Wenger faces dilemma over Mertesacker and Gabriel for Leicester showdown
As the pressure mounts on an Arsenal side battling for their first Premier League title since 2004, and ahead of a crucial game against surprise package Leicester City on Sunday, Arsene Wenger is presented with a dilemma when it comes to the centre of his defence.
Does he stick with Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel, after the Brazilian took the chance presented to him following Per Mertesacker's sending off against Chelsea on Jan. 24? Or does he bring the German back into the team alongside the Frenchman to reboot a partnership that has, for the most part, been solid, effective and successful?
Perhaps there's a hint in that he's kept faith in Gabriel despite Mertesacker's being available again after his one-game ban. In those games, Arsenal have kept successive clean sheets, against Southampton and Bournemouth, and he has played his part in those.
Having arrived from Villarreal for £11 million in January 2015, Gabriel is still finding his feet in English football and has yet to start more than four games in a row. In terms of basic attributes, he has much of what you want from a central defender. He's quick, aggressive, likes to tackle and is generally good at that. He's decent, if not perfect, in the air, and in some ways he's quite reminiscent of the Koscielny that first arrived at Arsenal in the summer of 2010.
At the time, the 24-year-old had relatively limited top-flight experience, with just one season in Ligue 1 under his belt. Like Gabriel, he possessed many of the assets you want your central defenders to have, but it took him some time to grow accustomed to a new country and a new style of football.
Mistakes weren't regular, but they weren't uncommon either, and we're seeing some of that with Gabriel as he still gets to grips with his new surroundings. For all his good qualities, there are some flaws that need to be ironed out.
There's a worrying tendency to let attackers get the wrong side of him in the penalty area, and goals conceded against Chelsea and Bayern Munich were evidence of that. His passing and distribution from the back could be improved too, but there's no doubt he has the makings of a fine defender.
Interestingly, while Koscielny's development as a player have happened over time as his experience grew, it's irrefutable that we've seen the best of him since his partnership with Mertesacker was established.
After a horrible day at White Hart Lane in March 2013, Wenger's patience with former skipper Thomas Vermaelen was sapped. The Belgian was never anything more than a bit-part player after that, and the Mertesacker-Koscielny axis was preferred. It's one that has brought out the best in both men. The Frenchman's aggressive, quick style was complemented perfectly by the German's calm assurance and reading of the game.
It remains to be seen if Gabriel and Koscielny will gel in the same way. He and Vermaelen were incompatible because they were the same type of player, and it's apparent there are similarities between him and the Brazilian. So it will be interesting to see how Wenger uses his central defenders in the coming weeks.
Experience is so important at a crucial part of the season, and Mertesacker has that in spades. Like any defender, he's had his bad moments, but he remains an integral part of this team. People might focus on his lack of pace, but if that's all you needed to be a top defender, you'd play Theo Walcott there.
His sending off against Chelsea was clumsy, but it's worth pointing out that in the previous 60 games he played for Arsenal, he'd racked up just one yellow card. The idea that he is a player routinely exposed by fast attackers is a myth. While it wasn't his finest piece of defending, you have to look also at how a dysfunctional Arsenal midfield allowed that passage of play to develop.
With Francis Coquelin set to come back into the side for Sunday's game, the added security at the base of midfield could tempt Wenger into returning Mertesacker to the starting lineup. The pace of Leicester's counterattack is an obvious threat, and on the face of it Gabriel might seem like the better fit, but Mertesacker and Koscielny have dealt with that successfully many times in the past.
It's not an easy decision, though, and that in itself is a positive when you consider the lack of depth Arsenal have had in this position in the not too distant past.