The Samba Series returns as Arseblog columnist Tim Stillman profiles Arsenal’s latest Brazilian, Gabriel Paulista…
The career path of Gabriel Armando de Abreu has genuflected the man’s qualities as a defender. Understated, unfussy yet impressive. A quiet and humble family man, Gabriel has spent much of his career under the radar. His rise over the last two years has been stratospheric, but you would never guess from the rugged centre half’s almost expressionless demeanour. Somebody at Arsenal once told me that Wenger was finished with signing Brazilian players. He had had his fingers burned with the likes of André Santos and Denilson. Culturally, countless Brazilians have failed to come to terms with the rigorousness of European sporting culture.
In Brazil, if you’re two hours late, you’re early. This has led to many a Brazilian player on the wrong side of his manager for his time keeping where training is concerned. Shortly after the signing of Gabriel, Wenger told the press that natives of São Paulo, like Gabriel, tend to be more conscientious than their carioca cousins in Rio de Janeiro. It was a slightly disappointing generalisation on the manager’s part, not least when one considers that Santos, Julio Baptista and Denilson, three of his most acute Brazilian disappointments, are paulistas. But within that unintentional cultural stereotype, Wenger’s impression of Gabriel was clear.
For all of the famed stories of bleary eyed Brazilians showing up at training a few pounds overweight, wearing shades to conceal bloodshot eyes, there are a plethora of Brazilian players that have demonstrated great humility and professionalism. Wenger likely looks upon Gabriel as akin to Gilberto Silva (a Mineiro, who are characterised as shy, hard-working and humble folk, ex Chelsea midfielder ‘Mineiro’ is nicknamed as such despite hailing from Rio Grande do Sul because of his taciturn and humble personality) or even Edu. Looking beyond London Colney, the likes of Kaká, Lucio and Cafu have flourished in Europe through their fastidiousness.
In Wenger’s eyes, Gabriel probably fits this strand of quiet, humble Brazilian footballer. His style on the pitch certainly suggests so. Gabriel’s beginnings in Brazilian football were meagre, he represented modest Paulista side Atlético Taboão da Serra as a teenager and failed to impress in trials with Serie C side Grêmio Barueri and considerably more decorated neighbours Santos. Gabriel had to leave São Paulo to launch his career in earnest, joining Salvador based Vitória at the age of 19. His breakthrough was gradual, even if he played both legs of the 2010 Copa do Brasil final defeat to Santos (he played both games at right back). It was another year before Gabriel became a fixture at Vitória, but once afforded regular football, he has never looked back.
Leão da Barra narrowly missed out on promotion from Serie B in 2011, but they made amends with a fourth placed finish in 2012, granting them promotion back to Serie A. Gabriel does not enjoy a huge profile in Brazil and this is because he only really has a few months of genuine experience in the Brazilian top flight. Vitória won Campeonato Baiano (their regional state championship) in early 2013 and Gabriel was voted as the tournament’s best defender. On the back of this, the Bahia club enjoyed an excellent start to the 2013 Brasileirão season, establishing themselves as contenders for Copa Libertadores qualification (as in England, the top four in Brazil qualify for the continent’s most prestigious competition).
Nordeste clubs suffer for coverage in this huge, sprawling nation. Traditional power bases such as Rio, São Paulo and even cities such as Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre, hoover up much of the national media exposure. Nordestinos are still regarded with suspicion and mockery in some of the more southerly powerbases. Large parts of the nordeste region are impoverished and the regional dialect is considered ripe for parody in other parts of Brazil. It stands to reason that playing well in an overperforming Baiano side would not attract an awful lot of attention, which explains why Gabriel is not famed on his native soil. He is not exactly the type of player to court attention off the pitch either.
But Villarreal scouts have a notable presence in South America and their interest was sufficiently piqued, in August 2013, the Yellow Submarine signed Gabriel. The transfer barely twitched an eyebrow in Brazil. Gabriel had very little profile due to his limited exposure to Serie A football and during the summer of 2013, more celebrated talents were plucked from the league. Bernard joined Shakhtar Donetsk from Atlético Mineiro, Paulinho joined Spurs from Corinthians and of course, Neymar Junior left his Santos womb for the bright lights of Barcelona. Villarreal had suffered the ignominy of relegation in 2012. Having been promoted back to La Liga at the first attempt, they were looking to rebuild their reputation.
Once again, Gabriel’s incline was gradual initially, he didn’t make his first La Liga start until November, the Spanish club were cautious to manage his acclimatisation, conscious of the quick strides from Serie B, to Serie A to La Liga in such short leaps. He started 18 games during the 2013-14 season as the Yellow Submarine finished sixth, qualifying for the Europa League in the process. By the time 2014-15 started, Gabriel’s hibernation period had come to an end and he had become a firm starter for Villarreal. It may be a consequence of his genteel, quiet nature, but much of his career to date has been handled with kid gloves by scouts and coaches, yet once given the chance, his trajectory shows that he takes to choppy waters quickly.
In the summer of 2014, Thomas Vermaelen left Arsenal for Barcelona. As if to emphasise the paucity of top class centre halves available on the market, the Catalans won a tug of war with Manchester United for his signature. At this stage, there is no way that Gabriel would have been on the radar of Barca, United or indeed Arsenal, who scoured the continent for Vermaelen’s replacement and returned empty handed. Having established himself in the Villarreal side, Gabriel struck up a formidable centre half partnership with Victor Ruiz. The team conceded 17 goals in the 19 league matches in which Gabriel had played. Arsene Wenger had seen enough.
Gabriel has been sheep dipped into the picture at Arsenal gradually, as he was at Vitória and Villarreal. Learning English will be a more significant challenge for him than learning Spanish, which bears huge similarities to Portuguese. The culture in England and London also represents a steeper learning curve than the move from São Paulo to Bahia, or Bahia to Valencia. Yet Gabriel’s career to date has been something of a silent tornado. Periods of calm, followed by swift spells of accelerated progression. Like a foxtrot, slow, slow, quick, quick, slow. Having spent his first six months in England largely in the shadows, impressing during his cameos, we might well have just experienced the eye of the storm. His strong aerial prowess certainly makes him a worthy challenger for Per Mertesacker’s position, given Arsenal’s propensity to concede headed goals. If Gabriel’s career trajectory continues to form, 2015-16 promises to be a whirlwind for this humble Brazilian.