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Santos FC is renowned for being a breeding ground for many of world football’s most talented stars. Illustrious names such as Pelé, Robinho, Diego Ribas, Ganso and Neymar are all graduates of Santos’ famed youth academy, but the new kid on the block is 18 year old striker Gabriel Barbosa, better known by the moniker, ‘Gabigol’.
From a very early age it was clear that Gabriel had a bright future in the world of football having joined the Santos academy in 2004 at the age of 8 years old. Eight years later in 2012, Gabriel signed his first professional contract for Santos with a buyout clause of 50 million Euros, highlighting his importance to Santos and also the vast potential that the player possesses. Gabriel, since making his debut at the tender age of 16, has shown experience and maturity beyond his age scoring key goals for Santos in the Brasileiro, the Paulista and also the Copa Do Brasil. The youngster also featured in Outside of the Boot’s 100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2015 special, as well as in the 2016 edition (100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2016).
Whilst often compared to Neymar, or labelled ‘The New Neymar’, Gabriel plays in a much different style to that of his predecessor at Santos. For a start he is a much more dogged than Neymar, to be honest he is probably more comparable to the Uruguayan front man Luis Suarez.
Gabriel is often deployed on the wings to accommodate other striking options, but he is most certainly an out and out striker. Standing at 1.76 metres tall and weighing 68 kilograms, Gabriel is a powerful player capable of causing problems to the best defences in Brazil. A clear example of this was Gabriel’s mature display in the 5 – 1 defeat of São Paolo side Corinthians. Gabriel is a two-footed striker and is also very skillful, although not quite to the level of Neymar. He is a player who likes to hang on the shoulder of the last defender and make runs in behind the opposition defence, countless examples of this can be seen by looking through videos of the goals which he has scored for Santos. Gabriel also has a high work rate and is often found far away from the opposition goal in an attempt to help his side, whilst not an ideal trait for a striker, it nonetheless endears the player to fans of Santos.
It goes without saying that Gabriel’s key strength is his goal scoring ability. He finished the 2014 Paulista as Santos’ joint top scorer and also finished as joint top scorer of the 2014 Copa Do Brasil. Although criticised thus far in the 2015 Paulista for not being clinical enough in front of goal, his goal scoring feats to date prove he is a decent finisher although not quite the finished article. The fact that his nickname is ‘Gabigol’ shows us that he is most definitely a threat in front of the opposition goal. For many of Gabriel’s goals he uses his agility to burst past the oppositions defence. He has a low centre of gravity which makes him difficult to knock off the ball, therefore giving Santos the opportunity to play him as a lone striker or part of a strike partnership alongside either Robinho or Ricardo Oliveira.
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Another of Gabriel’s key strengths is his maturity. For a player so young he has been able to deal with the pressure that comes with being labelled ‘The New Neymar’ and ‘The Next Big Thing’. It is remarkable that a player so young has been able to deal with the hype heaped upon him and continue to perform in an exceptional and professional manner. He has shown maturity beyond his age by being able to keep progressing whilst maintaining a solid goal scoring rate. An example of his maturity was the late winner he scored on the opening day of the 2014 Brasileiro against Sport Recife. Things were not going well for Santos on this day yet Gabriel kept on working and eventually got his reward in the shape of an important goal for Santos. Many players of the same age would have dropped their heads but Gabriel showed great maturity and kept plugging away, showing he has the work ethic to match his enormous potential. The youngster has also featured in many big games for Santos at such a young age; notable examples include scoring versus São Paolo giants Corinthians and also against 2013 and 2014 Brasileiro champions, Belo Horizonte based side Cruzeiro. The fact that he can perform like a seasoned professional bodes well for his future and points to the conclusion that he will be around for many years to come.
Gabriel is also an accomplished passer of the ball. He finished 2014 with a pass completion rate 81.6%, a rate that most of Europe’s top midfielders would be proud of. The fact that Gabriel is such a good passer opens up various opportunities for Santos. His passing ability makes him a more versatile player and perhaps this is the reason why he is often deployed on the wing. His impressive pass rate points to the conclusion that he is comfortable on the ball and does not mind playing an active part in his teams build up play.
Although being well built for an 18 year old, Gabriel is still rather slight. Whilst not a great weakness at the moment this could become a major problem after his inevitable move to Europe. The top defenders in Europe generally tend to be tall and strong, and unfortunately for Gabriel he is not particularly blessed with either attribute. Only time will tell if Gabriel will grow stronger in the coming years, but it is certainly needed in order to develop his game. He tends not to score many headed goals and this is down to his lack of physicality and his slight frame. If he could improve in this area there is no telling how much Gabriel could improve his all round attacking presence.
Despite being such a young player Gabriel has shown illustrious form in his outings in the Copa Do Brasil. In his debut season of 2013, Gabriel scored one goal in two appearances for Santos in the tournament. Although it was only one goal, it was still impressive nonetheless given the fact that he was still only 16 at the time playing against seasoned professionals. This goal came against Grêmio in the 1st leg round of 16 match of the aforementioned competition. It was from this game that the hype surrounding Gabriel well and truly emerged for this was a game where Gabriel was not even in Santos match squad! He was at the Vila Belmiro as a spectator but had to be included in the squad due to an unexpected illness to Santos player Victor Andrade. Gabriel made his debut in the competition in the 75th minute of the game replacing Neílton. Shortly after his introduction, Gabriel latched onto a cross from Montillo and guided the ball past the legendary Brazilian shot stopper Dida. This goal caused Gabriel to earn immediate comparisons with another Santos legend, Neymar.
