Gabriel Magalhães: Underappreciated, Undervalued and Indispensable

Before the real fun began during Arsenal’s 6-0 dismantling of David Moyes’ West Ham United at the London Stadium back in February, William Saliba wheeled away in celebration to open the scoring from a corner. Closely following the Frenchman was his defensive partner Gabriel, a pair who have delivered statistically the best defensive unit in the Premier League this season. If one had told a match-going Arsenal fan of that idea just three years ago, one would have simply been laughed at.


Gabriel, who signed for Arsenal in the summer of 2020, has been widely unappreciated since his arrival in north London due to a number of unconvincing performances alongside the likes of David Luiz, Rob Holding, and Pablo Mari. It was Saliba who has captured the hearts of Arsenal fans since that famous night in south London just eighteen months ago, in the Gunners’ 2-0 victory at Crystal Palace. Gabriel, the unsung hero in that whirlwind of love surrounding Saliba, has really delivered, and there’s no getting away from that.



The battering of West Ham last weekend saw the Brazilian make his 150th appearance in all competitions for the club, with his goal positioning him as the highest-scoring defender (with 14) in the Premier League since then. The biggest compliment Mikel Arteta can pay his centre-back, besides the consistency and ferociousness of his performances at the very heart of his backline, is the influence his presence has had on the team.


Arteta, a man who has constantly beaten the drum of control and dominating possession since his arrival as Head Coach in 2019, has found a fire-breathing character in Gabriel, who compliments the ice-cold composure of defensive partner Saliba. Few would have predicted the solidity the pair have provided since they deputised together at Selhurst Park last season.


Rob Holding, who left the club for the aforementioned Palace last summer, described Gabriel as a ‘rock’ in Arsenal’s back line. In all honesty, such a claim has become more difficult to argue with by the week, as the Gunners now sit top of the ‘goals conceded’ chart despite a rocky festive period that saw the Gunners slide to fourth in the Premier League after reaching the summit on Christmas Day.


Since then, Arteta’s side has conjured up sixteen Premier League goals, conceding just two, both of which were seen as defensive errors that should never have happened. Ironically, it was Gabriel who palmed the ball into his own net on the cusp of half-time against Liverpool after the Gunners had both visibly and metrically battered Klopp’s men. The silence as Luis Diaz spun away in celebration was deafening, but the Brazilian rallied both his teammates and the crowd to cultivate a raucous response.



Gabriel’s contributions at the other end of the pitch have also grown exponentially. Since he made his debut away at Fulham in August 2020 in front of an empty Craven Cottage—a game in which he scored—no defender has scored more in the Premier League. Standing at an impressive fourteen, Gabriel’s goals have often come at the most important times for a group of players who were in disarray at the beginning of his Arsenal career.


Despite finding himself on the receiving end of endless criticism from Arsenal fans and pundits with conflicting loyalties, the Gunners’ centre-half continues to put up extraordinary numbers on both ends of the pitch. Statistically, the Brazliian features among the 88th percentile of non-penalty goals per ninety for centre-backs in the top five European leagues and the 98th for non-penalty expected goals.


These numbers are truly astonishing, as nobody expected a sea change like the one unfolding in front of our very eyes, but the honest truth is that Arteta’s side are now a force to be reckoned with all over the pitch, including the swashbuckling heart of their defence. Partly due to the calming presence of his central defensive partner, William Saliba, Gabriel breathes fire into an Arsenal spine propped up by the coolness of goalkeeper David Raya and midfield machine Declan Rice.


In Sunday’s 0-0 draw at Manchester City, the Gunners restricted the treble-holders to just four touches in Arsenal’s box—the joint-fewest in a first half at the Etihad Stadium since Pep Guardiola took over in the summer of 2016. City striker Erling Haaland has now faced Arteta’s side three times this season without scoring, a feat upheld by yet another vanishing act up against Arsenal’s monstrous pair at the back.


