Gabriel Paulista: Marcelino’s Warrior

Marcelino García Toral, the manager of Valencia CF, has an intriguing habit. He trusts what he knows. Sometimes, it has helped him a great deal. At other times, it has been his undoing, to the point of infuriating the Valencia fanbase. With Gabriel Armando de Abreu, popularly known as Gabriel Paulista, Marcelino has hit both extremes.

Gabriel first worked with Marcelino at Villarreal, where he arrived in the summer of 2013 from his “boyhood” club Vitória (Gabriel joined Vitória’s youth setup at 19 after failed trials with Santos and Grêmio). They spent a season and a half together before Gabriel was sold to Arsenal. Gabriel’s time at Arsenal was mixed; he impressed on a few occasions, but he was far too rash, inconsistent, and perhaps he never got the chance he deserved. So after a season and a half, he parted ways with the club, returning to Spain; this time, to the other side of the Derbi de la Comunitat.

Surprisingly, Marcelino was sacked in August 2016 for irreconcilable differences with the club’s board of directors, but he made his return to La Liga just a year later, taking charge of Valencia after a disastrous season which saw Els Taronges finish 12th and pass through three different managers. One of Marcelino’s first actions at the club was bringing Gabriel back, and at the price of €11 million, it was a low-risk bargain. After all, Gabriel had a successful spell in Villarreal, but his inconsistent spell at Arsenal, where he struggled to communicate on the field with his teammates, heaped skepticism on the deal. Still, he spoke the language in Spain and he understood the style of play, and along with new arrival Jeison Murillo, as well as Ezequiel Garay and Ruben Vezo, Valencia’s defense looked solid for the first time in a while.

Gabriel made his Valencia debut in the 0-0 draw at Mestalla against Atlético Madrid. He had a solid performance, partnering Garay at the back for 74 minutes before the latter got injured and was replaced by Murillo. In his next appearance, a 5-0 win over Málaga at home, he impressed again, this time partnering Murillo, another South American center back who had returned to Spain after a topsy-turvy spell at a demanding club.

Competition was tough, and Marcelino had a perfect dilemma, having to choose two of Garay, Vezo, Murillo, and Gabriel for each game. Unfortunately for Gabriel, things went downhill after a promising start. He was underwhelming in the next two games, with Valencia conceding four goals in total against Athletic Club and Real Sociedad. His performances reached a nadir the next game, when Valencia visited Betis at the Estadio Benito Villamarín.

Valencia got off to a 4-0 lead when Gabriel came on to replace the injured Murillo. Within six minutes of the substitution, Betis had managed to cut the score to 4-3, and Gabriel took a large chunk of the blame for it. Valencia ended up winning 6-3, but the Brazilian still came under the firing line by the Valencia-based media. Although he redeemed himself in the next game against Sevilla, his inconsistency was starting to show. Garay and Murillo were outperforming him, but Marcelino maintained his trust in him, preferring to instead rotate Garay or Murillo out and keep him in the line-up.

Such was Gabriel’s hot-and-cold nature that he seemed to have a propensity for making mistakes right in the middle of a solid performance, undoing all his good work every now and then. This made him the butt of light-hearted jokes amongst the Che faithful, who slowly got used to Gabriel’s ‘brain farts.’ But one mistake in particular stood out.

In February, Valencia faced FC Barcelona in the second leg of the Copa Del Rey semifinals. The first half was fairly balanced and ended 0-0, with Barcelona leading 1-0 on aggregate. Valencia desperately needed a goal to equalize, but more importantly, they needed to avoid conceding. Early on in the second half, they conceded to Philippe Coutinho, and now, they needed to score three to advance.

As they poured forward looking for goals, they left spaces behind for Barcelona to exploit. Around the 81st minute, Gabriel went into a duel with Luis Suárez, and won the ball, chipping it past Suárez and controlling it on his chest. But such was his hot-and-cold nature that he immediately undid his solid work in one fell swoop.

Suárez noticed that Gabriel was preparing to pass back to José Luis Gayà, and he intercepted the back pass, hurdled past Gayà, and slipped in Ivan Rakitić, who scored the decisive third goal to end the tie. This brain fart typified Gabriel’s early performances for Valencia. He had had a solid game up until that point, but he made one costly mistake and Valencia paid dearly for it. Fans were understandably frustrated and there were numerous calls for him to be dropped, but Marcelino did not budge. He trusted Gabriel no matter what.

Marcelino’s trust in Gabriel was clear for all to see in the January transfer window last season. It was reported that Gabriel strongly recommended his former Arsenal teammate Francis Coquelin to Marcelino. Eventually, Coquelin was signed to the bemusement of many Valencia fans who did not quite understand why the club was signing another midfielder, especially since Nemanja Maksimović was barely getting any chances to play despite desperately wanting it.

That decision soon proved to be widely popular, as Coquelin hit the ground running and put in some excellent, passionate performances within the first three weeks of his arrival. He was deployed on the right side of midfield sometimes so he could help out with Valencia’s leaky right back side. He also played as a left-sided midfielder and a central midfielder. In his 13 months at Valencia, Coquelin has proven to be an excellent piece of business for Valencia.

Since that ill-fated Barcelona game, Gabriel has hit a completely new level. He has cut out those mistakes that plagued him in his first 6-7 months at Valencia, and has easily been Valencia’s best centre back this season. He has shown a full 12 months of consistency, forming a formidable partnership with Garay. But when the Argentine veteran has been absent, and when paired with Valencia’s 20-year-old raw but talented defender Mouctar Diakhaby (signed in the summer) as well as Ruben Vezo (who has since now been loaned out to Levante) his performances have not faltered. He has remained solid.

Valencia have the second-best defence so far in La Liga, behind only Atlético Madrid. And despite sitting 9th in La Liga, Valencia’s numbers match up with the best in the continent: in Europe’s top 5 leagues, only Atleti, Liverpool, RB Leipzig, Napoli, Juventus, Inter and Paris Saint-Germain have conceded fewer league goals.

Gabriel Paulista has contributed immensely to Valencia’s defensive solidity, and fans are finally starting come around to the Brazilian after a number of solid performances. He currently leads the league in Interceptions per Game (2.4), and he’s been a rock in the air and a savior in defending counters. The questions over Marcelino’s decision to continue to start him disappeared a long time ago, as he has been reborn in Valencia.

Gabriel’s excellent form has largely gone under the radar, as it so often does with players not playing for Spain’s Big Three. He may be far attached from the hype-driven scrutiny of the Premier League, but he’s earned the respect of La Liga aficionados. Still only 28, Gabriel is set to enter his prime years at the heart of Valencia’s defence, and he’ll continue to put his body on the line to reward Marcelino’s trust.

By: Astorre Cerebrone

Photo: Getty