Gabriel: Arsenal's aggressive leader is maturing into a Premier League great

Gabriel: Arsenal's aggressive leader is maturing into a Premier League great

Even after the full-time whistle had gone at the Etihad on Sunday, Erling Haaland and Gabriel were still going at each other.

The pair had been locked in a battle all game and more heated words were exchanged.

Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola acted as mediator and eventually the pair embraced in a hug before breaking out into smiles.

For Gabriel, it was recognition of a job well done as Arsenal held their City to a 0-0 draw to boost their title prospects.

Few defences can keep Haaland quiet, but Arsenal have now shut him out on three separate occasions this season.

Gabriel was again a rock at the back for the Gunners (REUTERS)
Gabriel was again a rock at the back for the Gunners (REUTERS)

Each time Haaland has failed to manage even a single shot on target and, as much as neutrals may not be enthralled by the prospect of Arsenal and City potentially meeting in the Champions League semi-finals after their dull stalemate at the weekend, you can bet the Norwegian feels the same.

Haaland, probably more than anyone from the blue side of Manchester, will be glad to see the back of Arsenal.

The Gunners' defence was rightly lauded for its performance on Sunday but, not for the first time, it was William Saliba who claimed most of the spotlight.

He was named man of the match and is often the one singled out for praise. That is perhaps in part down to his style, with his composure on the ball easy on the eye.

Inside Arsenal, however, they are just as aware of the role Gabriel plays and no one underestimates his contribution to the team.

Mikel Arteta considers centre-back the hardest position to play in the Premier League, but he also views it as a partnership.

Gabriel and Saliba have struck up a formidable one which has played a key role in Arsenal having the best defence in the division this season.

Their styles complement each other well, with Gabriel taking on the role of the aggressor and Saliba sweeping behind him.

Gabriel and Saliba’s personalities make them a good match

It proved especially effective against City and Gabriel relished going toe-to-toe with Haaland.

The Brazilian looked to get touch-tight to the City frontman, denying him the chance to spin in behind after setting the ball, and Saliba dropped off in case the defence was penetrated.

Gabriel and Saliba’s personalities make them a good match too, with their relationship developing since they were first paired together in the summer of 2022.

Gabriel is the leader of the back four - and he is not afraid to scream and shout at his team-mates.

That emotional energy dovetails nicely with the calm approach of Saliba, who playfully winds up his centre-back partner off the pitch by telling him he talks too much.

The pair often communicate in French, with Gabriel fluent from his time playing in Ligue 1 for Lille, and an unlikely friendship has now blossomed.

“Building a relationship and chemistry; there is not a company with the stats that can give you that stat,” says Arteta. “That’s impossible to measure. That is not tangible, but it’s very, very important in certain positions and those two certainly have that.”

When Gabriel joined Arsenal in 2020, he struggled to settle at first at a time when the Covid pandemic was in full swing.

His English was poor and he relied on David Luiz and Pablo Mari to help him settle to life in north London.

Four years on, Gabriel feels at home. His grasp of English is good and he is a key player for Arteta.

Gabriel has made 156 appearances for Arsenal and Bukayo Saka is the only player to have been used more by Arteta since he was appointed in December 2019.

At 26, there is a sense he is maturing. He is married and has a daughter, playing Sunday’s game with a t-shirt on that read: ‘Happy Birthday my baby’.

Gabriel showed his maturity earlier this season when he was dropped for the opening three games of the season.

At the time, there were rumblings of transfer interest from Saudi Arabia and he was not reinstated to the team until after the transfer window shut.

Once back alongside Saliba, he knuckled down and he has not looked back.