“I don’t [think] you can point the finger at one player after the Monaco game. It’s a big chance for Gabriel now, though. I think it could be a defining moment in changing Arsenal’s back four now, for sure.”
~Martin Keown, prior to the match against Everton
The exclusion of Per Mertesacker was very telling last Sunday as well as mid-week against QPR, as Arsene Wenger has backed his new(ish) centre back Gabriel Paulista in his place. Coming off of an incredibly sub-standard performance — one in which every shortcoming that has been lumped on him from his critics was actualized — the BFG has remained on the bench, reserved to watching on as his club edged Everton by two and QPR away.
Is his being replaced deserved? Might it have been for any reason other than due to lack of quality? When you read the club’s starting eleven, what were your immediate thoughts? Is this a permanent change to the line-up, or will Gabriel return to the sidelines in favour of the German international?
Let’s first look at Mertesacker versus Monaco, his last match. The biggest concern is not that Mertesacker is quite slow for a centre back, nor is it that he refuses to win aerial duels — those we already knew about. What I take away from the mid-week Champions League clash at home to Monaco is that what we see as the most important quality that he brings to Arsenal Football Club — his leadership and decision-making — were suspect at best.
Case in point, how many times were defenders, full backs especially, caught out of position? How many instances were they meandering up the pitch without proper cover, only to turn-tail to jettison back to their proper spots on the pitch?
Each player is responsible for his level of play, but when it comes to Per Mertesacker, what has endeared himself to Arsenal supporters and to Wenger himself is his ability to take control of the team. In fact, many, myself included, were hoping to see him as club captain the second Vermaelen left for Spain.
I couldn’t help but feel that I wanted him to do something about it as I watched the club fold last week. Perhaps someone needed berating, not dissimilar to the tongue-lashing Mesut Ozil got from the BFG last season after walking off without acknowledging Arsenal away fans. For that reason, I wasn’t terribly disappointed that he was replaced by Gabriel on Sunday.
Speaking of whom, has Gabriel played well enough to earn him a more permanent spot in the starting eleven? I don’t believe we have a definitive answer quite yet. I am also not convinced that his inclusion was ever meant to be permanent. We know that Arsene Wenger, if anything, is loyal, sometimes to a fault. Allowing players to remain past the time when most feel they should be on their way has become a hallmark for him — is that why Flamini has played so many minutes this season?
I expect that Mertesacker will not be a starting centre back to start the 2015-2016 season as Gabriel, hopefully, will have learned enough English to play at one of the most critical positions on the pitch. A partnership of the aforementioned Brazilian with Laurent Koscielny would be a very athletic, physical tandem, that would surely provide us a strong backbone. And giving him meaningful minutes is going to be the only way he, le Professeur, can possibly gauge whether he has found someone better for his team than what he has with Per Mertesacker.
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