Nicolas Pepe's greatest assist? Arsenal stealing Gabriel Magalhaes from under Everton's nose proving key to Gunners' title bid

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Gabriel Magalhaes Arsenal 2022-23
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The Gunners' Brazilian centre-back has been exceptional this season, but he could easily have been playing for another Premier League club

Gabriel Magalhaes could have been lining up against Arsenal for Everton on Wednesday had things worked out differently three years ago as he prepared to leave Lille. The centre-back had passed a medical ahead of a proposed summer move to Goodison Park, only for the coronavirus pandemic to suddenly delay his switch to Merseyside.

With football shut down, the transfer wasn’t finalised and just a few months later, Arsenal arrived on the scene looking to get a deal done.

It was then up to Gabriel to make a decision, and with Nicolas Pepe, who had been a team-mate of the centre-back at Lille, playing a key role, the defender opted for north London.

Everton’s loss has certainly been Arsenal’s gain, with Gabriel having gone on to establish himself as one of the Premier League’s best defenders since his move in September 2020.

  1. A Premier League ever-present

    A Premier League ever-present

    The 25-year-old is now into his third full season in England and this has undoubtedly been his best.

    He has formed a formidable partnership at the heart of the defence with William Saliba, one that has been the bedrock that Arsenal’s exceptional campaign has been built upon.

    The pair have started every single Premier League game this season, helping Mikel Arteta’s side to 10 clean sheets - the joint-best record in the division.

    And while it may have been Saliba grabbing all the headlines for his performances during the opening months of the season, it has been Gabriel who has taken his game to a new level since the break for the World Cup.

    The Brazilian has been excellent, with his dominant performance at Leicester City on Saturday the latest in an ever growing line of fine displays.

    “He’s getting better in every phase of play and everything that we demand him to do,” Arteta said. “His leadership in the team, his mentality as well. I think he’s come a long way since he joined the club.”

  2. “I have improved a lot since arriving here”

    “I have improved a lot since arriving here”

    Gabriel has become an integral part of how Arsenal play under Arteta. His ability to bring the ball out of the back is vital, as is his passing. Occasionally that can get him into trouble, as was highlighted in the recent defeat against Manchester City, but that is the type of risk and reward football that Arteta demands from his defenders.

    The Brazilian averages 9.2 progressive ball carries per 90 minutes in the Premier League; only four centre-backs rank higher. He also sits third for progressive passes this season (75) and fifth for most successful passes (1,331).

    That is why he is so important. It’s not just what Gabriel does defensively that makes him so essential, it’s what he does when he has the ball at his feet.

    “I would say I have definitely improved a lot since arriving here," Gabriel said, while discussing his form this season during an interview with Sky Sports. "That goes for my passing, my heading, and various other aspects of my game. The coaches have helped me a lot.”

  3. Cutting out the errors

    Cutting out the errors

    Despite Gabriel’s impressive performances this season, there have been some high-profile errors, like the one against City which led to Jack Grealish’s goal last month.

    There were some lapses of concentration, especially in the early stages of the campaign, but the defender has done well to limit them as the season has progressed.

    Both he and Saliba hit it off straight away and their partnership has gone from strength to strength. They demand a lot from each other - as was highlighted when they were seen arguing following the full-time whistle at Leicester - but that again is something that Arteta demands.

    “I don’t want robots,” the Arsenal manager said. “I want players with passion that demand [a lot of] each other, but that also have that chemistry.

    "And those two certainly have that chemistry on and off the field. I love that even when we’re winning they want us to do better.”

  4. One of Arsenal's leaders
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    One of Arsenal's leaders

    Gabriel has worked hard at his English this season and has become an increasingly influential figure behind the scenes at Arsenal. His leadership skills have impressed the coaching staff and he was rewarded with a new long-term contract in October.

    “It’s great that we’ve agreed a new deal with Gabi,” technical director Edu said at the time. “He’s still a young player and is part of our future. His performances since he joined us have been very strong and his positive impact to our results have been clear for everyone to see.

    "He has grown so much on and off the pitch, with both his contribution and communication on and off the pitch. We all look forward to see Gabi continue to grow as an important part of our club.”

    Consistency has been key to Arsenal’s success this season and few players have been as consistent, both in terms of performances and availability, as Gabriel. For Everton fans, it must be painful to watch. Knowing just how close they came to landing the big Brazilian back in 2020.

    But for Arsenal, it’s another piece of exceptional transfer business that has helped the club transition from Premier League also-rans to title contenders. 

    Pepe may not have been a success in north London, but the Gunners still have a lot to thank their club-record signing for.