By Aaron Catterson-Reid
Arsenal have finally completed the signing of Gabriel Magalhaes from Lille in a deal that looks to be a real steal in an inflated market.
The Gunners' new signing began his professional career in Brazil, featuring for Avai for a year before being snapped up by Lille in 2017. He was subsequently loaned to Troyes and Dinamo Zagreb before establishing himself as a regular at his parent club in late 2018.
Gabriel enjoyed a fine 2019/20 season for Lille. Featuring 36 times in all competitions, the commanding centre half attracted a plethora of admirers due to his unique blend of grit, speed and technique.
Gabriel is a tactically-flexible defender. He can perform as the proactive or reactive centre back, performing in any system that he is instructed to a high level.
He has a real knack for outmuscling opposition forwards off the ball, using his 190cm frame to shrug off physical strikers with ease. He is also blessed with natural speed, making him a tricky opponent for any striker.
The 22-year-old won more than 67 per cent of his ground duels last season and 70 per cent of his aerial duels, illustrating just how impressive his defensive skills are.
His intelligence cannot be underestimated either. His reading of the game is an undeniable strength, consistently positioning himself to block cutbacks or crosses, something Arsenal's defence is crying out for. He is no stranger to putting his body on the line either, blocking 18 shots in Ligue 1 last season, a stat bettered by just five players.
When Gabriel does win the ball back, he knows what to do with it too. His passing is widely regarded as one of his greatest attributes, accurate with 72.3 per cent of his long balls last season. His pinpoint crossfield diagonals will prove to be a huge asset for the Gunners, who ranked 18th for attempted long balls in the Premier League last term.
He enjoys getting on the ball and does so with impressive accuracy. The Sao Paulo-born defender completed a whopping 1,219 passes in Ligue 1 last year, a league ranking of 13th.
His distribution is also generally progressive, completing 255 passes into the opposition half last term, more than any other player in Ligue 1. His 578 forward passes were also only bettered by just one player in France's top-flight.
Gabriel was predominantly used as a left centre-back in Lille’s back four during the 2019/20 campaign and he will likely feature in a similar role under Mikel Arteta.
The Brazilian is only the second Arsenal centre-back that is left-footed (along with Pablo Mari) so it makes sense for him to slot in on the left of an Arsenal back three or four - depending on what Arteta opts for in the forthcoming season.
Lille did opt for a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 on occasion and Gabriel slotted into the left side of the three extremely well. His tactical versatility would allow Kieran Tierney to adopt his favoured wing-back role which gives Arsenal another option in defence.
Communication will be no issue for Gabriel when it comes to his defensive partner(s). If he is paired with Brazilian compatriot David Luiz, the duo can speak in Portuguese. If he is played alongside William Saliba there will be no issue here either, as Gabriel has a good understanding of the French language from his time at Lille.
He will give Arsenal’s defence a new dimension in the build-up phase, especially when trying to break down a deep block. The club's second summer signing has a penchant for beating the press, playing a lofted through ball into the final third. However, passing between the lines is something he will likely hope to improve under Arteta's tutelage.
Gabriel’s on-the-ball skills will be hugely beneficial to Arteta who has looking for a left-footed defender. Granit Xhaka has often been tasked with dropping deeper in the left of the defence to help build from the back. The Brazilian's addition can allow his Swiss team-mate to stay in the middle of the park and offer more control in midfield.
His skillset is also suited for games against teams that leave more space behind their defence. Only five Ligue 1 defenders attempted more through balls than Gabriel last season. This will be music to the ears of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe, who constantly make off-the-shoulder runs against opposition high lines, as seen in the Emirates FA Cup semi-final and final triumphs. He is unlikely to be exposed in such ways though, as his lightning-quick pace means he is a match for any pacy frontman.
Lille president Gerard Lopez certainly thinks Gabriel has what it takes to succeed in the Premier League. "I feel he is among the top five dominant central defenders in Europe right now," he said. "His statistics, which aren't well covered outside of France, shows that his percentage for winning duels is pretty unheard of in a league that's extremely physical. I'm certain he's on his way to the Brazilian national team at some point."
Given that Gabriel is just 22 and has so much room to develop, his signing looks to be a shrewd piece of business for Arsenal - and his partnership with Saliba could be a memorable one for years to come.
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