Per Mertesacker is close to fitness again, but should he return straight into the Arsenal side?
Our German beanpole offers height and anticipation, and of course the wealth of experience and calmness that you would expect from a World Cup Winner with over 100 caps. This proves particularly useful when he plays alongside the youthful and occasionally overly ambitious Bellerin. However, Per can also be the bane of our defence when he does get things even slightly wrong, simply because he has no pace, or more importantly acceleration, to recover.
In his absence, the centre back partnership between Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel has been flourishing, with not a single goal conceded up until the midweek aberration in Zagreb. It’s by far from certain that he will walk back into the side, and nor should he. Here’s why.
Size doesn’t always matter
There is no denying that Per’s height is useful at set pieces, particularly against a side as tall as Chelsea, but he’s been out for a little while now and we haven’t seen a glut of set piece goals, even against the similarly tall Stoke. Being a giant, while helpful from a static position, is less useful when the ball and indeed the players attacking it are moving at speed.
I wrote earlier this week on why Walcott should start – we can score against Chelsea in spite of the fact Mourinho is pretty much nailed on to play for a draw. Therefore, our ability to win the game will be based on how well we can keep them out at the other end when they are playing ten men behind the ball and breaking at pace.
Many of Chelsea’s recent goals against us have come on the counter attack, where it is all too easy to get in behind us. It would be criminal not to address this deficiency given Chelsea’s pace, even without the injured Willian. Gabriel and Koscielny have looked much less exposed to this kind of threat over the last couple of games, and it forces Mourinho’s men to come at us in a different fashion.
Channeling his inner Keown
It’s been something of a consistent theme on our podcasts that Gabriel has shades of Martin Keown about him, and in part that has to date been because of his aggressive tackling and his less than boy-band looks. However, he showed last week an ability to do the dirtier side of the game, and that’s vital against a team as underhanded as Chelsea.
We all know how easy it is to wind up Diego Costa. If ever there was a player who looked more like they constantly had a bad smell under their nose than Costa, well I never saw them play. Gabriel has the opportunity and the temperament to distract the forward from his game with the little niggles and nudges that see him lose control. The key, though, will be to avoid getting caught – no mean feat when Mike Dean has been appointed as official-in-chief.
Although Keown only made 3 starts in our Invincible season, one of the most memorable images from that campaign is him jumping in the face of Van Nistelrooy. It’s been too long since we had a player or two prepared to (as legally as possible) get in the face of the opposition. Gabriel shows all the signs of being that man.
Playing to Koscielny’s strengths
The final reason for Gabriel to start at the weekend actually has more to do with what it allows Koscielny to bring to the team. Our senior centre back, as a result of needing to sweep up behind Mertesacker, is rarely afforded the luxury of stepping out of defence in possession of the ball. However, he is excellent at it.
When Gabriel plays it gives Laurent the license to move forward and create an overload in the middle of the park. Against Chelsea, they will already be a man light in midfield if Fabregas plays, and the extra presence of our French international could see them really struggle to get out of their own half.
Most of all though, defence is one of the areas it’s risky to change too much from game to game. I would already expect Bellerin and Monreal to come back in after the less than convincing performances of Debuchy and Gibbs midweek, and it would be an unusual move to change three of the back four ahead of a game of this importance.
I was surprised to see Bellerin selected against Liverpool alongside Calum Chambers with Gabriel stationed on the left of the centre back pairing as it lent the back line a distinct inexperienced look. However, with Koscielny and Monreal anchoring the left hand side, this shouldn’t be such an issue on Saturday.
And that means, for me, that Gabriel should start.
Let’s see if Arsene agrees.