Gabriel Barbosa, the 23-year-old Brazilian striker, is in demand again after a prolific season with Flamengo. Rumours of him joining a European club is increasing every passing day. Crystal Palace, West Ham United and Chelsea have all shown some kind of interest in him over the course of Flamengo’s 2019 campaign.
All this transfer talk is fair, with Gabigol netting unbelievable 32 goals and getting 10 assists since July, combining 42 goal contributions over the run of 38 games. He has been in an incredible form, successfully fulfilling the role of the main goalscorer of the Copa Libertadores winners. Even more than that, he has shown his leadership qualities and willpower in his spell in Flamengo.
Let’s take Copa Libertadores final against River Plate as an example. By the 89th minute, Flamengo were trailing without a glimpse of hope of coming back. But Pratto’s mistake and the first Barbosa’s goal got them back into the game. Just several minutes later, the ostensibly harmless long ball left two River Plate defenders out of business and Gabigol was scoring the second time, putting Flamengo ahead and eventually winning the trophy for the Mengão. Winning two big trophies with Flamengo and being in such an unstoppable form revived the hopes of him playing and succeeding in a big club in Europe. The first try in Italy with Inter wasn’t that great, but there is a strong belief that the second time will be a success. In this tactical analysis, I will look into the main qualities of a Brazilian striker, his role in Flamengo’s tactics and whether he will be able to replicate his Flamengo success in Europe.
Off the ball movement and link-up play
Despite his amazing statistical record in his last two seasons in Flamengo, it can’t be said that he is a pure striker. When playing for Santos he was used as a winger too, causing comparisons with Neymar. Also, he was often used as a second striker and he had the experience of playing in that role for Flamengo too.
He is a left-footed player, and during the game, he tends to drift wide to both flanks(but primarily to the left). It can be easily seen from his heatmap, where a huge space on the right flank indicates his constant presence. However, he often drops deep into midfield and occupies different areas on the pitch, very similar to Roberto Firmino’s movement in Liverpool. Getting the ball from the defenders and linking up the play between the team is one of Gabigol’s main jobs in the team.
When he drops to the right flank during the build-up phase, he creates an overload together with Éverton Ribeiro, the right-winger. Usually, Gabigol tries to position near the touchline, and that allows Ribeiro to occupy the right half-space, from where he can either continue pushing through the centre or attack down the flank. In the image below you can see Gabigol staying wide and Ribeiro being in the half-space. After receiving a pass from Barbosa he will exploit the created space down the flank.
As previously mentioned, Gabigol also drops deep into the middle to link-up the play, create overloads, destroy markers and wreak havoc into the opposition defensive set-up. He sometimes picks very unusual positions for a striker, for example in the image below he drops into the defensive line and occupies Filipe Luis’ position, while the former Atletico player pushes higher.
His ability to link-up the play is brilliant and statistics prove it: according to WhoScored, he made one key pass per game in Série A last season. In terms of his passing accuracy, he completes 80% of his passes, which is very good for a striker, and again this proves my thesis about his great link-up ability.
Defending and pressing
Flamengo ran all over the Brazilian league last year, dominating basically every team from a tactical standpoint and finishing on highest ever 90 points tally, and one of the big reasons for the team’s success was their relentless work ethic. Their PPDA last season was 7,8, and that would guarantee them the first place in vigorous Premier League in this metric. Gabigol was also taking part in the joint task, pressing the opposition. Statistically, he was making 1,6 recoveries per game with 74% of them being in the opposition half. It shows that he is making great defensive contributions from a striker position.
Moreover, he makes 0,47 interceptions per game, not cutting off passes that much, but still doing the job. Below you can see a map of his made interceptions, and the evidence of his flexible role which we discussed in the previous section is striking. He is not restricted to his position even when the team is defending, which allows him to make decisions on his own, occupying the right spaces in the defence.
Despite his great assistance in the Flamengo’s defensive matters, I need to point out one drawback, which is not that significant but can come at a real cost. His discipline on the pitch is not great, he was booked with 12 yellow and he was sent off the pitch two times last season. Mostly yellows are not for fouls or dirty play, but for extreme celebrations. He has created a cult with his celebrations and goals, but in a big club, this kind of behaviour becomes risky and totally unnecessary.
