Gabriel Magalhaes has become Arsenal’s unlikely linchpin
In Arsenal’s recent victory at Fulham, there were two moments that underlined the importance of Gabriel Magalhaes to Mikel Arteta’s title-chasing team. The first of those came in the opening minute, after just 33 seconds, when Gabriel was clattered by Andreas Pereira, the Fulham midfielder.
Jumping to his feet, Gabriel unleashed a furious tirade at his compatriot, jabbing his finger towards Pereira’s face and making it clear that he would be sorry if he tried that sort of thing again. Pereira, perhaps wisely, subsequently steered clear of Arsenal’s burly Brazilian. Within a minute of action, ‘Big Gabi’ (as he is known at the club) had shown that he would not be intimidated.
The second moment came with almost the final kick of the match, with Arsenal leading 3-0. The game was over as a contest but as Daniel James shot towards goal, Gabriel launched himself into the path of the ball. He then celebrated his block as if he had scored, pumping his fists towards the Fulham crowd. Such was the absurdity of his reaction, goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale began laughing between the posts.
Those two incidents summarised Gabriel as a player: robust, aggressive and combative, with a genuine fondness for the grittier side of the job. He can play, too, and his passing with his left foot has been fundamental to Arsenal’s build-up play this season.
In January, Arsenal spent an initial £17.5 million on Jakub Kiwior, a left-sided centre-back. It was a considerable investment, and many observers might have thought Gabriel’s place in the team was at risk. But Gabriel has held off that particular challenge (Kiwior has played a total of just four Premier League minutes) and in recent months has further established himself as a key man in Arteta’s defence.
In the Premier League this season, Gabriel has played more minutes than any other Arsenal outfielder. Across the division as a whole, only three outfielders (James Tarkowski, James Ward-Prowse and Max Kilman) have clocked up more time on the pitch.
The 25-year-old has been an ever-present for Arteta since he joined the club from Lille, for around £25 million, in September 2020. On the pitch he has grown with the team and behind the scenes he has become a genuine leader in the squad. His English has improved enormously, to the extent that he can now do broadcast interviews in it, and he has been crucial to the development of William Saliba, the young centre-back alongside him.
“Gabi is still developing in many areas,” said Arteta. “He is becoming a real leader in the team. Now he is settled, his language is better, he has found his place in the team.
“Since the day he joined he has been really good but this season there have been moments when he has been exceptional. He has been really consistent. That is what you ask for from a centre-back.”
Saliba is set to miss this weekend’s meeting with Leeds United with a back problem, but Gabriel will provide a familiar ballast in the backline. His powerful frame has helped Arsenal to move on from the days when they were regarded by many opponents as soft, and it was a measure of his toughness that he once fought off a pair of bat-wielding robbers at his home in north London.
Gabriel’s priority is stopping opponents and starting attacks but he has another important attribute: goalscoring. Since the start of last season, he has scored eight times in the Premier League – at least two more than any other defender in the division. All of those goals have come from set pieces, with Gabriel using his physical power (note the extraordinary width of his neck) to dominate in the air.
He is not perfect, of course. The danger with the Brazilian is that he can occasionally switch off. He conceded a penalty against Tottenham Hotspur with a silly lunge, and lost the ball in a costly position against Manchester City. In the home match against Fulham, he was dispossessed by Aleksandar Mitrovic, who then converted, although he did go on to score the late winner.
Such errors are perhaps the difference between Gabriel being a good defender and becoming a world-class operator. As Arsenal continue to develop as a team, the expectation is that Gabriel will grow in seniority. He is already the most vocal member of the backline – his oddly high-pitched voice is a constant theme of Arsenal’s games – and he is without doubt one of the most important figures behind their push for the title.