“They called him Gabigol but we called him Gabi-no-gol.”
It’s almost too good of a nickname. All a not-bitter-at-all ex-manager has to do is toss the word ‘no’ in the middle of it, and the platinum-blonde swagger of ‘Gabigol’ becomes the missed-sitter ineptitude of ‘Gabi-no-gol.’
Not that Gabriel Barbosa should have cared much about the above quote. The withering words came courtesy of Frank de Boer who was (briefly) Barbosa’s manager during the Dutchman’s (brief) tenure at Internazionale.
More words from de Boer about Barbosa: “He would arrive with two people just for his social media as well as a bodyguard, but he did nothing.”
Barbosa shouldn’t have cared about those words either.
And just why shouldn’t the 23-year-old have cared what a former Champions League-winning defender had to say about him? Because all of de Boer’s words were spoken to Fox Sports after the on-loan Inter forward and his N Sync-approved haircut scored two late goals to defeat River Plate and win Flamengo the 2019 Copa Libertadores.
The first goal was an 89th-minute poacher’s special. If you’ve scored 42 goals in a calendar year (congrats: that’s a lot of goals) as Barbosa did for Flamengo in 2019, then you’ve scored a few like this. Goals of this variety don’t drive up YouTube compilation page views, but they do drive central defenders insane: six-yard box tap-ins that say more about a striker’s capacity to judge where the ball will end up at the conclusion of an attacking movement than they do about their actual finishing ability.
Barbosa’s stoppage-time second goal was pure finishing ability, though. And go ahead and toss in a fair bit raw tenacity, too.
After Flamengo played a hopeful long ball forward towards the edge of River’s penalty area, Barbosa outmuscled River centre back Javier Pinola, who mistakenly headed the ball within range of Barbosa’s lethal left foot. A promising development, but the Flamengo forward still had to get to the ball ahead of River’s other centre back, Lucas Martinez Quarta. That wasn’t an issue for the pacey Barbosa.
By this point, the ball was tantalizingly bouncing inside the 18-yard box just a few feet in front of the penalty spot. Prime real estate for a striker, and Barbosa forcefully lashed a left-footed missile passed River keeper Franco Armani. Cue the shirt removal, cue the confetti, cue the fireworks, and of course, cue the trophy. Paradoxically, the occasion was both surprising and unsurprising considering Barbosa’s career to this point.
Signed as an eight-year-old, Barbosa was aged just 16 when he made his much-anticipated first-team debut for Santos, the Brazilian club Pele called home for nearly 20 seasons. More recently, Neymar twisted and weaved his way around opposition defenders for the small portside city’s club. Barbosa’s first-team debut was actually Neymar’s farewell, and during the match the two ended up spending about 20 minutes on the pitch together. Santos’ messaging for the occasion was clear: say goodbye to one superstar whilst saying hello to another.
Granted, there’s nothing exceptionally surprising about the current king of South American club football being a player who was once billed as the ‘next Neymar,’ even when acknowledging how arduous it was for Barbosa to earn that moniker. Barbosa has a tattoo on his arm of his father carrying him on his shoulders to a training session: a reminder of his mode of transportation when his family couldn’t afford a bus fare for him.
“I come from a poor community, but ever since I started playing soccer things have got better for me and my family,” Barbosa reflected to Simon Kuper of ESPN on his less-than-straightforward path to becoming a wunderkind at Santos. But it’s actually the circuitous nature of his journey after his time at Santos that’s made Barbosa’s continental coronation so stunning.
An impossibly hyped attacking trio
Harsh as they were, de Boer’s comments about Barbosa weren’t totally without merit. After all, the Brazilian quite literally scored no goals whilst de Boer was his manager at Inter. It’s impossible to score a goal whilst sitting on the bench, though, which was where Barbosa could generally be found in the immediate aftermath of his €29.5 million move to Inter from Santos in August 2016.
