“The indecision is bugging me, if you don’t want me, set me free” the Clash once famously sang and the lyrics feel like they were written for Gabriel Barbosa. The 20-year-old forward arrived in Milan dubbed the ‘new Neymar’ but like so many players who are expected to be the next big thing, he has until now remained an enigma. With few chances to sparkle under two separate Coaches, fans of the Nerazzurri have only been able to see snippets of his talent and will be left wondering if the rumours of a January departure could be true.
Gabigol joined Santos at the age of eight and his 600 goals that followed in the youth leagues certainly earned him the right to use that nickname. Deeply embedded in the traditions and culture of Santos, his beloved hometown club, he was focused on heavily as the next big thing after Neymar departed for Barcelona.
When Inter splashed a reported €29.5m in August 2016, it was a sign of intent, capturing one of world football’s brightest prospects after a bidding war with the likes of Barcelona and Liverpool. In Milan, the comparisons were to the original Fenomeno Ronaldo and a five-year contract suggested this was the start of a long rapport.
Fast forward to the first game of 2017 and you can see a baffling statistic. Whilst many predicted that Gabigol would have already scored a hatful of goals, the reality is quite different. It is true that the fan base is still hugely intrigued by this young Brazilian and are desperate for him to come on the pitch. It is arguable that nobody gets a reception like he does when he warms up and many still place a huge amount of hope and faith in him. Yet he has played only 21 minutes of football and scored no goals.
His 16 minutes against Bologna, one minute against Sassuolo and four minutes against Lazio showed the fans enough for them to believe. Whilst there have been rumours of why he hasn’t been playing, adjusting to a new country, tactically needing to improve, poor fitness and even an unprofessional attitude, the likelihood is that he is perhaps simply too cavalier at present. Against Lazio his tricks and flicks wowed the crowd. Here was a boy who was different, not rigid, not scared to have the ball. He looked like a player from the late 1980s or early 1990s and seemed to assume he had all the time in the world.
Whilst to the fans this was a breath of icy fresh air, to Stefano Pioli it was over exuberance and wanted “to see him make some moves that are more useful and not just spectacular for the sake of being spectacular.”
With Stevan Jovetic and Rodrigo Palacio on their way out of San Siro, it seems that ‘Gabigol’ is here to stay. Pioli evidently needs to work with him, but the second half of the season could allow the Nerazzurri to eventually taste their forbidden fruit. The thought of Gabriel drifting in from the left in one of his direct ‘Thierry Henry’ like runs and eventually contributing with the goals may not be far away.
The case of Gabigol and Inter is a strange one, however. Inter have a player who in 21 minutes has excited them more than some members of their squad have in three years, yet it is this cavalier approach, raw energy and evocative desire to have the ball and just play that is the reason he is left on the bench.
Ultimately isn’t that why Gabriel Barbosa chose a Serie A side rather than La Liga or the Premier League? He wanted to become a better player, to develop tactically and prove himself against the stingiest defences in the world. Score goals here and you can score them anywhere.
Pioli needs to manage this situation well, as whilst he needs him to work with the team’s strategy, he must be careful not to pull on the lead too hard. An apprenticeship in Serie A tactics is essential, but one mustn’t sap the spectacular invention that made the 20-year-old such a hot prospect in the first place.
Gabigol staying at Inter should not even be disputed, but how he is used certainly should be.