Long Reads

Gabriel Magalhães: Who is Arsenal’s Latest Signing?

Presumably Arsenal scouts were watching fervently, as Lille romped to a 5-1 win over PSG last season. First Nicolas Pepe and now Gabriel Magalhães have made the short journey north of the channel to join the London-based club.

But, who is Gabriel Magalhães? A relative unknown who has only played one and a half seasons of Ligue 1 football. And why have so many elite European clubs been fighting for his signature?

9 years ago, a thirteen year-old Brazilian travelled 700km east, from his home in Sao Paulo to join Avai. The cooler weather did not aid Gabriel in his plight against homesickness, and the youngster returned back to his home just a week later. Following advice from his father, Gabriel plucked up the courage to give Avai one more shot.

Fortunately for Gabriel the decision worked out well. Just three years later he had signed a professional contract with the club at the age of 16. 2 years after that the young defender had made his debut for Avai. His performances in the Brazilian Serie B caught the eye of Lille, who signed Gabriel for £1.5 million in January 2017.

Gabriel may have presumed that his career would take on a natural ascension over the coming years. But the journey to where we are today was not so simple. After impressing for Lille’s B team, Troyes (a Ligue 1 club at the time) signed the Brazilian on loan in the summer of 2017. However, he failed to make any lasting impact, only featuring once in the league.

He was then swiftly shipped off again. This time, as he had done at the age of 13, he would be going east. Croatian team Dinamo Zagreb took the player on a 6 month loan. Gabriel won two trophies, although he only played once for the first team. His time was largely occupied by playing for Dinamo Zagreb’s reserve side.

By the summer of 2018, Gabriel was back at Lille. Although going into the season he was considered nothing more than a back-up. It remained that way until February, as Gabriel was limited to one minute of Ligue 1 football by the 24th gameweek. A suspension to club captain, Adama Soumaoro, opened the door for the Brazilian. Since then he hasn’t looked back.

Clearly, the attacking vigour of Lille’s front-line was the catalyst for their second placed finish. Nevertheless, Les Dogues concluded the season with the tightest defence, conceding just 33 goals.

The unexpected defensive partnership of Gabriel and Jose Fonte, was paramount to Lille’s success. Seemingly the Portuguese veteran has progressed Gabriel’s footballing education:

“As soon as José arrived at the club he spoke with me. He encouraged me to work hard and to make the most of the opportunity that would come one day. He taught me a lot, on and off the pitch.”

Fonte and Gabriel solidified their partnership in the most recent season. Whilst Fonte has shown how to perform at the top-level in the twilight of your career, it is Gabriel Magalhães who has caught the eyes of some major European suitors. It goes without saying that a modern centre-back has to be not only comfortable, but effective on the ball.

Importantly, Gabriel is a left-footed centre-back. Often last season, Arsenal paired two right-footed centre backs in a two, or a left full-back as the left centre-back of a three. Left-footer, Pablo Mari has recently signed, but it’s likely that he’ll be playing second-fiddle to Gabriel. By deploying Gabriel as a left-footed left centre-back with vice versa on the right side, Arsenal will be able to progress the ball much more quickly and efficiently. Considering that Arteta is eager to pass the ball out from the back, it is critical that Gabriel has excellent passing abilities.

In Ligue 1 last season, the Brazilian attempted 62.8 passes on average, per 90, with a success rate of 84.3%. Moreover, 578 of Gabriel’s passes in Ligue 1 were forward, the second highest ranking in the league. Whilst he completed the most passes into the opposition half in Ligue 1 (255).

Even more impressive is his long-range passing. Gabriel has a 72.3% success rate for long balls. As was seen in the FA Cup final, Kieran Tierney often played the long ball over the top on the left-hand side to utilise Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s pace. The fact that Gabriel has the passing range to release the forward, will provide a vital tool if Arsenal want to quickly break the press and push up the pitch.

Whilst Gabriel possesses all the qualities of a good ball-playing centre back, he also looks to be able to handle the physical side of the game suitably. At over 6ft2, the defender represents a presence in both boxes.

Only two other under-25 Ligue 1 players won more aerial duels per 90 than Gabriel’s 3.79. Impressively, he also wins 71% of his aerial duels. That was only bettered by four other under-25 Ligue 1 players, including Gabriel’s future teammate, William Saliba. The aerial prowess of Gabriel will also help Arsenal in an attacking sense. Only 5 Ligue 1 centre-backs managed more than his 17 attempts on target last season.

When considering Gabriel’s height, one may presume he lacks the speed of some other top centre-backs. But contrary to this stereotype, the Brazilian possesses a good amount of pace. Lille manager, Christophe Galtier recently stated: “Despite his height, he is super fast and covers his side well.”

This pace allows Gabriel to come up the pitch, enabling his team to become more compact. As we can see from Gabriel’s defensive actions map in the 2019/20 Champions League, a large amount (28) of the fouls, tackles, interceptions and clearances that Gabriel makes come up on the left-hand side by the half-way line. When playing with the equally pacey Saliba, Arsenal back four will be able to squeeze up, due to the pace in recovery of the centre-backs, allowing the team to have a more contained and compact shape.

Not forgetting the importance of tackling for a defender, Gabriel also performs well here. Only Presnel Kimpembe and Mohamed Simakan bettered Gabriel’s 1.52 possession adjusted tackles per 90 for under-25’s in Ligue 1. A player that ticks the box in terms of passing, aerial ability and defensive actions, so why is Gabriel priced at a modest £25m?

That fee offers good value for money, even in a post-covid market. Although there are still some questions over Gabriel’s game, which make the transfer something of a gamble.

First and foremost is Gabriel’s lack of experience. Considering that the Ligue 1 season was cut short due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Gabriel has only been playing first-team football for about one season. He did impress at Avai, and was even captain of the Brazilian u19 team. Yet, his loan spells at both Troyes and Dinamo Zagreb flattered to deceive.

Evidently though Gabriel has grown from his experiences. Lille’s owner, Gerard Lopez mentions the defender’s “evolution in a short time”.

Although it will be a blessing for Arsenal to have a left-footed centre-back, Gabriel can be over-reliant on his left foot. Last season in Ligue 1 he used his left-foot to control, touch, tackle and shoot the ball 93% of the time. For comparison, Rob Holding, a right-footed defender who was deployed as a right centre-back used his right foot 80% of the time.

It’s because of his one footedness that Gabriel often spreads the play out to the left-back, or backwards to his fellow centre-back or goalkeeper., as seen by his pass map against Angers, earlier this season. A stronger right-foot would afford Gabriel the opportunity to make more progressive passes into central midfield. Consequently, this can make Gabriel’s distribution at times a little predictable. Although his ability to play successful long balls negates this weakness to an extent.

Ultimately, Gabriel is a very accomplished young left-sided centre-back, who looks ready to make the step-up into the Premier League. Despite Arsenal’s failure to qualify for the Champions League, the move represents another jump in the Brazilian’s early career. Gabriel’s passing abilities will help him fit seamlessly into Arteta’s system, even despite some of his drawbacks. His immense aerial threat and good pace will go a long way in helping Arsenal eradicate some of their defensive woes of recent years too.