Can Flamengo's Gabriel Barbosa finally fulfil his huge potential?
- After failing in Italy, Gabigol is chasing redemption at Flamengo.
The Nerazzurri had seen Brazilians like De Lima 'O Fenômeno' Ronaldo, Adriano ' L'imperatore' Ribeiro, and Maicon 'Il Colosso' Sisenado light up the San Siro, and hopes were high for the wunderkind.
However, what followed was a disappointing season which saw him net his first goal on 19 February in a 1-0 win against Bologna, making just 9 Serie A appearances. Italy wasn't proving to be fertile ground as he struggled for form and game time amid managerial changes that held various degrees of preference levels for the lad.
So what went wrong? Pressure too much?
It couldn't be, Gabigol had successfully replaced Santos' golden boy Neymar after his departure to Barcelona - slowly but eventually becoming the new star of the side, even sensationally accruing the title of 'the new Neymar'.
Gabigol, a graduate of the famous Santos academy that had produced Robinho and Neymar, made his professional debut at 16 and went on to amass a staggering amount of goals in all competitions.
He made his Brazilian national team debut in 2016 and he was part of the Brazilian team that picked up gold at the 2016 Olympics. However, as with some other wunderkinds, he found it hard to light up the European stage. The Serie A famed for its highly tactical football, which begins with well drilled and tactical defenders, proved a bit too much too soon.
A loan was soon arranged to Benfica to replace Konstantinos Mitrolgou (who was departing for Marseille) but things managed to get worse as he racked up just a measly 165 minutes before he decided to return to Santos by January 2018.
Gabigol turned his fortunes around on home soil as he amassed game time and got on the score sheet. Gabigol in familiar surroundings began to score and contribute to the team who were at one point battling relegation.
A combination of hiring a new coach Cuca (who has resigned due to health concerns) and Gabriel's goals made sure Santos finished midtable in 10th. Gabigol is enjoying his football, and after signing with Flamengo in January, he'll be expected to lead them in the absence of Lucas Paquetá and Vinícius Júnior.
Gabigol is a glorious talent but ticks the boxes of certain stereotypes in football. He possesses a phenomenal left foot but can sometimes be too left-footed - relying on his stronger foot in situations where the weaker foot's strike would be needed.
Left footers can sometimes be predominantly left-footed, becoming a bit predictable (although as we've seen from Messi, Griezmann, etc, it's not the same for every left-footed player). Experienced Italian centre-halves (especially the old heads in Serie A) close down a players leg if they know he relies solely on it.
Managers too target players with one predominant foot and a rather dormant one. Mourinho revealed this in the aftermath of his Chelsea's 2-1 loss to Leicester in the 2015-16 season (the season which must not be named for Chelsea fans).
"These two goals, the movement of Vardy between the two central defenders then the cross with the left foot. Then Mahrez in the box one against one - I want one against two because I want the midfield player to close the best foot."
Mourinho believed his work was betrayed.
Gabigol is full of tricks but we know which foot will the executing them. Also, a quote from his first coach in Europe, Frank De Boer, sheds some light on his character.
"Gabigol thought he was in Brazil and would rather walk than run. He wanted to receive the ball without running into space and didn't understand that he had to train hard" said the Dutch trainer.
"He has to look at himself in the mirror, prove every day that he can be the best or at the very least a good player, not thinking himself a superstar."
"After all, he only won the Olympics with Brazil and that's it."
Stinging words, but they provide answers to what might have happened, fulfilling another stereotype of South American players not working hard enough to meet up with the demands of European football.
Although it must be stated that instability at Inter saw as many as 3 coaches (Frank De Boer, Stefano Pioli, and Stefano Vecchi all coaching Inter Milan in the 2016-17 season, which isn't really an ideal situation for budding youngsters) train the squad and ultimately lead the team to a 7th placed finish.
De Boer's quotes allude to a wunderkind who sees himself as a superstar and lets it get to his head, that narrative sound familiar? Gabigol's best position is also up for debate at this point in his career, as he can play as a striker and on the flanks but he possesses the size and attributes of a secondary striker like Dybala.
Gabigol may see himself as a 9 but his size and strength may not hold up against some of the Game Of Thrones extras masquerading as centre backs.
Another stereotypical box Gabriel seems to tick is inconsistency, as he can go missing for long spells of the game and even stretch of matches before finally being able to impact the game meaningfully, but this is expected at 22. He was playing terribly before the World Cup break but rediscovered his mojo after the tournament.
For all the talk about his resurgence, he simply stepped back into his comfort zone, and it may be a bit premature. He needs to put his head down and work hard to prove he isn't another one of the many Brazilians who never fulfilled their promise (Alexandre Pato, Robinho, Ganso, Denilson Oliveira, Diego, and the aforementioned Adriano come to mind).
His supreme talents will be put to the European test again, and he'd need to grab that opportunity with both hands. A hard-working mentality plus a coach with tactical nous who is (and this may be the most important) willing to believe in him and wants to maximize Gabigol's potential will be very necessary.
We've seen players like Neymar, Kaka, and Ronaldo go on from Brazil to become absolute world beaters, and Gabigol certainly seems interesting, but that desire to work hard and improve must be inculcated.
Finishing top scorer in the Brasileirao (23 goals and 2 assists in the league), shows nothing we don't know already. He scores goals in Brazil, but can he score in Europe? That will be the right time to get excited.Published 09 Mar 2019, 14:23 IST