as well as you got yourself a party.
If Arteta trusts Mari, which we can assume he does given he started him right out the gates of the restart against Man City, we could definitely be looking at a back three of Mari, Luiz, and Saliba with Tierney as the left wingback and one of Arsenal’s three right backs at wingback, which is a semi-promising look as well…he says having seen very little of Pablo Mari. And it’s that lack of time seeing Mari that adds to the chaos and mystery of this situation.
According to Arsenal’s last team update, Mari is progressing well in his rehab and pushing to rejoin the team in September. Does that mean he will be ready for Fulham should Arteta call his number? To be determined, but we are going to see three relatively new center backs, two very young options and one in his prime, vying to be partnered with David Luiz, with only a few spots available.
From a viewer’s perspective, it will make for great entertainment. At times it is guaranteed to frustrate fans, but that is just how it goes. With any learning and growing process, these players are likely to have a few mistakes along the way. To imagine that Arteta selects a lineup for the first match and it all comes together and is never altered, seems a bit far fetched, which is why I am very excited to watch it unfold next season.
Seeing as he signed and was announced yesterday, let’s talk a bit about what type of player Arsenal have added to their backline.
Coming from Lille, Gabriel was loaned around and struggled to make the starting eleven for some time. After an injury opened up a spot, he grabbed the opportunity and never looked back. It’s something that surely counts as a positive. Every team is looking for that quality player that grabs the spotlight and never lets it go and Arsenal will hope he does the same for them.
As a defender, he offers a good ability to read the game and the athleticism to make a play — be it a clattering tackle, interception or clearing lines. At 6′ 3″, Gabriel provides a big frame and is known for his strength and ability to throw his weight around to great effect. Combining that large frame and high levels of athleticism, it’s obvious why he has impressive numbers surrounding his ground duels and aerial duels won (60% and 70% won respectively).
Shifting over to the offensive side of the game, you hardly see a drop in quality. His passing ability is just as impressive if not more than his defensive game. Showing a keen ability to pick out the long ball, Gabriel offers Arsenal that diagonal, cross-field ball, often against the grain, that has been a staple of Arteta’s attack with Mustafi and Luiz at the back. Last year in Ligue 1, Gabriel completed 255 passes in to the opposition’s half, best in the league, and 578 progressive passes, 2nd best.
It’s pretty easy to see where Gabriel fits in and why Arteta was keen on bringing him in. At such a reasonable price, Gabriel could prove to be one of the biggest steals in the window and an asset for years to come. He allows Tierney to shift back to a more comfortable role, he will have a Brazilian connection with Luiz and a French connection from his Ligue 1 time with Saliba. Additionally, his left foot and passing ability may be more than capable of covering the tasks we saw Xhaka having to do, which would allow Arteta more freedom to expand the midfield role. The question may not be IF Gabriel will fill the shoes, but simply how long will it take for him to get comfortable in them.
Plenty to be excited about all around with this one and the viewing will be incredible!