Meet Gabriel Menino: The Brazilian Yaya Toure looking to step into Dani Alves' spot

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While Gabriel Menino was still just another hopeful in Guarani's youth set-up, his coach saw something special in him.

So much so, that Gustavo Nabinger decided to single out the teenage centre-back for special attention, honing his obvious talents. Part of that process was taking him out of defence and into the heart of the Campinas side's engine room – a transformation that he initially struggled with.

That was when Nabinger, who worked closer than anyone with the new Brazil international, hit upon an unorthodox solution: his charge should learn from the best.

“I used to work at Guarani and I was the Under-14 and 15s coach. We had an agreement with Morungaba's 'Bugrinho' and they always used to bring us promising players to look at,” he told ESPN of his first encounter with Gabriel.

“Menino came at the end of 2013 to trial as a centre-back and he was quickly approved. But I quickly changed his position, because he was good going forward and getting into the box. He marked well, like he does now, and he was strong for his age but not very tall.

“He got promoted to a higher age group and trained most of the year. He played 10 games, but was on the bench most of the time. We talked a lot, and I made him watch videos of Yaya Toure.”

With the Ivorian's example to follow, Gabriel never looked back.

At the age of 16, Sao Paulo giants Palmeiras swooped to make the newly moulded midfielder a part of their academy, and by the end of that first year, he had lifted his maiden trophy in the shape of the U17 Copa do Brasil.

Menino PS

At the start of 2020, Palmeiras opted to make Menino part of their first-team plans. Despite the huge disruption caused by Covid-19, the teenager thrived at the higher level, playing an integral part in the side's triumphant Paulista State Championship campaign.

Along the way he picked up yet another string to his bow, filling in at right-back to provide an explosive presence down the flank.

It was with this idea in mind that the youngster, who turned 20 at the end of September, earned his first senior Brazil call-up, pushing out Selecao legend Dani Alves in the process.

“He has played seven games in that position for Palmeiras,” coach Tite explained, after including Gabriel in his squad for October's World Cup qualifiers against Bolivia and Peru.

“He also trained as a youth at full-back... We have looked at all his personal and technical abilities. We tracked his entire history, as well as watching four games in the stands and eight on television. He is a new talent coming up in a crucial position for us.”

Alves, as Tite went on to clarify, has also played himself out of contention thanks to his insistence in abandoning the right-back spot, in which he was once considered the best on the planet, in favour of starring as a playmaker for Sao Paulo.

Gabriel looks set to move the other way, combining both his ample experience in defence during his formative years and his more recent apprenticeship further up the field to become the kind of full-back Brazil are renowned for: fast, explosive, happy to take players on and almost more comfortable in the opposition box than in their own.

The Toure example also looks set to continue, too, if his first-ever senior goal is anything to go by: a thunderbolt from distance in the Copa Libertadores against Bolivar that put Palmeiras 2-0 ahead.

Finding a long-term heir to Alves has not been easy for the Selecao.

The much-hyped Danilo has largely flattered to deceive for club and country, failing to deliver on the promise shown early in his career at Santos, Porto and Juventus, although he is likely to start ahead of Gabriel by virtue of experience for Friday's clash at home to Bolivia.

Youngsters like Emerson, on loan from Barcelona at Betis, and Botafogo's Marcinho were called upon by Tite last year, but in the intervening 12 months have failed to stay in the coach's plans, the latter's chances damaged by a persistent knee injury which has prompted his club to release him at the end of 2020.

Gabriel, then, has a golden chance to make his name in this problem position, assuming of course he has overcome his initial shock at making the squad in the first place.

“I was having lunch with my mother, my agent called and he congratulated me,” he told UOL. “And I said, 'Again?' I thought it was for my goal [against Bolivar].

“He then said I was going to wear the yellow shirt, and I didn't understand. So, he sent the video. I was emotional, my mother too, we cried together and that was when I began to understand.”

While 2020 has been a nightmare year for many footballers, it has certainly been one to remember for Palmeiras' young gem.

In the space of 10 disrupted months he has made his debut and established himself in one of Brazil's top sides, changed position, won silverware, played a big part in their successful Libertadores campaign – qualifying for the last 16 in first place with a game to spare in the group stage – and, to cap it all, now rubs shoulders with the likes of Neymar, Roberto Firmino, Thiago Silva and Casemiro in the world's most iconic national team.

Making his name in the Selecao will not be an easy task, as many talented pretenders have found out over the years.

However, Gabriel will be determined to make sure this is the first of many call-ups in the Brazil set-up, whether at right-back, midfield or wherever this brilliant, versatile kid sets his mind to playing.