Over the course of several nervous weeks in February, Everton were convinced they’d clinched their first major coup of the transfer window. Gabriel Magalhaes, Lille’s coveted 22-year-old centre-back, had been offered around the Premier League’s top-six clubs to no avail and sporting director, Marcel Brands, saw a window and stole his march.
As The Independent first revealed, a fee was set at around €30m. Intermediaries met with Everton officials at the training ground in early March and a contract offer was later presented by the club. The deal was so advanced that Gabriel even underwent a medical. But, just as all the pieces seemed to have aligned, after all Everton’s arduous planning, wooing and negotiation, the true scale of the coronavirus pandemic came into focus and the club’s hard work unravelled almost overnight. The looming financial constraints left the club – and the wider football world – with no option but to put transfer deals on pause and, with that, one of the summer transfer window’s long-running sagas was born.
Gabriel, who featured against Chelsea twice in this season’s Champions League, has since become one of Europe’s most sought after young players, attracting interest from Napoli, Arsenal and Manchester United in the intervening months. By the end of May, the Italian side had usurped Everton in the ever-expanding race, with the club prepared to meet Lille’s asking price, before later negotiating a club-record fee with the French club for striker Victor Osimhen.
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Gabriel remains Napoli’s first-choice target at centre-back, but after such large expenditure on Osimhen, completion of the deal is thought to be contingent on their ability to sell star defender Kalidou Koulibaly this summer. As of yet, that likelihood doesn’t appear imminent.
Arsenal have long been aware of Gabriel’s availability, have scouted him extensively, and were offered the Brazilian by intermediaries in January. But amid a then still-disastrous season, with the club’s financial situation uncertain, they instead opted to sign another left-sided centre-back in Pablo Mari on loan from Flamengo.
Despite subsequently making that deal permanent, Mikel Arteta is still keen to strengthen his defence and Arsenal are in talks with Lille, with whom they share a favourable relationship after last summer’s £72m signing of Nicolas Pepe. A deal has not yet been agreed, though, with Arsenal prioritising the contract extension of captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and completing the signing of Willian on a free transfer. Arsenal have also maintained an interest in Atletico Madrid’s Thomas Partey, whose €50m release clause is currently considered inviable, and the club’s spending power will largely be determined by their ability to sell this summer.
Manchester United have also tracked Gabriel closely, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer an admirer of the Brazilian. Solskjaer’s desire to sign a left-footed centre-back is well-known after his comments to Nathan Ake, and there has been contact between United and intermediaries about Gabriel. Those enquiries are not believed to have seriously advanced as of yet, though, with United continuing to keep abreast of the situation.
Amid all the bluster, Everton’s interest has been shrouded, but not entirely blown away. Carlo Ancelotti would still love to sign Gabriel. If Arsenal and United fail to formalise their approaches, or Napoli are unwilling to buy without selling, there is still faint optimism that they can clinch a signing they worked so hard to close. That possibility does though, for now, seem increasingly unlikely. Just as in March, Everton can do little more than wait and see what unfolds.
With a fee in the region of €30m expected to be sufficient and personal terms unlikely to be problematic, it’s not a race but rather a waiting game to see which clubs will act decisively on their interest. Gabriel is aware of his options and, ultimately, it will then fall on him to make the final choice.
In the meantime, Lille have already secured the signing of his replacement, Sven Botman, from Ajax for around £7m, and can sit comfortably in the knowledge that interest is only increasing in a player they signed for just £1.5m from Avia in 2016. But it will not be too much longer now before one of football’s most persistent rumours becomes a hardened reality.