Let’s face it: for better or worse, when Atlético Madrid supporters wax lyrical about their team, Gabi’s name is not necessarily the one that gets the ball rolling. For newer supporters, it may be Antoine Griezmann’s spellbinding flash and flair. The older guard may remember Fernando Torres at his best, and thus he is the first name to part from pursed lips. And both new and old can agree that Diego Simeone is cooler than the box of pizza rolls stashed in the back of your freezer.
But Gabi is the Energizer Bunny at the heart of Atlético’s midfield and the on-field personification of Cholismo - that “play with a knife between your teeth” mentality. The 33-year-old came up through Atleti’s ranks, left to captain Real Zaragoza, then returned to become a club legend. He has hoisted a UEFA Cup, a UEFA Super Cup, a Copa, a Supercopa and, of course, LaLiga. (He took the perfect corner that Diego Godín buried behind José Manuel Pinto.)
Gabi has remained an important player as Atlético have grown into one of Europe’s elite clubs, and this season has been no different. He doesn’t often leap off the screen, but he doesn’t have to. El capitán simply goes about his business - like he did on Saturday in the 2-0 win over Málaga. In a game which saw Atleti reclaim third place in LaLiga, Gabi won five aerial duels, made three tackles, two interceptions and blocked a shot.
He hasn’t slowed down despite his age, and he excelled even when Atleti’s midfield was being held together with Scotch tape earlier this very season. In fact, you could argue - I would - that considering the season as a whole, Gabi has been the most consistent midfielder in Simeone’s side. Again, he’s 33 years old now, and he’s in a team that features full internationals Koke and Yannick Carrasco and Swiss Army knife Saúl Ñíguez.
It is at this time that I will pose the question in the headline to this article (which I broke Betteridge’s Law of Headlines to write): is this Gabi’s best-ever season?
Below, courtesy of Squawka’s Comparison Matrix, you will see Gabi’s per-90 statistics from 2013-14 - the season where he broke out as one of LaLiga’s finest midfielders - to the present day. This will offer a glimpse of how consistent the captain has been and why he's gotten better as he's moved into his 30’s.
After a down season in 2014-15, the 2015-16 season saw a shift in the way Gabi played. He took a more measured approach compared to earlier years, which reflected the team-wide stylistic shift into more technical play. Gabi became a central midfielder with more tactical nous and control in the center of the park, rather than yesteryear’s hard-charging, swashbuckling pivot who would do stuff like this:
As a result, the captain saw a reduction in tackles but a boost in interceptions and improved discipline.
The 2016-17 season has seen Gabi apply polish to this new approach. The most intriguing thing about Gabi this season and a big factor as to why he’s been so good is his renewed focus on impeccable positioning - he’s made 2.55 interceptions per 90 minutes, the best in this four-year stretch, and he’s even blocking a shot every ~180 minutes. His interceptions and tackles are equal for a combined 5.1 tackles/interceptions per 90 - inferior only to his monster 2013-14, when he made 5.7 tackles/interceptions. He’s fouled at a slightly higher rate this season, more in line with his 2014-15, but he’s only being booked for these indiscretions every ~270 minutes.
Now I’ll answer the question from the headline: in a way, yes, this has been Gabi’s best season.
Gabi’s 2013-14 season helped carry Atlético to a league title in an era of Spanish football compromised by the dominance of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. That is a big, big plus when analyzing which season is Gabi’s best. But the aggressive way that team played was different from the way this team plays, and as mentioned earlier in this piece, Gabi has had to change the way he plays to fit this particular team. That’s not an easy thing to do at 33 years old. Furthermore, he thrived with strikingly consistent play when his teammates hit speed bumps and lost form in the winter months, and if Saturday’s performance is any indication, he will continue to thrive as Atleti’s midfield rounds into form in time for the business end of the season.
So the next time you engage in some (hopefully friendly) banter about what makes Atlético, well, Atlético, remember Gabi, and how el capitán is quite arguably having the best season of his career.