Why Gabriel Paulista could emulate Laurent Koscielny for Arsenal
Arsenal's search for a new centre-back seems to have led them to the east coast of Spain. It is there that Brazilian Gabriel Paulista is building a reputation as a defender with both tenacity and technique at Villarreal.
Reports suggest that Arsenal have made a firm enquiry about acquiring the player. Paulista himself certainly seems open to the prospect, without going so far as to burn his bridges with the Spanish club. "Whether I go to Arsenal or stay at Villarreal, I won't lose my head," he said. "I'm very calm. My head is at Villarreal and I'm very focused. My agent is working on making sure I continue being calm."
It's easy to see how Paulista's performances might have come to Arsenal's attention. Villarreal have been the surprise package of La Liga season. Two years ago they were sitting in mid-table in Spain's second division, but now Marcelino's team is flying -- unbeaten in the last 15 games, picking up 20 of the last available 24 points.
They currently sit in sixth place in the table, four points from a Champions League place. They're also through to the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey and are still in the Europa League. The Yellow Submarine are threatening to break the surface, and scouts from many of the continent's top clubs will inevitably have descended on the Madrigal.
Key to Villarreal's form has been a solid defensive platform from which to launch their rapier counter-attacks. Only Barcelona and Real Madrid have conceded fewer goals than Villarreal this season (tied on 17 with Valencia and Sevilla), and Paulista has been a crucial component of that miserly back line.
The centre-back certainly fits Arsenal's positional requirements. Although primarily right-footed, Paulista shares a characteristic of another former Villarreal man, Santi Cazorla, in being relatively ambidextrous. In his time with Brazilian side Vitoria, he regularly played on both the left and right of a defensive trio, and has even turned out at left-back on two occasions for Villarreal. Arsenal need someone who can cover for both Per Mertesacker and the injury prone Laurent Koscielny, and Paulista seemingly has the versatility to fit the bill.
Paulista's style of play is comparable with that of Koscielny. Both favour a rugged man-marking approach, using their speed and reading of the game to nip at the heels of attackers. He can play too -- Villarreal's style depends on accurate and intelligent distribution from the back. Like Koscielny, Paulista is equally capable of instigating a move for his own team as snuffing out one from the opposition. His arrival would also be greeted with a similar lack of fanfare. It's easily forgotten now, but Koscielny was practically unheard of when he signed for Arsenal for a reported 10 million euros from Lorient in the summer of 2010.
That doesn't mean Paulista would come cheap -- Villarreal are reportedly unwilling to sell their prized asset for anything less than the 20 million euros that his buyout clause dictates. While it might appear a steep price to pay for a squad player, the reality is that any centre-back Arsenal sign is likely to get a significant amount of first-team football between now and May.
Koscielny's chronic Achilles problem is a constant worry, and there are fears the weight of football may eventually take its toll on Mertesacker. Arsenal can't afford to be too parsimonious when addressing such an important area of the pitch.
However, there may be a barrier beyond agreeing a fee. There's no guarantee that Paulista would qualify for a UK work permit. He's currently uncapped at the international level and has not yet spent the requisite amount of time in Spain to gain a European passport. Arsenal have encountered problems with work permits before -- Costa Rican Joel Campbell and Mexican Carlos Vela were made to spend years on loan waiting for theirs to come through -- so one can only hope the Gunners have done the due diligence required to ensure Paulista would be able to get the necessary paperwork.
At 24 years old, Paulista is the same age as Koscielny when he made the move to England. In the absence of an obvious world-class defender to sign, Arsenal may have to move for someone with potential. Paulista has the basic attributes required to step up, but now it's over to Arsenal to find the money to secure his signature and boost their hopes of finishing the season on a high.
James McNicholas is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gunnerblog.