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The feeling continues to manifest itself that the Brazilian isn’t a pretender anymore. He is in fact one of the best in his position in world football, and he wouldn’t look out of place on any team. Despite some unconvincing performances to begin the season, Arteta can hold a finger up to those who criticised his decision to leave Magalhaes out of his side back in the early stages.


It was reported by many credible media outlets that Gabriel had in fact been contacted by an unnamed Saudi club with an eye-watering sum of money on offer, economically blowing his Arsenal contract out of the water. Arteta, who dismissed the reports when asked about it earlier on in the season, pointed to a tactical shift of evolution as the reason as to why the Brazilian, who was an ever-present in the Gunners’ back line last season, was being left on the bench.


Despite Arteta’s claims, Gabriel revealed earlier this year that he ‘had to be convinced’ to stay at the club after he found his position in the side under threat following the arrival of Jurrien Timber from Ajax. “It was tough, obviously, at the start. I wanted to play, and it was very difficult for me, but I understood what the coach had to do,” he told PA Media.


“It is difficult for any player to not be on the team, but now I’m back in, and I want to keep on working hard to prove my worth. He spoke to me and obviously explained the reasons behind the decision. I should stay, but the most important thing was to remain focused and concentrate. He knew how important I was to the team, so I’m happy to be back and to be able to help the team in every game.”


Ironically, and maybe somewhat fortunately for Gabriel, summer signing Jurrien Timber’s impressive early season impact was brought to a shuddering halt as the Dutchman limped off with a suspected knee injury in Arsenal’s first Premier League game of the 2023/2024 season.


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It was later revealed that Timber has sustained an injury to his anterior cruciate ligament, with a suspected recovery period of at least nine months. The idea, however, that Timber was brought in as a direct replacement for Gabriel would seem to be wide of the mark given Arteta’s desire to have a left-footed player in that position.


The problem for Arsenal was that the extra midfielder in Thomas Partey, who operated in an inverted right-back in the absence of Oleksandr Zinchenko, looked to be overcrowding the central spaces that Saliba would usually progress the ball through, although Declan Rice seemed to negate that problem.


This had an adverse effect on Arsenal’s width, which could go some way to explain why it took Gabriel Martinelli until February to reach five Premier League goals for the season. Bukayo Saka also looked jaded from time to time and was left out of the starting eleven for the first time in almost two years when City rocked up at the Emirates back in October. A match that felt as cagey as ever was ultimately replicated by what unfolded in Manchester on Sunday.


Gabriel’s absence, which was met with fierce backlash from the Arsenal fanbase, has since waned. In fact, it was just the first three games of this Premier League campaign that saw the Brazilian benched and supposedly out of the picture, as he came back into Arteta’s team for the 3-1 triumph over Manchester United.


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The fact that it was the first league game after the transfer window had slammed shut, which saw Gabriel come back in, might tell its own story, but the Saudi window remained wide open. In reality, neither Arteta nor Edu would have even considered the possibility of a sale after the closure of the window, not even for an astronomical amount of cash.


Upon reflection, the way things have turned out since then is a testament to Gabriel’s character. His relationship with Arteta, Saliba, and the rest of the Arsenal squad is at an all-time high and offers some comfort ahead of the summer for those worried about any potential exit. Realistically, however, a sale might be something for the club to consider.


During Arsenal’s tour of the USA in the summer of 2022, Edu revealed that the Gunners may have to sell one of the club’s most prized assets in order to both comply with Financial Fair Play regulations and manage the squad better—Gabriel could be that guy.


It’s important to remember that in spite of the ludicrous salaries paid to footballers, someone of Gabriel’s background, who grew up in poverty in Sao Paulo, might be tempted by the idea of generational wealth for him and his family. This is something the Saudi Public Investment Fund can offer. For now, the Brazilian remains a popular figure at the club and will be key to any potential Premier League or Champions League glory that everyone associated with Arsenal so desperately desires.


By: Tom Norton / @XTPer90

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / David Price – Arsenal FC