Fresh off another sumptuous goal, Gabriel Barbosa—or “Gabigol,” if you fancy—is the centre of attention in Brazil once again. His excellent solo effort against Palmeiras in the Copa do Brasil on Wednesday evening, skipping past two players and burying a side-foot finish with aplomb, has rejuvenated the hype surrounding his name.
Santos have a rich history of producing exciting, attacking players built on flair and finishing; the likes of Robinho, Pele, Elano and, most recently, Neymar have all passed through the ranks at the Estadio Vila Belmiro. Barbosa is fancied to be the next “big thing” coming out of South America, and given Neymar’s successes in Europe since leaving Santos in 2013, clubs seem willing to give the next-in-line a go.
The Daily Mail report that Barcelona have first option on him, but the release clause is €50 million, and in case you haven’t noticed, the Calatan club have a rather incredible front three already in Luis Suarez, Neymar and Lionel Messi. Should Barcelona pass up on the deal, there’ll be a host of others waiting in the wings.
The Express reported last year that Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United are all interested in him, with the Arsenal link being given further credence by FourFourTwo. That’s a heady list of purported suitors.
Barbosa has been nicknamed the "new Neymar,” becoming the next victim in a lazy trend of dubbing youngsters with inaccurate pro-player comparisons. The trend of thought here was easy to follow—he’s a young Brazilian attacker coming through at Santos, so Neymar felt an apt comparison—but stylistically, he’s different.
Let’s delve into the 19-year-old’s game, take a long look at his strengths, weaknesses and tendencies, and suss out which club might suit him best if he is to move in the coming years.
Barbosa stands 5’9” and is slight of build, but he’s not skinny. His low centre of gravity makes him stronger than he looks.
Being able to grind low to the ground and use his additional weight effectively makes him quite the terrier at times, and, somatotype-wise, he’s extremely similar to Paulo Dybala of Juventus.
This is our first opportunity to bust the “new Neymar” tag; whereas Barbosa has core power and snappiness to his running, with the potential to bulk out a little more and become even more empowered, Neymar is spindly and skinny, relying on raw technique and speed alone to do his damage.
Barbosa favours his technical skill set over a raging-bull approach, but he can inject his runs with force if necessary and try to barge past players with reasonable success. His top-end speed is very good, and he’s extremely quick across the ground with and without the ball at his feet.
Barbosa is seen, in the long term, as a No. 9, as a central striker, and that’s likely because of his remarkable finishing ability. Goalkeeping levels aren’t particularly strong in Brazil, but the Santos man has shown a penchant for an acute-angled finish and shown confidence bearing down on goal that few his age do.
He’s predominantly left-footed though can use both, and that’s a source of fuel for him in front of goal, as he knows that whichever way he twists and turns, he’ll be in a position to fire home. Many strikers, even at the top level, are so one-footed their movements ahead of shaping to shoot are telegraphed to the world over (see: Robin van Persie), but Barbosa has an advantage here.
He takes a mean penalty, capable of hammering it into the roof of the net or placing it deftly into the corner, and assuming the mantle from the spot is again a sign of his confidence. He fancies himself as the dominant scorer in his side even when his tallies don’t match up to that of his colleagues; he wants the responsibility.
It’s clear he can pick and time runs, particularly over the top of a defence or between the full-back and centre-back on the right side, and his good touch and control always sets him in a good position to carve out a goalscoring chance.
The issue is, it’s not often he plays as a central striker. He’s being touted as the next great Brazilian No. 9, but he’s spent the large majority of his time at Santos so far lining up wide of a central striker, playing an inside-forward role.
Ricardo Oliveira assumes the No. 9 mantle for Santos, and he’s scored 20 goals in 31 starts in the Brasileiro so far, per WhoScored.com, justifying Dunga’s interest in him—to an extent—as a national-team option. Barbosa has played largely to the right of him, though sometimes to the left.
It’s in the wide areas that his natural strengths—agility, speed over the top and good identification of penetrative runs—come to the fore more regularly in a game. Rather than be bogged down with the battle in the middle, he’s shifted wide in order to find more space, just like...well, Neymar.
He’s still sniffing out goalscoring chances and producing in front of the net, but it’s also helped round off his game quickly. His passing has come on, his crossing is pretty damn good—a fact Oliveira can both attest to and be thankful for—and his off-the-ball movement is excellent.
Furthermore, it allows one endearing trait of his to shine: his work rate. He’s a box of tricks who is capable of pulling a defender’s pants down, but that hasn’t disillusioned him in any way; he still works for the team, closes down and presses out of possession.
He can be seen trying to nick the ball off opposing defenders during build-up play in every game, and while he lacks the power to generate success most of the time, his frame will easily welcome a few kilos over the next few years without sacrificing speed, and then those attempted turnovers will become crucial.
The snappy, aggressive nature of his play off the ball, combined with his mercurial talent on it and refined finishing skills, make them something of a Luis Suarez-lite. The Neymar comparison works due to his wider berth and Brazilian nationality, but stylistically, he’s closer to his compatriot’s Barcelona team-mate.
The physicality and maturity with which he plays means he’s very projectable as a No. 9 moving forward, but should he move to Europe soon, he’d have to begin his career as a wide option. As much as he likes to assume the goalscoring responsibility, he’s been afforded space in South America and would need to shift slowly toward the centre if that’s the course he is to take.
His time in Brazil has proved he’s still a streaky player—something to be expected of a young player still developing his game on a week-to-week basis. He is a natural, confident finisher, but he has endured barren spells at Santos.
Again, the maturity with which he plays and carries himself becomes a key attribute here; he simply continues to work hard for the team even if he’s not having any joy in front of goal himself.
FC Porto have spent the last decade or so very effectively hoovering up South America’s top talents and acclimating them to European life, and the Dragao would be a perfect place for Gabigol to start his continental career. La Liga, too, feels a great stylistic fit, and a club such as Valencia, who have the capital to exercise his release clause, would be ideal.
Premier League clubs looking for a quick fix at centre-forward should stay away, though; he’s played limited minutes in that position in Brazil, his frame is yet to fill out so he’s not strong enough to lead the line (he would need to play in a “2” like Dybala does at Juventus), and he’s still nailing the wide-forward role.