Gabriel Magalhaes answers Mikel Arteta's key question as Arsenal take first steps into new eraby Alex Richards, https://www.facebook.com/AARichards/
If Gabriel played that well after six months without a competitive game and on less than a week's full training, then Mikel Arteta may just have found the defensive rock around whom his new Arsenal era can be built.
The £27million summer signing will face sterner tests than he encountered on his debut, against a flimsy Fulham attack shorn of Aleksandr Mitrovic for the most part.
However, in an opening day breeze for Arteta’s men at Craven Cottage, the towering Brazilian centre-back’s dominance was on display.
Gabriel stands just over 6ft 2in, yet the muscular former Lille man looks bigger, particularly in an Arsenal side that isn't exactly Stoke City circa 2009.
It’s been a while since the Gunners have had a centre-half who can physically overpower opponents, but the 22-year-old served early notice of his ability to do precisely that by shoving Aboubakar Kamara aside during one early tussle.
It’s also been a while since you’ve been able to point towards an Arsenal defender who dominates in both penalty areas, someone who, when the ball is there to be won, goes and wins it.
When Mitrovic entered the fray as a second-half substitute for Scott Paker’s men, he barely got a look in either.
Ably assisted to his right by Rob Holding and Kieran Tierney to his left, Gabriel - despite his limited English at present - marshalled an Arsenal backline to a defensive display where they gave up just one shot in their penalty area and an xG (expected goals) grand total of just 0.13.
“He has very special qualities to play the way we want to play and to adapt to the Premier League,” said Mikel Arteta.
“I don’t have to name all of them. I think you saw them all. One of them was his character and his personality on that pitch.
“For a boy that doesn’t speak the language to come in and do what he does, it’s a credit to him.”
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New signings Willian and Gabriel Magalhaes both hit the ground running against Fulham but Mikel Arteta is still on the lookout for new signings.
Lyon midfielder Houssem Aouar and Brentford keeper David Raya are two of the names on their radar.
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Gabriel’s last competitive action came in March, prior to Lille’s Ligue 1 campaign being cut short due to Covid-19.
And he wouldn’t have started against the Cottagers had David Luiz not suffered a neck injury.
But handed the opportunity to make his mark, he did precisely that; after overcoming an early miscommunication with Bernd Leno, nobody won more aerial battles, nobody made more clearances and twice he made crucial interceptions within eight yards of his own goal.
He showed he can handle Arteta’s demands to play out from the back too, efficiently working the ball into midfield - and further forwards - making more passes (109) than anyone else on the field, with a 97 percent success rate. Throughout, only twice did he go backwards.
“He hadn’t played any football for six months, so to come and play a game in the Premier League after training with the team for three or four days is a big task,” added Arteta.
“He showed a lot of character and what he can do. He can still improve a lot but he had a really good game.”
Of course, there was his goal too, leaping above Michael Hector to nod home Willian’s corner. Hector, known by Fulham fans as ‘Virgil van Mike’ was easily swatted aside.
“There is nothing better than starting with a win and a goal,” said Gabriel post-game.
“It is a different style of play than what I have been doing, but it is a very good group of players, where everyone tries to help each other.”
Unquestionably, there will be tougher tests to come.
Arsenal won the FA Cup with a supremely calculated, pragmatic approach, particularly in the semi-final win over Manchester City.
Arteta has since been clear that he wants to expand on that, to be more dominant with the ball, more expansive, to impose themselves on the opposition without sacrificing defensive stability.
The question was whether the club's new signings could hand the Spaniard what he needs, in order for his side to take the next step in their development.
For his part, Gabriel already looks to be the answer.
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