Gabriel Paulista: What Arsenal Fans Need to Know
It’s happened. Arsenal have actually recruited in a position they need… before deadline day!
Realistically, the transfer of versatile centre back Gabriel Paulista from Villarreal should have been completed on January 1st. The need for an extra defender has been glaringly obvious since the closure of the summer transfer window and Wenger has had the entire first half of the season to organize a remedy for this.
Nonetheless, in light of recent years, it remains a pleasant surprise to see Arsenal get their business done with at least an air of punctuality and decisiveness. The mere news of an 11m defensive signing has no doubt been greeted with approval by the Arsenal fan base, yet for most (myself included), the name Gabriel Paulista will have been met with little familiarity.
You’ve probably heard of him, you may have watched him, but few without strong knowledge of Spanish or Brazilian football can profess to know all that much about him. Simply through being a recognized central defender, he will improve the squad. But just how good is he?
Here’s what you need to know about Arsenal’s new Brazilian.
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It may come as a surprise to some that the 24 year old has played just one full season of top flight European football. Clearly Wenger has gone for potential with truly established world-class defenders hard to come by, particularly in January.
From 2010 to 2013, the defender plied his trade for Brazilian club Esporte Clube Vitoria. Despite suffering relegation to the second division in a forgettable first season, he went on to become a prominent member of the first team, as they achieved promotion two seasons later.
In 2012 and 2013, Gabriel was elected as the best central defender of The Campeonato Baiano, as Vitoria were crowned the champions.
Following a €3m to Villarreal in 2013, his debut season saw him make a slow start to life in La Liga in his role as fourth choice centre back. Fortunately, he has now adapted to the Spanish League, cementing his place as an ever-present, consistent member of the team, having started 18 out of 19 games this season. Also, the side have exceeded expectations, currently lying in sixth place.
Furthermore, he appeared in every Europa League group stage fixture as Villarreal made it out of their group.
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After a very impressive season thus far, he has gained a reputation as a cultured and dogged defender. He is, after all, a key component of a defence that has only conceded more goals than Real Madrid and Barcelona in La Liga.
Villarreal coach Marcelino has described him as ‘a player who’s wanted in the dressing room and very important to the team.'
As we saw with his emotional farewell last week, he may have only been there since 2013 but he has certainly left his mark. Gabriel has the qualities to adapt to Arsenal’s unique offensive style of play, with comparisons already made to Laurent Koscielny, a player whose persistent injuries he will inevitably have to cover.
He is two footed, a valuable asset in the modern game and proficient when it comes to aiding in an attacking sense, with particular praise given to his comfort on the ball and his ability to launch counter attacks quickly from defence. While he may lack the passing quality Arsenal are so renowned for, this really is not the end of the world. His physical and defensive qualities joint with his no-nonsense attitude will be far more valuable to this team than his ability to play pretty passes, as seen through the recent emergence of Francis Coquelin.
Gabriel possesses considerable pace and athleticism for a centre back, which can be crucial in the intense, high-speed, end-to-end Premier League arena. More importantly, he is also a much-needed strong tackling, physical presence standing at 6’1.
This combination of pace and power is exactly what is needed modern Premier League era and will only help to accelerate the infamous ‘transition period’. Alongside reports that he is the ‘kind of player who will run into the post if that is what the coach demands’, he looks to be the type of defensive reinforcement we are looking for.
Critically, considering the never-ending injury ‘crisis’ at Arsenal, Gabriel has proven to have a strong fitness record, rarely ever missing a game for Villarreal over the past two seasons. Significantly, taking into account the club’s horrific fitness history, he is very versatile in a positional sense having been utilized at both left and right back for the yellow submarine.
When reviewing reports on the centre back the words ‘mature’, ‘solid’ and ‘reliable’ continue to surface, which is encouraging for a side whose defence has become synonymous with anything but.
His defensive statistics this season show him to be performing at similar levels to both Koscielny and Mertesacker with a slightly higher interception rate (3.84 per game) and a slightly lower tackle success rate (54% per game). Whilst we must take into account the differences between the two leagues, his position as La Liga’s second highest dispossessor of opponents this season is something to be admired.
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With just one and a half year’s football out of Brazil, inexperience will be an issue.
He has yet to complete a full season as a regular starter in La Liga, has had no appearances for Brazil and none on the Champions League Stage. Fundamentally, he remains fairly unproven at the top level. This combined with the vastly different nature of the Premier League compared to La Liga, through it’s physicality and directness, will undoubtedly make it a difficult transition for him to make.
Gabriel cannot speak English which may act as a further hindrance to his adaption yet he has shown an ability to pick up languages quickly.
His limited technical ability and the consistency of his passing has also been highlighted as drawbacks, which will add to the struggle to adapt to the style of the team. Despite his height and tenacity, he has not demonstrated anything particularly exceptional in the aerial aspect of the game, sometimes losing out to the more powerful forwards in La Liga. That's something Arsenal fans will not want to hear.
Goals are also missing his game, having not scored for Villarreal, which will need to improve in order for him to become a more complete player.
Is He What Arsenal Needs?
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Is he the imposing, dominant leader that Arsenal really need to revolutionize their much-maligned defence right now? No. Might he be one day? Perhaps.
The great Thierry Henry has stated that Arsenal are getting ‘a young but polished player, a special talent’. Villarreal based journalist Javi Mata recently informed The Independent that ‘Gabriel is probably at 60% of his potential’ and that he ‘develop into a top defender’.
Clearly Wenger still views Koscielny and Mertesacker the core of our back four. Gabriel is a solid, reliable answer to a truly desperate lack of defensive options, who could become much more in the future. Truly world-class defenders are hard to come by at the best of times, let alone in January. While Gabriel represents potential, not the finished article, he certainly has the attributes to strengthen the squad.
Wenger has acknowledged he got it wrong in the summer, leaving us with six recognized first team defenders, and for once he has reacted promptly. Well done.