Gabriel: Arsenal’s unsung hero finally gets his flowers

Gabriel Magalhães looks at the picture and then falls back in his seat, laughing and grinning at the same time. It is the image he has shown of himself, during his teenage years back in Brazil, and he can only cringe at the sight of his own youthful face. “Oh my God,” he says, almost walking away from the cell phone.

The picture comes from a different time in the life of this centre-back, who is now one of the most powerful and consistent defenders in the Premier League. It was taken at the beginning of his professional career, at Avaí FC in Florianópolis, and it is hard to believe that a man as strapping as Gabriel could ever look so boyish, his neck so slender and his train track braces shining so brightly.

To look at Gabriel’s CV is to see that those exciting days in Avaí were the beginning of his football career. Less well known, however, is that they could also be the end. As a teenager, he missed Avaí’s academy so much that he packed his bags for good and returned home to São Paulo, more than 400 miles away.

“I stayed in Avaí for a week,” he says, sitting on the sofa at Arsenal’s training ground. “But I wanted to come home. I lost my family. After a little while my father told me that it was too much of an opportunity to go down, so I decided to go back. And then I stayed there for five years. If my father hadn’t encouraged me to go back, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

The young Gabriel at Avaí FCThe young Gabriel at Avaí FC

The young Gabriel at Avaí FC where he was so homesick that he almost packed his bags for good – Avaí FC/Alceu Atherino Neves

It’s moments like these that change lives, and Arsenal’s coaches will be as grateful as anyone that the young Gabriel has finally managed to suppress his distance. The boy soon became a man, and not just any man: he is widely regarded as a big man at Arsenal, partly because of his frame and partly because of his absurd character.

The view held by many at the club is that Gabriel, now 26, rarely gets the praise he deserves. For four seasons in a row, he has been one of the first names on Mikel Arteta’s team sheet. During that time, few players have been as important in Arsenal’s transformation into genuine title contenders.

Since Gabriel joined Arsenal from Lille, in a deal worth around £25million, he has started 142 games and played 12,827 minutes under Arteta. Only Bukayo Saka, the face of the Arsenal revolution, has started more games and played more minutes.

Recognition has been a long time coming

Gabriel is now one of the leaders of the squad and one of the most popular players at the club. In the corridors of London Colney, “Big Gabi”, as he is called, can often be heard coming – he is loud, quick to laugh and friendly with all the staff. His English has also improved a lot, even if he did most of this interview in Portuguese.

Earlier this week, he was named Arsenal’s player of the month for January. He has also been nominated for the Premier League player of the month award. Within the club and the fans, many would say this is well-deserved recognition that is long overdue. As for Gabriel himself, he is not too sad.

“The most important thing is the people around me who know my potential,” he says. “Those who are close to me: the team, the coaching staff, my family, my friends. That is the most important thing. I am very happy.”

The nominations are mainly a reflection of Gabriel’s two goals when they beat Crystal Palace in January. Those strikes took him to 14 in all competitions since joining Arsenal in September 2020, which is at least three more than any other Premier League defender in that time.

“I have my target goals every season,” he says. “I have three [this season] and maybe I should have a few more. We know how important these league goals are. We work on this in training because we know how critical this can be. They can be the difference, because it’s so difficult to score in the Premier League.”

Ahead of Sunday’s game against West Ham United, Arsenal entered this weekend with the joint-best defensive record in the division. Their solidarity is based on the partnership of Gabriel and William Saliba, two physical Titans who are also close friends. The centre-backs can often be heard crying on the training ground, joking around together, but they also know when to snap.

“We mostly speak French,” says Gabriel. “I spent a lot of time in France with Lille so it’s easier to communicate in French. He’s obviously a great player. I learn a lot from him every day. When we need to be serious about things, we are.”

Gabriel’s position at Arsenal has only been questioned once: at the start of this season, when he was benched for the first three league games. “The coach explained the situation and the reasons for it,” he says. “The most important thing was to stay focused and focused. He knew how important I was to the team.”

It didn’t take long for Gabriel to re-establish himself as a key player and there is no doubt that he will start against West Ham. It will be his 150th appearance for the club, a milestone that will demonstrate his consistency and importance.

Some comments criticized Arsenal for celebrating their win over Liverpool last weekend. Not surprisingly, Gabriel disagrees. “Celebrations are part of football,” he says. “If we didn’t have any celebrations, the game wouldn’t be any fun. When you win a game like that, it’s only natural to celebrate. But the next day he’s back focusing on West Ham.”

Arsenal's Martin Odegaard celebrates with a cameraArsenal's Martin Odegaard celebrates with a camera

Arsenal’s celebrations after Liverpool win criticized but Gabriel says it’s only natural to celebrate – Action Images via Reuters / John Sibley

Gabriel clearly knows that there are times to work, and there are times to enjoy. His plan is to continue to enjoy Arsenal, just as Arsenal plan to enjoy the physical and technical quality that the big Brazilian brings to Arteta’s team.

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