22-year-old defender Gabriel Magalhãesstarted his first game in the Premier League for Arsenal yesterday versus London rivals Fulham. The Brazilian was named the man of the match by BT for his exceptional performance as the Gunners won the game 3-0.
Before kick-off, Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta named the defender as the central man in a back three. Last season, David Luiz occupied this role thanks to his outstanding ball-playing ability but his absence due to injury gave Gabriel the perfect opportunity to impress. The Brazilian was accompanied by Rob Holding and Kieran Tierney on either side in defence.
Considering the defender had less than two weeks of training and last played a professional game in March, some speculated he might need some time to settle. This became clear after the first few minutes of the game where his error nearly resulted in Fulham opening the scoring.
In the above image, wing-back Ainsley Maitland-Niles plays a simple ball back to Gabriel while Fulham forward Aboubakar Kamara presses high. A bit of miscommunication with goalkeeper Bernd Leno results in the defender nearly costing the team. Gabriel attempts to bring Leno into the game with his movement off the ball, but he failed to spot Kamara’s run.
This allowed the 25-year-old to latch onto the ball from Maitland-Niles’s initial pass, but his first touch was deflected off Leno’s hand, who luckily got in position at the right time. Gabriel was quick to retrieve the ball afterwards and moved it away from danger to prevent the Gunners from conceding.
In the short-term, this communication barrier could be a slight issue for the 22-year-old as he adjusts to his new life in London. Luiz, his fellow compatriot, is unavailable for selection due to injury so playing alongside defenders like Holding and Tierney could be challenging for him over the coming weeks.
Once he fully adjusts, I have no doubt that he’ll remove errors like this from his game. Apart from the one incident, the Brazilian was close to producing a flawless performance.
One area to Gabriel’s game that impressed me a lot was how comfortable he looked in the air. The 22-year-old doesn’t seem to be afraid of an aerial duel and constantly got himself in the right position at the right time to be the first man to win the ball.
In the first half, there were a few occasions where the defender was able to clear the ball with his head, and he looked great when defending set-pieces too.
Last season, this was one of Arsenal’s biggest weaknesses under Arteta. Of the 21 Premier League goals they’ve conceded under the Spaniard, 11 have come from set-pieces – five corners, three penalties and three free-kicks.
The manager brought in former Brentford coach Andreas Georgson as a way of improving the team’s handling of set-pieces and Gabriel’s arrival should help improve this area too. His presence in the box should help the defence win duels that they previously lost, reduce the number of goals they concede from crosses and it also gives them an extra option offensively.
Speaking of which, the defender was also able to score for the club on his debut. In the 48th minute, a beautiful corner delivered by fellow debutant Willian was headed home by Gabriel. Despite being crowded in the six-yard box, the 22-year-old defender did well to find space and towered over Fulham defender Michael Hector to score his first goal for Arsenal.
Aside from his ability in the air, the defender looked promising in the tackle too. His concentration throughout the game was solid and he didn’t make any reckless or unnecessary challenges either.
Considering this was his first game, coming up against a forward like Kamara was the right sort of challenge that Gabriel needed as he adjusts to the level of football in England and I thought he handled the forward very well.
While he’s received praise for his ball-playing ability in the past, it was surprising to see just how comfortable the Brazilian looked with the ball. Considering he was playing his first game in six months in a fresh environment, a few errors were expected. Instead, the defender ended the game with the most touches, passes, and also had a 95% pass accuracy.
During the match, I found it interesting that Gabriel shifted between the “David Luiz role” and as a left sided defender in a back four. It demonstrates how adaptable Arteta is as a manager and how quickly the team has to adapt to different circumstances.
Out of the two roles, I think the defender is far more suited to playing as a left centre-back, especially in the short-term. The Brazilian was exceptional with the ball under pressure and never lost possession with it either, but I’m not sure if he has the passing range that the middleman needs to thrive.
When Luiz is positioned here, his passing range is a major asset to the team because he could slow down the tempo of the game or start an attack in an instant with a long ball.
During the game, I noticed how Gabriel never really showed that eagerness to try a riskier long-range pass that could split the opposition or counter a high line. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing since Arteta could’ve instructed him to a play a simple game and the Brazilian still showed how reassured he looks with the ball, something the Arsenal defence lacks.
Unsurprisingly, it’s unfair to judge him after just one game but it’s worth mentioning that it was down to players like Tierney and Granit Xhaka to play those long balls down the other side of the pitch instead. A majority of Gabriel’s passes were across the defensive line or to a midfielder above him which you’d usually see from an outside defender.
Until Luiz returns from his injury, I’d like to see how the 22-year-old performs against harder opponents and whether he has that ability to perfect those long-range passes. It’ll be interesting to see how he adjusts to this role where he shifts between two different defensive roles in game.
Arsenal lacks a proper backup option for Luiz when a back three is used and Gabriel could be that man in future depending on how he performs over the next few weeks.
There’s still a long way to go for Gabriel but I’m delighted with how he performed on his Premier League debut. Despite the factors that went against him, the 22-year-old grabbed his first clean sheet and scored his first goal for the club.
He looks convincing in the air, confident with the ball, and looked like he had been an Arsenal player for years against Fulham.
However, it’s important to remember that there’s still a lot for the young defender to learn and it’s crucial that fans don’t set their expectations too high. As he adapts to the English game, it’s possible that he makes more errors in future and this will all play a part in his learning process.
But after watching his debut, I’m excited to see how Gabriel performs against a tougher opponent in West Ham, next week. I have complete faith in him.