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Gunner Thoughts

Arteta must return to Gabriel’s dominating presence

As Arsenal get ready to face Manchester United at home, Arteta should look back to Gabriel’s dominating presence when he selects his backline

Gabriel came to Arsenal this year, and while everyone had high hopes for him to be part of the future of Arsenal’s backline, few will hav predicted he would be as great as he has been, as fast as he has been. Saying he hit the ground running doesn’t do it justice. He hit the ground sprinting. No, he hit the ground breaking Usain Bolt’s olympic records.

He collected the first three months worth of Arsenal’s Player of the Month awards, and he deserved each and every one of them. Granted, the team’s was really struggling in the league during the month of November, few people would argue it should have gone to anyone else.

Last month, shortly after his birthday and the holidays, Gabriel tested positive for Corona Virus, interrupting what had been an incredible beginning to his time in north London where he had established himself as nearly undroppable.

Of course, after his positive test, Pablo Mari came into the mix and was not only incredible, but Arsenal actually broke out of their month-long slump. Mari’s consistency and stout defensive work helped lead Arsenal to wins over Chelsea, Brighton, West Brom and Newcastle before he suffered a calf issue that has since kept him out.

For the last three Premier League matches, and the FA Cup 3rd round alongside Pablo Mari before those, Mikel Arteta has turned to David Luiz resulting in 3 wins and draw. The one game in which Arteta did not use Luiz, the FA Cup match against Southampton, Arsenal lost and it wasn’t the glamorous return for Gabriel that many would have been hoping for.

Gabriel was very unfortunate, but it was his touch that put Southampton’s game-winning goal in to the net, however, that wasn’t his only misplaced step. By the standards that he has set for himself, he was poor, with Southampton attackers getting the better of him on a multiple occasions to create good chances. A rusty return from Arsenal’s new-found star defender.

The following match, Arteta opted to return Luiz to the backline, alongside Rob Holding, and not many should blame him. Gabriel had struggled in the previous match, just 72 hours before, and that wasn’t even the first time in which Southampton had gotten the better of him. We can’t forget that it was against Southampton in their first clash this season that Gabriel was sent off with two yellow cards.

Additionally, against a team like Southampton that looks to press, David Luiz’s ability as a ball-playing center back gives him a major leg up. He is able to help Arsenal keep the ball moving smoothly when attempting to play out of the back, as well as, beat the press with a well-delivered, quick ball over the top to find the wings in space. To Luiz’s credit, he has that type of play in his locker. For a team like Arsenal that have struggled against the press, having that ability to relieve pressure and spring the attack by getting the ball from back to front quickly can make a huge difference.

Arsenal would get a great win against Southampton, 3-1, but Luiz was a passenger in back for most of the match. 71% pass success and just 32 passes, 0 duels won, 2 clearances, 0/1 in aerial duels, and 5 recoveries. Given the result, it’s not necessarily a night to forget for Luiz, but he won’t have felt like he was a shining star given his opportunity. He did help keep Arsenal’s line high to compress the game in on Southampton, but he had a few mistakes and miscommunications that put Arsenal under some real pressure. Fortunately Leno was up to the task.

Now Arsenal move to Manchester United this weekend and the match type switches. Manchester United’s pressing numbers are a little worse than Southampton’s and their success rate separates the Saints even more.

PressuresSuccessfulSucc. %
Southampton141.145.532.3
Manchester United126.438.330.3
Arsenal113.333.829.8
Stats from FBref.com; All stats are “per 90 averages”

While this might not seem like an immense difference, we are talking about 15 less pressured occurrences, and 7 less successful occasions that result in turnovers. They pressure more than Arsenal, but their effectiveness is only 0.5% better than Arsenal’s which tells you how good Southampton is when it comes to putting teams under duress.

In Arsenal’s first clash with United, a 1-0 win for Arsenal at Old Trafford, Manchester United pressured even less than the numbers above. Out of 111 pressures, 34 of them were successful for a 30.6% success rate. While their percentage remaining the same suggests they chose their moments to pressure well, the lower quantity may be contributed to the presence of Thomas Partey and Mohammed Elneny offering themselves as options to relieve the danger.

Compare those results to the Southampton game Arenal just won in which the Saints had 167 pressures, 53 successful pressures, for a 31.7% success rate. Considerably higher than United, which suggests that Luiz may not be as needed.

Additionally, in the first clash between Arsenal and Manchester United, Gabriel was a star at the center of Arsenal’s back three. In the process of keeping a clean sheet, Gabriel won 7 duels, had 5 clearances, was 5/5 in his tackles – including a last man tackle – had two interceptions, and 5 recoveries. It was a dominative performance in which he handled the likes of Rashford, Greenwood, and Bruno Fernandes all afternoon.

Since that first battle, Rob Holding has continued to come along very nicely and Arsenal have switched to four-back system which will be a change from Gabriel’s early success. Additionally, Manchester United have really hit their own stride, as they find themselves one point behind league leaders and rivals, Manchester City. Having played one more match than the Cityzens, and having just become only the second team this year to lose to Sheffield United, Manchester will know there is a lot on the line as they look to bounce back.

At home with less statistical pressure but a team looking to be rampant and get themselves back to winning ways? Sounds like a perfect match to have a dominating figure in back, looking to impose his will onto the match. Given Luiz’s average performance in Arsenal’s win and Gabriel’s excellent performance last time out versus the Red Devils, Arteta must turn back to his younger Brazilian center back.

Not only would this be in hopes of getting another great match against an opponent Gabriel should be confident against, but because Gabriel will certainly need to play a major role in the remainder of Arsenal’s campaign if they are looking to achieve something in the Premier League or Europa League.

As of yesterday, only Manchester City has conceded fewer goals than Arsenal, and Arsenal’s record on set pieces this year has improved remarkably through the work of Arteta and set piece specialist coach Andreas Georgson. Gabriel’s imposing presence at the back was certainly a huge factor in early success, and Arteta needs to get him back involved. Saturday is a great day for it to start.

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