Arsene Wenger faces centre-back choice between Mertesacker, Gabriel
Arsene Wenger will have to choose between a centre-back who still doesn't speak the language or one who doesn't have the pace to keep up with Jamie Vardy when Arsenal play Leicester in a crucial Premier League clash on Sunday.
Wenger has said that Gabriel Paulista still hasn't learned enough English to be a vocal leader on the pitch, leaving Petr Cech to organise the back four when Per Mertesacker doesn't play.
However, he has still picked the Brazilian over the slower Mertesacker recently after the German was sent off for bringing down Diego Costa with a clumsy challenge in the 1-0 loss to Chelsea last month.
While Wenger refused to say which player will partner Laurent Koscielny on Sunday, Gabriel's speed could earn him a fourth straight start at the back.
"None of the two [Gabriel and Mertesacker] is a real commander. I ask Petr Cech to lead a bit more, because they don't talk too much," Wenger said. "Koscielny is a silent leader, and Gabriel at the moment doesn't master [English] well enough. And I don't think as well he's a natural extroverted defender."
Vardy made Mertesacker look downright slow when he scored the opening goal on a quick counter-attack in Arsenal's 5-2 win at the King Power Stadium in September, and Wenger might view Gabriel as the better choice to face Leicester's high-powered attack.
Claudio Ranieri's team lead the Premier League by five points after using their counter-attacking abilities to stun Manchester City 3-1 away, and Arsenal badly need a win to claw back the momentum in the title race.
Gabriel has mainly been used as a backup to Mertesacker and Koscielny since he joined Arsenal in January of 2015. But with Arsenal facing an even faster and more dangerous attack when they take on Barcelona in the Champions League later this month, this could be Gabriel's big chance to stake a claim on a permanent starting spot.
"Gabriel has always done well. He adapted slowly to the Premiership, but today I think he has adapted," Wenger said. "He's still a young central defender but he shows big potential."
His language skills are still an issue and left-back Nacho Monreal said Gabriel still relies on Spanish to communicate with his teammates.
"It's good that I can speak Spanish with him on the pitch, but Gabby knows he needs to improve his English because that will make the football easier," Monreal said in comments for Sunday's matchday program. "Myself, Hector [Bellerin], everyone is helping him every day with it because it's much better for the team.
"I know exactly how he feels, because it was the same for me when I first arrived. When my English got better, I got better on the pitch too, because when you are playing one of the most important things is confidence."
As for Mertesacker, Wenger said the German has enough other qualities to overcome his lack of speed, and said pace isn't crucial for a central defender.
"Per Mertesacker is a great leader, a very respected one in our dressing room, but I have three centre-backs and it depends a bit on their level of form, the number of games they've played and the opponents we play against.
"What are their strengths and where can they hurt us?" Wenger queried. "There are many centre-backs that are not pacey. John Terry is not super pacey. You need at least one of the two [to be quick]. It depends as well, if I play right centre-back and I have on my right side a full-back who is very quick and on my left side a guy who is very quick, it's not so much damage done.
"Because he can be covered from the right and from the left. Playing centre-back is also about reading the game, and anticipation, and Per Mertesacker is very strong at that.
"Let's not forget that he played all the games until now, and we won against Man City against Man United, they all have good strikers."
And while containing Leicester's quick breaks will be one of the keys on Sunday, Wenger said Arsenal must still focus on playing their normal attacking game.
"We will try of course to stop their counter-attacking. But you have to play at home by thinking 'how do we express our strengths?' And our strength is to have the ball. We have to try to express our strength and as well try to stop them from getting us on the break."
Mattias is ESPN FC's Arsenal correspondent. Follow him @MattiasKaren.