Tactics Column: Gabriel still to convince at centre-back but deserves time

Petr Cech put the ball down to take a quick goal-kick but mid-action, stopped. On the edge of the box, Gabriel hesitated for a split-second, seeing, in the corner of his eye, the striker encroaching. Cech motioned again to kick the ball out but Gabriel wasn’t ready; he was not comfortable receiving the ball with the predator so close to the stream. “Do you want the ball or not?” Cech’s glare seemed to say to Gabriel. The defender thought for a moment but then was decided.

“Just hoof it,” he said – or words to that effect; it’s hard to discern what the players are saying from where I occasionally sit at the Emirates. Gabriel’s body language, though, was unanimous, sweeping both arms hastily towards the other end of the pitch to signal for Cech kick the ball long.

Arsenal already had put themselves into trouble two or three times previously by going short, particularly through Gabriel, and the frustrations from the crowd, and on the pitch for the failure to build effectively, were starting to simmer. At the final whistle, Arsenal ended up drawing 0-0 against Southampton, missing a host of chances to grab the crucial three points.

It would be a costly blip though not as much as the successive draws prior against Stoke and Liverpool in January and then defeat to Chelsea; or the back-to-back losses that would follow in February and March against Swansea and Manchester United.

It forced Arsene Wenger into a shake-up to try and save Arsenal’s season and the result has been largely positive. In have come Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny, replacing the incompatible duo, Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini (who on that night against Southampton, surely contributed to a stuttering performance); while Alex Iwobi impressed so much in the FA Cup that not only has he forced his way into the starting XI but has displaced Alexis from his favoured left-wing position to the right-flank.

Danny Welbeck, back from injury, completes the front four. The final change has been longer in the making, with Gabriel finally given a prolonged run in the first-team, though it’s not something he’s been able to grab with both hands, with his performance in the most recent 3-3 draw against West Ham underlying why he still has a way to go to fully convince he’s the man for the job.

In a way, Gabriel was symptomatic of the problems Arsenal had against West Ham, although not in any way solely culpable for the damage Andy Carroll did in the air. The Gunners simply didn’t filter back quickly enough to stop crosses – also a problem in the 3-2 defeat to Manchester United.

The knock-on effect of not getting into shape in transitions, or when pressing high, is that it forces the defence to retreat. As shown by West Ham’s opener, Aaron Creswell had time to survey his options and cross – essentially an open play free-kick – while Gabriel and Koscielny were too far back to challenge Carroll.

It’s not a coincidence also that the goal came down Arsenal’s right side where Alexis was never in the position to get back, partly because of his advanced positioning as he is almost allowed to press/attack as a second striker (the goal originated from an Arsenal free-kick in their own half). Also  Iwobi, despite an excellent creative performance, gave the ball away prior to the first-goal and took a heavy touch in the build-up prior to West Ham’s equaliser.

With Mesut Ozil and Iwobi frequently switching positions, Arsenal had been able to create a number of dangerous attacks down the left. Ozil drifted into the space between West Ham’s right centre-back and the wing-back to score the opener with Iwobi stepping inside to deliver the assist; whilst the second Arsenal goal also came from such an interchange, though this time with Alexis darting to the other wing after a counter-attack, and Iwobi juts drifting between-the-lines. His lofted-pass over the top was perfect, as was the pass through-the-lines to fins him from Coquelin.

At that moment it seemed Arsenal would runaway with it. Slaven Bilic too recognised that, and although he would wait until half-time to make the change Carroll had brought the game back to parity. Still, Bilic was the more proactive of managers with his side switching to an orthodox 4-2-3-1 after the break while Wenger did was nothing. In fairness, at one point in the first-half, he asked Bellerin to get tighter to Creswell but as we later found out, the problem was that Alexis wasn’t providing adequate defensive support.

Later, Wenger said that he did not predict West Ham to select Carroll thus admitting indirectly he was ill-prepared to face the aerial threat that the striker posed. It also took a while for West Ham to adjust and after they used the big man to great effect. Before that though, Koscielny had marshalled him well and had won the bulk of the aerial duels – one of which irked Carroll so much he could have seen red for a nasty swipe on the defender, before later using his elbow to lead into a challenge with Gabriel.

After the game Wenger said Arsenal’s problem has always been in the air – but the issue is not really challenging for headers, because the current centre-back pairing generally play with lots of aggression, but stopping them at source. As mentioned earlier, it was a similar problem against Manchester United and it was evident in the goals they scored in the defeat, how far back the Arsenal defenders were forced to retreat in the face of a quick attack.

Mertesacker probably would have made a difference in defending balls coming into the box but the choice to start Gabriel is because Wenger thinks he can compensate with his glide across the turf. Certainly, that has been evident to some degree though Gabriel has nearly undone that thinking in some matches with his rashness in the tackle.

It’s hopeful that he will acquire more fluidity to his game over time because, we forget that, in this age of instant-impression, adjustment periods are expected to be different for players of different cultures and mentalities, especially for one who has risen through the ranks so suddenly as Gabriel.

Koscielny took an age to shrug off the error-prone tag labelled at him, even up until the last two seasons, and indeed, it is quite pertinent we make comparisons between the two because they are actually quite similar players with broadly similar career trajectories. Gabriel explains this in an interview on Arsenal Player saying: “I have to change my style a little bit [depending on my defensive partner]. When I’m playing with Mertesacker, he’s much more experienced. He plays more in his position, talks to me a lot whereas Laurent is a faster player.

“Laurent is more similar to me. There are a few differences but the quality of their passing is something which gives me a lot of confidence.”

It seems as if Gabriel is aware of the criticism that has come his way in regards to his passing and the need to improve. Contrast that to Koscielny in the draw to West Ham and the difference was stark. Gabriel mainly stuttered to play telling passes to his midfielders whilst Koscielny was full of gusto and confidence, often running out with the ball (he was helped create the first goal by stepping out into midfield) and playing long passes to the flank.

On the one hand, it’s harsh to criticise Gabriel’s passing much because it also depends on what’s in front of him. Arsenal often depend on playing the ball to the full-backs first, which is not the right way to play – you want to get it to the midfield first which, to be fair, Elneny is helping with. The Egyptian often steps to the side of the centre-backs to receive the ball to try and create angles.

Still, much of it is off the cuff and in some moments in games, Gabriel doesn’t have the option of a deep, distributing midfielder coming towards the ball – the way he would have learned how to play out from the back in youth teams – thus the onus is on him to try and open up the pitch. Yet that’s often the way Arsenal build, using the midfielders instead as decoys. Even Santi Cazorla did that sometimes when he playedm which Monreal alludes to when appraising the Spaniard for Arsenal Player saying that Cazorla “brings our centre-backs into the game and that really helps us to bring the ball out.”

For Arsenal and Gabriel, the more pertinent issue is to show more resolution. That’s 14 points The Gunners have lost from winning positions. Things must improve, and from now until the end of the season, Gabriel will have to show he has the fortitude to remain in the team.