Why Gabriel should adapt quickly to Premier League challenge with Arsenal

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Editor’s note: Tor-Kristian Karlsen is a Norwegian football scout and executive and is the former chief executive and sporting director at AS Monaco. He will write regularly for ESPN on the business of soccer and the process of scouting. In his latest column, he looks at Gabriel, the Lille defender who has completed a move to Arsenal.

On Tuesday, Arsenal confirmed the signing of Brazilian centre-back Gabriel Magalhaes from Lille for around €30 million in a five-year deal. The tall, imposing, left-sided defender was also on the wish list at Manchester United, Napoli and Everton, among others, yet the combination of fellow Brazilian Edu, Arsenal’s sporting director, and coach Mikel Arteta convinced the promising youngster that his immediate future lies in North London.

Gabriel’s career path has not been the most traditional, especially for a defender: He joined a top Ligue 1 side at just 19 after one lone season in the Brazilian second league, and he’s now heading for the Premier League after barely a year as an established first-teamer in France. But he impressed enough in his debut campaign with Avai, in Brazil‘s Serie B, to earn caps for Brazil at the South American U20 championship, where he acquitted himself well. Subsequently, he was snapped up by Lille in January 2017 for an estimated 3 million euros.

With the exception of a single nine-minute substitute appearance in Ligue 1, he spent his first half-season at the French club mainly with the second team. In the summer of 2017 he was loaned out to Ligue 1 rival Troyes, but when he only started one league match, Lille saw little gain in keeping him on loan at a club that didn’t play him. In January 2018, they sent him instead to Dinamo Zagreb, but again the young defender managed just the one first-team appearance for the Croatian side before heading back to the North of France at the end of the 2018-19 season.

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The two disappointing loan spells didn’t seem to cause Gabriel too much harm. During the second half of the 2018-19 season, the Brazilian finally claimed a regular spot as one of the two Lille centre-backs who eventually led the club to a second-place finish in Ligue 1 and the best defensive record (only 33 goals conceded). Then in the following season — the one that ended abruptly due to COVID-19 — Gabriel kept his regular spot in the heart of the Lille defence, most commonly alongside the ex-Crystal Palace, Southampton and West Ham defender Jose Fonte.

Although Gabriel’s French was rapidly improving, playing next to the experienced Portuguese captain, with whom he shares a native language, must have been of great help to the relatively inexperienced Brazilian. He also benefitted from having a coach, Christophe Galtier, who likes to keep the defence line tidy, structured and disciplined.

While Gabriel was prone to committing errors in his early matches for Lille, like losing possession in his own half and giving away fouls due to excessive physical play, he has been developing on a monthly basis to the point where it’s now hard to identify any obvious shortcomings in his game. Perhaps you can find more elegant, “ball playing” centre-backs or those with a more useful weaker foot, but that’s still of no particular detriment to Gabriel.

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On the contrary, Gabriel is developing into a fairly complete central defender and, judging by his last 25-30 matches for Lille, he should be capable of adapting well to the Premier League. In addition to his aerial dominance and pace — he usually keeps up with most of the counterattacking forwards in France, of which there are many with a lot of pace! — he’s also a focused defender who has a clear idea of how to win the ball when he enters a duel, whether through anticipating the opponent’s next move, muscling him off the ball or through an old-fashioned tackle. He also scores high on bravery and already appears to be coping well with an intensity in Ligue 1 that isn’t dissimilar to what he’ll find at the Premier League level.

That said, don’t expect him to be a playmaker for Arsenal. While the 22-year-old is comfortable on the ball and calm under pressure, he’s not excessively creative in his passing game. At Lille, though, he did like to hit a long “over the top” ball when it was on, with the pacey Victor Osimhen (now at Napoli) often proving a natural target.

Questions also remain as to how Mikel Arteta intends to use the defender. If the Arsenal head coach opts for a back four, Gabriel could slot in next to David Luiz, a combination that would make sense as the new arrival would probably feel an extra comfort in having a compatriot alongside him during his debut season in the Premier League. Despite Luiz’s tendency to cause some “hairy” moments for the Gunners, he’s certainly capable of taking up a mentor role as Fonte did at Lille, talking and directing at the back. Equally, Gabriel certainly has the pace to make amends for Luiz’s potential errors. Perhaps even more appealing would be having Gabriel playing on the left side of Luiz with another new arrival, right-footed William Saliba, on the right, in a back three.

The good news for Arsenal fans is that, whether their back line is made up of three or four defenders, the pace, tactical awareness and athleticism of both their new Ligue 1 recruits should render it much more reliable and solid than has been the case recently.