While Arsenal fans excitedly wait to hear of confirmation that Gabriel Magalhaes has completed his transfer to north London, there will be some with close connections to the Emirates Stadium who will have somewhat mixed emotions about the deal.
This move for the Lille defender, which will cost the Gunners around £25 million ($33m), has been long in the making.
A new, young centre-back has always been one of the priorities for Arsenal this summer and lots of work has been put into securing what the club believe is the best one out there.
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That work has been carried out by a large number of the scouts that, just a couple of weeks ago, were told they were no longer required by Arsenal’s technical director Edu, following a review carried out by the Brazilian of the club’s recruitment network.
Former head of recruitment Francis Cagigao, senior scout Brian McDermott and Ty Gooden, who headed up Arsenal’s scouting operations in France, were all key to ensuring that Gabriel was the centre-back that Raul Sanllehi, who has now also left the club, and Edu focused their attention on.
There were others that Arsenal looked at, including Axel Disasi, who eventually joined Monaco from Reims, and free agent Malang Sarr, but Gabriel was the name at the top of the scouts’ list that was submitted to the hierarchy when they were putting their plans together for the summer window, just as William Saliba had been the previous year.
Both centre-backs now look set to go on and form a partnership that could be the bedrock of Arsenal’s defence for years to come, but those who put countless hours of time and work into identifying them will not be at the club to see it, having now been told their contracts are not being renewed.
Gabriel’s arrival will at least be some consolation to those scouts that the work they put in was worth it, with the 22-year-old now putting the finishing touches on his switch to the Gunners.
The Brazil Under-20 international was identified early as a potential signing, with the recruitment team looking for a young centre-back who could come in and operate alongside Saliba.
Naturally left footed, Gabriel was already viewed as a defender with huge potential and one who had the attributes that could make him a success in the Premier League.
He was watched extensively for Lille last season when – after a promising end to the 2018-19 campaign – he took his game up another level, making 24 appearances to help them to a fourth-placed finish in Ligue 1.
“I feel he is among the top five dominant central defenders in Europe right now,” Lille president Gerard Lopez told Sky Sports in April when discussing Gabriel’s future. “His statistics, which aren’t well covered outside of France, show that his percentage for winning duels is pretty unheard of in a league that’s extremely physical.
“He’s an absolute machine, so to me, he’s well on his way – if not this year – to potentially a really big club. I’m certain he’s on his way to the Brazilian national team at some point.”
Gabriel started his career at Brazilian second tier side Avai before moving to Lille in 2017 for £1.5m ($2m). Two loan spells followed, to Troyes and Dinamo Zagreb, before he was given his opportunity in the first team by manager Christophe Galtier, who replaced Marcelo Bielsa as Lille boss in December 2017.
The 2018-19 campaign, during which Nicolas Pepe inspired Lille to a second-placed finish in Ligue 1, was an encouraging one for Gabriel, who scored his first goal in the 5-1 thumping of champions Paris Saint-Germain.
But it was not until the 2019-20 season that he really began to make his mark.
He featured in 24 of Lille’s 28 games before the season was curtailed early by the coronavirus, starting 23 of them. In those games they conceded just 21 goals and kept 11 clean sheets.
When compared to Arsenal’s current centre-backs, Gabriel’s stats show why he caught the eye of the club’s scouts. He won 29 tackles at an average of 1.3 per game, more than David Luiz (16), Sokratis (16) and Shkodran Mustafi (10).
He made an average of 5.9 recoveries per game, way more than Luiz, who led the way for Arsenal with 4.1, and won 6.5 duels per 90 minutes. Only Mustafi (6.6) came out higher for the Gunners.
Gabriel is a player Arsenal believe has huge potential, as they do with Saliba. They were always confident they would land him this summer, despite strong interest from both Napoli and Everton as well as admiring glances from Manchester United. Those close to the player credit Edu for the work he put into getting the deal over the line.
Mikel Arteta now has two of Europe’s most promising centre-backs at his disposal and will hope together they can fix a problem area for Arsenal that many before them have been unable to solve.
Since January 2015, the north London club have spent more than £130m on a long line of centre-backs, most of whom have all flattered to deceive.
In Gabriel and Saliba, there is genuine hope they have finally found a long-term solution to what has long been seen as their Achilles heel.
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