Arsenal defender Gabriel's says France football is more physical than in England

Arsenal defender Gabriel's says France football is more physical than in England

Gabriel Magalhaes was browsing an adidas store when he decided to buy an Arsenal shirt with his name and number printed on the back.

It was 2019, and the Brazilian central defender was making good progress at Lille and developing more than a passing interest in the team from north London.

Nicolas Pepe, his friend and former team-mate, had recently moved to the Emirates Stadium and that was a good reason to cheer them on.

For Gabriel, however, it all became a beautiful coincidence. One year later, Arsenal returned to Lille to sign him and — despite interest from other clubs, including Everton and Napoli — he thought it would be a perfect fit.

It turned out he was right. Gabriel’s swift adjustment to English football has been one of the success stories of an indifferent campaign for Mikel Arteta’s team, and eased their seemingly endless search for a strong, quick and aerially dominant centre half.

‘When I bought the shirt, I never imagined they would one day offer me a contract,’ says Gabriel.

‘Arsenal was a team I loved, and I always knew I would love them even more if I played for them.'

He started with a goal on debut in a win at Fulham, and won the club’s player of the month award three times in a row: September, October and November.

There were plenty of Portuguese and French speakers to help him settle in, although his English was not the best and the language barrier caused some amusement when boss Arteta fired a question at him during a team meeting.

‘He was analysing a video when he asked me a question in English,’ recalls the 23-year-old. ‘I looked up at him with “what?” on my face and everybody laughed.

‘It was funny, but I sincerely did not understand what he said. He asked the question again, this time in Spanish, and I was able to answer him. We mix many languages at Arsenal.’

Gabriel attributes his success to countless hours spent watching English teams. He has been a fan of the Premier League since he was young and always thought it would suit his playing style.

‘In France, the football is more physical than in England,’ he says, perhaps hinting at the changing nature of the Premier League. ‘There is more technique here, but my experiences in France and Brazil have prepared me to face any type of attacker.’

Gabriel left home in Sao Paulo at 13 for a trial at Avai, almost 500 miles south.

He impressed on his first day but was back home within a week.

‘It was very cold and I had never been so far from home,’ he remembers.

‘I told the coaching staff I needed to go home and pick up some clothes for the cold, but it was just an excuse because I was missing my parents.

‘When I went home, I talked to my parents. My father said, “My son, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If you want to be a football player, you need to embrace it”.

‘I called the coaches and told them I’d like to join Avai again. They accepted, I went back with a different mentality and it worked out.’

There Gabriel, who had always been an offensive player, was moulded into a solid defender who could be relied on in big games.

He captained the club at youth level and commanded their record transfer fee when he was sold to Lille for £2.5million in 2017.

After loan spells at Troyes and Dinamo Zagreb, he broke into the first team. His fondest memories of France include a goal in a victory over Paris Saint-Germain, as Lille finished runners-up in 2019.

Gabriel’s first chance to move to England came when Carlo Ancelotti made him a key target for his rebuild at Everton. He visited the training ground at Finch Farm and completed a medical in March, last year, before the pandemic took hold. Negotiations collapsed, Arsenal swooped in, and Ancelotti’s loss was Arteta’s gain.

Exploring life in London has proved difficult in lockdown. ‘I love London, but I also like to be at home,’ says Gabriel.

‘I’m not a guy who likes to go out. I stay at home and play a lot of Call of Duty. My life has always been focused on training first, and becoming a better player, then having fun.’

His progress will be tested on Sunday by Manchester City.

‘They are dangerous from the kit man to the centre forward,’ he laughs, aware that the latter happens to be Brazil’s No 9, Gabriel Jesus. ‘If we both play, I will do my best to stop him.

‘We are building a strategy to face them. We have a great balance and are able to face any team.’

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