Brazilian nearly packed it all in before his career had even begun but the defender has become a key man in the north Londoners’ title push
: AFP/Ben Stansall
Gabriel Magalhães takes one look at the picture and then falls back in his seat, laughing and grimacing at the same time. The image he has been shown is of himself, during his teenage days back in Brazil, and he can only cringe at the sight of his own adolescent face. “Oh my God,” he says, almost flinching away from the mobile phone.
The picture is from a different time in the life of this burly centre-back, who has become one of the Premier League’s most powerful and consistent defenders. It was taken at the start of his professional career, at Avaí FC in Florianópolis, and it is hard to believe a man as strapping as Gabriel could ever look so boyish, his neck so slender and his train-track braces shining so bright.
To look at Gabriel’s CV is to see that those goofy days at Avaí were the start of his footballing career. Less well-known, though, is that they could also have been the end of it. As a teenager, he was so homesick at Avaí’s academy that he packed his bags for good and returned home to São Paulo, more than 400 miles away.
“I stayed at Avaí for a week,” he says, sitting on a sofa at Arsenal’s training ground. “But I wanted to come home. I missed my family. After a bit of time my dad said to me that it was too big an opportunity to turn down, so I decided to go back. And then I stayed there for five years. If my dad did not urge me to go back, I would not be where I am today.”
On such moments do lives change, and Arsenal’s coaches will be as grateful as anyone that the young Gabriel was ultimately able to suppress his homesickness. The boy soon became a man, and not just any man: at Arsenal he is regarded by many as the big man, partly because of his frame and partly because of his exuberant character.
The view held by many at the club is that Gabriel, now 26, rarely receives the praise he deserves. For four consecutive seasons, he has been one of the first names on Mikel Arteta’s team sheet. Across that time, few players have played such a pivotal role in Arsenal’s transformation into genuine title challengers.
Since Gabriel arrived at Arsenal from Lille, in a deal worth around £25 million, he has started 142 matches 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 has become 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 known, can often be heard coming – he is loud, quick to laugh and friendly with all the staff. His English has also improved enormously, even if he conducted 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’s player of the month award. Within the club and the fanbase, many would say this is deserved recognition that has been a long time coming. As for Gabriel himself, he is not too fussed.
“The most important thing is the people around me who know my potential,” he says. “Those that are close to me: the team, the coaching staff, my family, my friends. That is what is most important. I’m very happy.”
The nominations are primarily a reflection of Gabriel’s two goals in January’s thrashing of Crystal Palace. Those strikes took him to 14 in all competitions since he joined Arsenal in September 2020, which is at least three more than any other Premier League defender in that time.
“Every season I have my goal targets,” he says. “I have three this season and maybe I should have had a few more. We know how important these set-piece goals are. We work on this in training because we know how crucial this can be. They can be the difference, because it is so hard to score in the Premier League.”
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