Four days on from Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Tottenham at a delirious Emirates Stadium, Gabriel Magalhaes is still riding high. “There is nothing better in football than winning a derby,” he tells Sky Sports, a white-toothed smile stretched across his face.
Especially not when you win it like that.
There had been a sense, albeit a cautious one, of something building. Narrow wins over Norwich and Burnley had changed the mood. But Sunday’s demolition of Spurs was something else. “We were very pleased to give that happiness to the fans,” adds Gabriel.
The 23-year-old was absent during the chaotic start to the season which left Arsenal bottom of the table with no points and not even a goal from their first three games. But his return from a knee injury has been a significant factor in their improvement.
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Gabriel has been a towering presence at the heart of their defence, helping secure clean sheets against Norwich and Burnley – after which Mikel Arteta described him as “a player with an incredible future” – then shackling Harry Kane on Sunday.
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Watching the Brazilian perform like this, blending the physical and the technical so impressively, it is easy to see why Arsenal were willing to pay £27m to sign him from Lille last summer.
But his first campaign in England was not straightforward.
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He started brightly, winning three consecutive Arsenal player of the month awards, but the side’s form soon dipped and so did his.
A Covid diagnosis sent him into isolation over the Christmas period. He was in and out of the team in the second half of the campaign.
“It was a year of learning,” says Gabriel, leaning back in his chair on the indoor training pitch at Arsenal’s London Colney headquarters.
“Of course, the team had a bad run, but I started well and overall I think it was a good year for me. I learned a lot of things and I’m a more mature player this year. I know the league better as well.”
It helps, too, that communication has become easier. Gabriel has chosen to conduct this interview in his native Portuguese but he has developed an improved understanding of English.
“I think, more than anything on the pitch, the language was the biggest difficulty for me in terms of adapting,” he says. “There are a lot of players here who speak French, Portuguese and Spanish but in this country, you have to speak English and that was tough for me.
“My English still isn’t perfect,” Gabriel adds, after a pause, “but it’s definitely a lot better than it was and that’s helping me a lot.”
Gabriel coped impressively with Harry Kane against Tottenham
Gabriel feels at home at Arsenal now and last year wasn’t the first in his career in which he has had to adjust to unfamiliar surroundings.
In Brazil, homesickness almost drove him to turn his back on football altogether after he left Sao Paolo for the city of Florianopolis, some 500 miles away, to play for Avai aged 14.
From there, moving to France aged 19 was similarly tough.
He would eventually become a key figure for Lille, of course, attracting interest from Manchester United and Everton as well as Arsenal. But success arrived only after a stint in their reserves and undistinguished loan spells with Troyes and Croatian side Dinamo Zagreb.
It has been a battle, in other words.
Was it difficult to imagine reaching the level he’s at now?
“Absolutely,” he says, nodding his head.
“I would say I matured a lot during those years because many things happened in my life in a short space of time.
Gabriel celebrates with his team-mates during the win over Burnley
“It was a period when I learned a lot and it made a big difference in terms of helping me become the player I am. When I’m on the pitch now, I think back to those difficult times and use them to help me.
“What’s more difficult than reaching the top level is staying there and that’s something I am aware of too. Every day, I work hard to improve and maintain my physical and technical attributes.”
Gabriel credits the now departed David Luiz for helping him settle at Arsenal. He is grateful to Pablo Mari and other team-mates too. But his warmest words are reserved for manager Arteta.
“He is a top guy who is always helping out his players and his staff,” says Gabriel. “He supports us during tough times and I’m very happy to be coached by him.
“Without doubt, I’m learning a lot from him. He helps us a lot on the pitch, in terms of deciding how we are set up and the systems we use. He guides us forward but he also asks us questions about what we think might be best for the team.
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“The communication in general between the players and the manager is very good. We want to do well for him because that’s exactly what he deserves. We see that he enjoys what he does and we want to achieve great things together.”
The hope among fans is that the tools are finally in place to do that.
Arsenal’s summer overhaul has left Arteta with one of the youngest squads in Europe. Among their six new signings was a new centre-back partner for Gabriel in the £50m Ben White.
“Thanks to God we have managed to win three games together and keep two clean sheets,” says Gabriel. “It’s only the beginning but I think we have the makings of a very good partnership, in terms of our attributes.”
Together, they form the youngest first-choice centre-back pairing in the Premier League. They are distinctly modern defenders, assured on the ball and quick across the turf, and despite their relative inexperience, Gabriel feels they have quickly got to grips with Arteta’s demands for the position.
“The manager wants his central defenders to defend well, first and foremost,” he says. “He wants us to know the moments to attack and the moments to defend. That’s what we are trying to do, and we know now when to drop deep and when to push up.
“Having good timing on the pitch is essential and he talks to us about that a lot. He also tells us how every game is different here because we’re up against players with different attributes.
Watch highlights from Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Spurs
“Ben and I have each had a full season in the Premier League now and we’re getting to know it much better. We still need to connect even more but we are improving and developing with every game and that bodes well for the rest of the season.
“We want to be a very intense and aggressive defence.”
That intensity and aggression could certainly be seen in Sunday’s pulsating north London derby at the Emirates Stadium, with Gabriel and White gleefully snapping into challenges and dominating their opponents in the air from start to finish.
It is also evident in the statistics. Arsenal are winning more duels, more headers and more tackles than they were last season. They are making more blocks and more clearances too.
Takehiro Tomiyasu has added to that combativeness at right-back but it’s Aaron Ramsdale who is setting the tone.
The former Sheffield United goalkeeper, his infectious personality evident when he walks behind Gabriel chanting his name before this interview begins, is a vocal and authoritative presence on the pitch who has shown an impressive command of his penalty area.
“He is very good goalkeeper,” says Gabriel. “He is another new guy who is very young and has a bright future ahead of him. He helps us a lot. He is good communicator on the pitch and his distribution is also very good.”
Ramsdale, Gabriel and the rest of Arsenal’s defenders have been seen high-fiving and embracing when keeping opponents at bay in recent weeks and Saturday’s meeting with Brighton is another opportunity to nurture that togetherness.
Gabriel and Ben White have impressed as a defensive pairing
“It’s very important to have that battling spirit, that desire to win, when you’re out on the pitch,” says Gabriel. “We want to win every game but also every ball and every duel.
“We saw the way the fans reacted to every important tackle and every good pass on Sunday – not just the goals. We need to have that passion throughout every game, every time the ball is there to be won. Having that support from the fans pushes us forward.”
It is just another reason for optimism at Arsenal right now and Gabriel agrees. “I think we’re going to have a much better season,” he adds, those white teeth gleaming again.
“I really believe we can achieve a lot more this time around.”
Watch Brighton vs Arsenal live on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm on Saturday; kick-off 5.30pm
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