Gabriel continued his brilliant goal scoring form in the competition in 2014. Santos scored the most goals of all the teams in the competition with an average of 2.27 goals per match and Gabriel played a central part in Santos’ goal scoring exploits. The young man from São Bernado do Campo registered six goals in seven games for the Alvinegro Praiano. This is an impressive tally for a seventeen year old as there are few other strikers his age who could boast a goal scoring rate of 85.7% in a national cup competition. Gabriel’s goals started with a brace versus Mixto, then two against Princesa Solimões, and then against Brazilian giants Botafogo and Cruzeiro respectively. Although Santos was knocked out at the hands of Belo Horizonte side Cruzeiro, Gabriel proved himself to be a top quality marksman with a deadly eye for goal. Gabriel finished joint top scorer of the competition alongside Bill of Ceará. This was a remarkable feat for the seventeen year old wonderkid, and showed the whole of Brazil that he was not simply a flash in the pan. This feet was made even more impressive considering Santos’ marquee signing of Leandro Damião, not only did Gabriel score more goals than him, he also kept him out of the side highlighting the act that the seventeen year was a striker of immeasurable talent.
2014 was the first year in which Gabriel competed in the Paulista and this was also the season where Santos got to the final of the competition. They eventually lost to lower league side Ituano in the final but throughout the competition they were buoyed by numerous strikes from Gabriel. In the 2014 Paulista, Gabriel netted 7 times in 18 games for Santos, with a goal scoring rate of 38.8%. Whilst not as prolific as his form in the Copa Do Brasil it is nonetheless very impressive. In the 2014 Paulista, Gabriel’s goals came against XV de Piracicaba, Bragantino, a brace against Botafogo – SP, Corinthians, Ponte Preta and Rio Claro. The fact that Gabriel’s goals were spread out throughout the tournament show that, once again, he is a consistent striker capable of scoring at all times. It is hard to believe that Gabriel is still a mere 17 years old, particularly when he is capable of holding his nerve to score in big games such as the derby game against Corinthians. This is a game with an extremely hostile atmosphere yet it seems to not startle Gabriel in the slightest.
So far in this season’s Paulista Gabriel has somewhat struggled to live up to the goal scoring exploits of his team mates. Whilst scoring 3 times in 11 games so far he has been out performed in the goal scoring stakes by both Robinho and also Ricardo Oliveira, with Robinho scoring 5 goals in 11 games and Ricardo Oliveira finding the net 9 times in 15 games. Gabriel’s low tally this season could be due to the fact he is often being utilised as a substitute or playing further on the wings as to accommodate the in form Ricardo Oliveira. This being said 3 goals so far is not a terrible return for the 18 year old and there are also going to be more opportunities for the young man to further bolster his tally this campaign. He has been guilty this Paulista of missing a few gilt-edged chances so if he can become slightly more clinical in front of goal, it is destined that he will be a handful for defenders in the upcoming Brasileiro. In the Paulista, Gabriel has played 29 games and found the net 10 times for Santos, a very good return of 34.48% goals to games ratio. This indicates serious goal scoring potential and shows us that the eighteen year old is already a seasoned goal scorer at such a youthful age.
It is in the Brasileiro where Gabriel has found it most difficult. Overall in the Brasileiro, Gabriel has found the net 9 times in 42 games, with the young Brazilian scoring one in 11 in 2013 and 8 in 31 in 2014. Whilst not the lofty heights reached by Gabigol in the Paulista and the Copa Do Brasil it is still a respect worthy tally for the eighteen year old. Gabriel has an overall goals to game ratio of 17.3% in the Brasileiro and to run the risk of repeating myself, this is still a very respectable tally for a player so young and so new to the Brazilian footballing scene. There are also numerous reasons for Gabriel’s dip in goal scoring form in the Brasileiro. The first of these reasons is fatigue as the Brazilian footballing season is quite a long one when compared to countries such as England or Spain. The fact that Gabriel would have played such a vast amount of games in such a short period of time would have played a massive role in why his goal scoring ratio dropped so evidently in the Brasileiro. This point is backed up by the fact that Gabriel was substituted off 22 times in 31 games of the 2015 Brasileiro campaign. This goes to show us that if Gabriel can improve his fitness he can indeed be the most prolific striker in the Brasiliero.
Another key reason for Gabriel’s low tally in the Brasileiro is that Santos had a bad season by their own standards last season so naturally Gabriel suffered alongside the rest of the team. In the 2014 Brasleiro, Santos had a mid table finish in ninth position, scoring only 42 goals whilst conceding 35. This goes to show us that Gabriel’s goals were vital to Santos’ ambitions in the 2014 Brasiliero as he scored 17.7 percent of his side’s goals in the competition. This is incredible from the youngster and goes a long way towards showing what he is capable of. The fact that he was able to score so many goals against the best central defenders in Brazil shows us the Gabriel is here to stay, he is not just a one hit one wonder.
Although Ricardo Oliveira is currently out scoring Gabriel in the current Paulista, I predict that it will be Gabriel who makes the biggest contribution in front of goal for Santos this season. He makes intelligent runs and therefore the will give the defenders more trouble as opposed to Ricardo Oliveira, who is more of a static player. Santos have also shown good early form this year so if they can continue Gabriel should be able to benefit and add to his already impressive repertoire of goals for the men from the Vila.
It is almost a certainty that Gabriel will move to European football in the future. With the skill he possesses he is undoubtedly one of the most talented strikers in Brazil at the moment and should he continue his current form it won’t be too long until he is tormenting defences in one of Europe’s top 5 leagues. It is widely reported that Barcelona have first option on the young Brazilian, but after the furore surrounding the Neymar transfer it is unlikely that Gabriel will sign for them anytime soon. Although his future is not certain one thing certainly is, whichever European club he signs for will have made a solid investment. At such a young age he is only going to grow as a player and fulfill more of his potential. Without a doubt he is a player to keep an eye out for in the near future.
Written by Charles Redmond