This weekend, Gabriel Paulista is set to make his Arsenal debut.
As a substitute, he has already experienced the joy of thrashing Aston Villa, the intensity of a north London derby and the nerve-jangling tension of a narrow win over Leicester. Now, he will feel the thrill of stepping out on the Emirates turf for the first time as Arsenal face Middlesbrough in the FA Cup.
Arsenal fans will look on with intrigue. Despite his hefty transfer fee and the visa accrediting him as an “exceptional talent”, Gabriel is relatively unknown on these shores. That’s not a cause for concern: Laurent Koscielny had a similarly rapid rise from anonymity. Like Gabriel, he arrived at Arsenal as a 24-year-old without a big reputation before going on to establish himself as an elite international defender.
Promisingly for Arsenal, Villarreal manager Marcelino has already stated that Gabriel reminds him of a younger Koscielny.
However, such comparisons are subjective. The most compelling evidence for Gabriel’s quality comes in the form of cold hard statistics. Arsene Wenger has already admitted that his pursuit of Gabriel was hastened along by supporting evidence from StatDNA, the data analytics company Arsenal acquired in December 2012. The numbers suggest that the Brazilian is one of Europe’s most perceptive defenders.
At the time of his departure from Villarreal, the Yellow Submarine had shipped just 17 goals - that’s one less than the notoriously stingy Atletico Madrid. Gabriel’s ability to see danger developing was crucial to that defensive solidity. He made an average of 3.5 interceptions per game in the domestic lead, increasing that number to around six per game in Europe. In fact, no player in the Europa League has cut the ball out more frequently than Gabriel.
That speaks volumes as to his ability to read the game. He sees danger developing early - and crucially has the necessary pace to get there and snuff out any trouble.
That’s where the Koscielny comparison rings most true. Anticipation and athleticism are key attributes for both players.
It will take Gabriel some time to settle. Anyone who watched Koscielny’s early performances for Arsenal will recall that defenders with proactive instincts can be prone to errors of judgement. Fortunately, the new boy has the recovery speed to get atone for most mistakes.
He will need to learn the language. Arsene Wenger is a skilled linguist, but is no master of Portugese. There are plenty of Spanish-speakers at Arsenal, but in his 18 months with Villarreal Gabriel did not make significant strides on that front. Steve Bould and the rest of the Arsenal coaching staff will have been drilling him with the basic phrasebook to ensure he can navigate his way through the 90 minutes.
Fortunately, he’s likely to be partnered by the communicative Per Mertesacker, who was rested for the fourth round trip to Brighton. On paper, that looks like a more balanced partnership than putting Gabriel alongside Koscielny. Earlier this season, Koscielny’s absence meant Mertesacker switching to the left-hand side of central defence to accommodate the right-sided Calum Chambers.
However, Gabriel is a versatile player with experience in both full-back positions. He should be able to slot in to Koscielny’s customary role, allowing Mertesacker to stay where he is most comfortable.
He will not be coming in to a stable back four. Wenger is likely to rotate fairly heavily against Boro, restoring Wojciech Szczesny and Kieran Gibbs to his starting XI, as well as potentially handing a reprieve to Chambers, who has not even figured on the bench in the last two league games. Paulista may not be the only Arsenal defender feeling a little ill-at-ease.
Nevertheless, should Gabriel come through this test unscathed Arsenal will be in a far stronger position for it. At this crucial stage of the season, the fixtures come thick and fast. Having a reliable alternative centre-back to rotate in when necessary would be a huge boost to Arsenal’s hopes of ending the season on a high.