In the first section of this analysis, we discussed Gabigol’s positioning and movement, and how often he tends to drift wide or drop deep. His passing game depends on his movement. Usually, he enters the final third or penalty area from the right flank, and his shots, dribbles, passes and other attacking actions are based on that. In terms of passing, he tries to find his teammates making a run in behind the defensive line. For example, this is Gabigol’s second assist in the game against Al-Hilal. Bruno Henrique is making a run and Gabigol spots him, making a pass that would then lead to Henrique’s assist and an equalizer for Flamengo.
As I mentioned in previous sections, Gabigol is making one key pass per game and that is a good number because, despite unusual movement and positioning, he is still a striker, and he is putting up a huge volume of shots and touches in the box, and in one of the next section we will see it.
So, it is common for Gabigol to make through passes behind the defence to the flank or through the centre, but because of his positioning, he also often finds himself in a position for a crossing opportunity. He is not bad at crosses, making them 1,61 times per game with 28% accuracy. He nearly has the same amount of crosses from both flanks, proving his versatility. In the image below is an example of one of many Gabigol’s assists, creating a heading opportunity for Henrique with an outswing cross.
Overall, his numbers of assists show his in this department, and the Flamengo’s gameplay with intensity, fast breaks and great tactical setup definitely facilitates that.
Gabigol has been the leading goalscorer in Brazil, netting a little less than a goal per game. Despite playing such an important and interesting role in the build-up, his main duty on the pitch remains netting as many goals as possible. So far in his spell in Flamengo(and also in his return to his boyhood club Santos) he managed to fulfil his task.
What is the reason he failed to have such an amazing display in Inter and Benfica? I believe one of the reasons for that is lack of shots during that period. He is a striker whose consistency in goalscoring very much depends on shot volume. Last season he overperformed his xG by 0,18, so he is not a wasteful finisher. However, he can’t consistently score goals from rare moments a game. In Inter in 2016/17 season he had nine appearances as a sub with 10 shots. His current numbers are 3,74 shots per game with around six touches in the opposition box.
He is an all-round finisher who has every aspect of a striker’s game on a great level. Last season he scored goals from multiple positions and situations: with the strong and weak foot, from a tight angle, a great number of headers and so on.
He has a powerful shot and he was able to score a handful of goals outside the box, from unexpected positions as well. He capitalised on opponent’s mistakes a lot of times last season, for example, an opening goal in the second leg of Copa Sudamericana game against Independiente Del Valle. He has the energy and drive to aggressively press the players and force them to make mistakes, and he reaped rewards over and above.
In terms of his headers, he made 0,79 aerial duels on average, winning 33% of them. Regarding headshots in the penalty area, it is clear that he is able to finish the cross when there is an opportunity. He knows how to position himself between the two defenders, how and when to make a perfect run. Below you can see an example of that movement. Flamengo get the ball after counter-pressing and then Gerson makes a cross between two defenders. Bruno Henrique takes one defender with him, that opens up a bigger space between the two, and Gabigol calmly finishes.
Gabigol is a great finisher, and he proves it with his aggression, desire to score, and, of course, goalscoring records.
Is there another chance for Europe?
After his failure to establish himself in Europe, his return to South America has been sensational. But can he repeat his current success in European top leagues? I think the main issue that Gabigol fixed since returning from Europe was his confidence. He became a hero, and his goals and overall impact on the team lifted his spirits tremendously. From an analytical standpoint, one of the reasons for his confidence lies in the volume of shots that he is producing and generally his crucial role in the team. He has made 6,5 touches in the box and 3,5 shots per game in 2019 for Flamengo, and he needs a team that will provide him with the same opportunities. If some team can give him the main role in the striking position and regular minutes, I think he has a fair shot.
In this scout report, we saw Gabigol’s impact on his team, his main strengths and the reasons behind his incredible season. Flamengo bought Gabriel Barbosa on a permanent deal in the last days of the winter transfer window. That makes his transfer in the summer very unlikely. However, I believe he has a big chance of playing big football again, and if he keeps up the same level of his game, I think he will be approached by many clubs from Europe. He was already getting offers from English clubs in 2019, so this is not an empty phrase. He has got everything to be a great striker, and his first spell in Europe may be the turning point in his career for good. Gabigol is still only 23 years old, and he has the whole career ahead of him to prove his worth.