Inter splashed the cash to acquire Barbosa shortly after he had featured for Brazil during the 2016 Rio Olympics. Brazil entered those Olympic games boasting the impossibly hyped attacking trio of Barbosa, Neymar, and the soon-to-be-Manchester City-bound Gabriel Jesus.
The formula for Brazilian domination at the tournament seemed simple: Neymar would dazzle on the left (or, really, wherever he chose to roam), Jesus would play centrally, and Barbosa would command the right-wing as he had been doing successfully for Santos. The scoreboard operator would need eight hands to keep up with all the goals Brazil were going to score.
Two matches into the competition and a rock could have been controlling the scoreboard during Brazil’s matches and it wouldn’t have made a difference. Goalless draws against South Africa and Iraq placed considerable scrutiny on the Selecao, who were supposed to be atoning for the full first-team’s humiliating 7-1 defeat to Germany in the semifinals of the 2014 World Cup.
Brazil altered their lineup for their final group stage match against Denmark, introducing Gremio’s Luan to the centre of their forward line. Essentially, Brazil were now playing with a front four, which prompted Barbosa’s positioning as a wide right forward to shift even a little further towards the flank. The tinkering worked, and Barbosa netted Brazil’s cathartic first goal of the tournament after getting on the end of a low left-sided cross and supplying a tidy far-right post finish.
Barbosa would complete a brace in the 80th minute and Brazil cruised to a 4-0 victory over the shell-shocked Danes. Predictably, considering its effectiveness, the same front four was utilized for the remainder of the competition, and a newly menacing Brazil eventually got their revenge on Germany by beating them on penalties in the final.
Now a gold medal-winning right-winger, Barbosa looked set to electrify European football. Except, despite what his gold medal would suggest, maybe right-wing isn’t Barbosa’s best position. After struggling mightily during his rare appearances in Europe playing out wide, it may not be a coincidence that the improved form Barbosa has enjoyed his past two seasons in Brazil has come with him generally being deployed centrally.
A position debate
Loaned first from Inter to his old club Santos in 2018, and then to Flamengo in 2019, Barbosa is currently playing the best football of his career. At Santos, he scored 18 goals across 35 league appearances, and he was even more impressive with Flamengo: 25 goals in 29 league matches (with eight assists, too). Obviously, playing centrally is more conducive to scoring goals than playing on the wing, but there’s genuine reason to believe that the striker position is Barbosa’s ideal home.
Barbosa can play on the wing (as his performances in the Olympics showed), but that doesn’t necessarily mean he should. And at Inter, Barbosa’s versatility probably worked against him. The Brazilian’s a slick passer (per WhoScored.com, he’s completed over 80 percent of his passes in every season but one) and it’s easy to see why Inter, who boasted Mauro Icardi as a striking option, would have wanted to play their budding new signing out wide to provide service for the dangerous Argentine – when, of course, Barbosa was actually given the chance to play.
Clearly, de Boer didn’t think much of Barbosa, but Inter didn’t think much of de Boer, and the Dutchman was sacked in November of the 2016-17 season after mere months as Nerazzurri boss. Only making a single appearance as a substitute under de Boer, Barbosa featured a bit more for his replacement, Stefano Pioli. Still never given the chance to start, Barbosa was typically brought on late in matches to play on the right-wing of Pioli’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Barbosa’s appearances for Inter exposed some of the less refined elements of his game – elements that are exacerbated when he’s positioned wide.
Barbosa will sometimes drift out of matches. Even during the Libertadores final, he was mostly a peripheral figure (per WhoScored, he accrued only 26 touches during the match) until he commandeered the occasion with his two decisive goals. Pushing Barbosa further from goal can heighten his tendency to go missing for stretches and reduce the significant scoring threat he provides.
Whilst possessing a dangerous left foot (Barbosa absolutely loves shooting with his left foot. Per WhoScored, out of his 117 shot attempts in the league this season with Flamengo, 92 of them were with his left foot), Barbosa can become too one-dimensional when playing on the right-wing – everyone in the stadium knows he’s going to look to cut inside. This was especially a problem when he faced the astute defenders that populate much of the Italian Serie A.
