“Arsenal needs cover for Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny” has been a common phrase used amongst fans and media alike over the past year or so. With the signing of Gabriel Paulista however, Arsene Wenger could well be moving one of his cornerstone centre-backs aside in no time.
The Brazilian won’t simply come to make up the numbers on Arsenal’s lightweight bench; he will be aiming to impose himself as he has done with Villarreal since signing as recently as August 2013.
In terms of box ticking, the 24-year-old has everything Arsenal require in a defender. He has plenty of projection in terms of still being at an age where he can improve, is comfortable in possession, and offers both speed across the ground and aerial prowess.
Paulista is something of a mix between Pepe and Lucio as far as centre-backs go, both having harnessed the physical and technical sides of the game to perfection. It’s these aspects that make him particularly appealing as a signing, given he’s not one dimensional, and this is shown by his versatility in the past of playing at centre-back, and full-back.
Paulista has been predominantly right sided in his career, and is right footed as well. Manchester United’s reported interest made sense given Paulista’s past of also featuring in a back three, where he proved capable of playing all across the line.
Marcelino, his now former coach at Villarreal, was known to be particularly enamoured with the Brazilian’s ability on the ball, in terms of moving it out of defence and beginning attacks. Paulista was initially bought as cover, but given Villarreal’s style, in which they dominate many games in terms of possession, the centre-back’s attributes have become important in this system. It has been particularly beneficial against deep block teams, as Gabriel is able to move 10-15 yards out of defence, at times bringing the ball over the halfway line, and playing into the midfield.
Despite playing only around 50 games with Villarreal, the Brazilian has clearly matured quickly in terms of adaptation to Spain. Matteo Musacchio’s injury, at first thought as possibly a factor to derail Villarreal’s quest for Champions League football, has barely been felt given the big Brazilian’s form.
It’s good news for Arsenal, as they need Paulista to hit the ground running. He will indeed, arrive confident. Concerns over injuries and form to defenders at Arsenal means the player will need to essentially impact straight away, though of course a typically tough January adaptation period must be taken into account. Still, on the outset, Paulista does possess the qualities a modern Premier League centre-back requires. Pace, power, anticipation skills, and ability to not be fazed in possession. For all this, his fee looks relatively paltry.
— Villarreal CF (@VillarrealCF) January 24, 2015
On the back foot too, Paulista has improved significantly. While he does anticipate the play well, and have solid positional qualities, if caught out he can make up ground quite significantly. A good turn of pace, plus his long legs providing large strides, help Paulista pull himself and others out of dangerous situations. A lot of Villarreal’s play is via the high line, so it was clearly in mind signing Paulista would facilitate the system well.
Evidently his physical make-up is what will strike fans of the Gunners first, and it is utilised well by the player. Height, and build, makes Paulista a combative opponent. He’s not afraid to get his head in where it matters, and can clear danger with no questions asked.
Overall, it’s a move well calculated by Arsenal. Paulista is not one or more of the other, he blends different styles of defending well and while the long term is clearly in mind, there is no reason why a short term impact to address long running issues at the club can’t be felt too.
While it may be said Arsenal has yet again avoided signing an elite centre-back, it’s worth remembering people said the same regarding Diego Godin’s status as he left Villarreal for Atletico Madrid. The Uruguayan is now considered one of the best in the world in his position – Paulista has shown every sign so far he could move within reach of the elite in time.