But reconciling the player that’s flopped so spectacularly in Europe (prior to his loans in Brazil, Barbosa also had a loan spell at Benfica where he only saw 43 total minutes of action) with the player that’s been shining so brightly in his native country likely goes beyond a mere position debate. And many would point to the relative inferiority of South American club football when compared to its European counterpart to explain Barbosa’s troubles on the east side of the Atlantic.
A talent and tactical disparity
As of December 28th, 538’s Global Club Soccer Rankings (a data-driven effort to rank the majority of the world’s football clubs) have Flamengo as the 40th best club team in the world. Respectable, but far from elite clubs from Europe’s top leagues like Wolfsburg and Valencia sit ahead of the Copa Libertadores winners in the rankings. Only four other Brazilian clubs are even in the top 100, and River Plate rank 79th. The rankings reflect the sobering reality of the gap between South America’s best and Europe’s best.
In addition to the talent disparity between club football in South America and club football Europe (a talent disparity that has much to do with the top South American talent consistently being poached by European clubs), there’s also a significant imbalance in the level of tactical sophistication found on each continent. Presently, the latest and greatest tactical trends in club football are all originating in Europe.
Writing for WorldSoccer.com this September, South American football journalist Tim Vickery lamented the “low risk, counter-attack and set-pieces model of play that has taken a stranglehold on the domestic Brazilian game.” The plodding pace of the average Brazilian league match is simply light years away from the frenetic tempo of a counter-pressing saturated Premier League or Bundesliga contest.
In fact, much of Flamengo’s success this season could be attributed to how Portuguese manager Jorge Jesus injected the team with a more proactive and dynamic approach that distinguished the club from its opponents. Jesus’ Flamengo defended high and switched formations with regularity, with a 4-4-2 formation in particular inspiring great performances from Barbosa and his frequent strike partner in the system, Bruno Henrique.
With rumours swirling of a possible European return for Barbosa (and a permanent move away from Inter), interested parties might want take note of the prosperity Flamengo’s number nine enjoyed whilst playing in a strike partnership under Jesus. A strike pairing keeps Barbosa close to goal and provides him ample opportunity to display his passing ability when combining with his strike partner. Hypothetical tactics aside, projecting how Barbosa may fair if he elects to go back to Europe is difficult.
A more human element to consider
Uncertainty is intrinsic to all transfer dealings, but that uncertainty is amplified when a player is switching countries. Even beyond the very real concerns of how well a player’s skill set will translate to a new league, club’s purchasing from abroad also have more human elements to consider. Too often not enough attention is given to the personal challenges a player faces when moving to a foreign country. Take the case of former Brazilian next-big-thing Robinho and his time at Manchester City.
“Manchester is a sensational venue for football but an awful place to live…the winter, the cold and the dark nights. It’s very hard for a young Brazilian,” said Robinho of the north England city. Not coincidentally, despite loads of anticipation and loads of money spent to secure his services, Robinho failed miserably as a Manchester City player. He said his managers during his time as a Mancunian, Mark Hughes and Roberto Mancini, “only believed in the sporting side of things.”
Money is not a cure for homesickness. Regardless of how well-compensated a player may be, it’s in a buying club’s best interest to ensure that their investment (frequently their substantial investment) is adjusting adequately to life off the pitch as well as on. In Barbosa’s case, if he does return to Europe (Flamengo are interested in keeping Barbosa in Brazil by purchasing him from Inter outright), it would be to his benefit that it wouldn’t be his first attempt at trying to establish himself on the continent.
“Today, I’m more mature and it’s normal that it could be more difficult to settle down in a different championship than the one I grew up in,” Barbosa said recently. Now, Barbosa feels “ready to score in Brazil, England, Germany or Spain.” As if there was any doubt after the Libertadores final, Barbosa’s swagger is back. The future (as the future tends to be) is unknown, but for the moment, Gabigol is scoring goals again. Don’t listen to anyone saying anything different.