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A Star is Born – The Rise of Gabriel Martinelli

Martinelli vs Leeds

Leeds, England – 18/12/2021: Gabriel Martinelli in Premier League action against Leeds United at Elland Road (photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

27th of November, 2021. Arsenal found themselves facing off against Newcastle at the Emirates, coming off the back of a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Liverpool. The Gunners had to ensure a win to bounce back from their Anfield thrashing ahead of a crunch away fixture against Manchester United, and while Bukayo Saka had put Arsenal ahead with a smart finish early in the second half, the team continued to search for a second goal to seal the game. 

Enter Gabriel Martinelli. Subbed on in the 64th minute as a replacement for injured goalscorer Saka, only 90 seconds later, Martinelli thrust himself into the limelight with a stunning over-the-shoulder volley from Takehiro Tomiyasu’s lofted pass, deftly guiding the ball past Martin Dubravka into the Magpies’ net. 

Mikel Arteta’s decision to bring on Martinelli ahead of the more experienced Nicolas Pepe already felt like a sign that the Brazilian might be inching closer to more regular first team action. However, the youngster’s brilliant finish and following red hot streak of form have elevated him to a superstar status at Arsenal that many fans would scarcely have believed possible two months ago.

Martinelli’s rise to first team stardom has felt like an announcement of his real arrival on the big stage, and it couldn’t have come at a more timely occasion for Arsenal. While his breakthrough had an element of fortune due to short term injuries to Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka, as well as the exile of Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, the talented hitman has seized the opportunity with both hands (or feet), putting in a series of dazzling performances and registering four goals and two assists since coming on against Newcastle. Now, off the back of a heroic performance in a painful defeat against Manchester City, Arsenal head into a key period in the top four race including a crunch North London derby, in which Martinelli has become a key figure in Arsenal’s hopes for a Champions League place. 

Martinelli’s talent certainly hasn’t been under the radar. A ten goal haul in his debut season as an 18 year old, including a memorable solo goal later voted as the goal of the season by Arsenal fans in a 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge, ensured that the fans, and Arteta, would not forget his quality in a hurry. Martinelli’s journey to consistent first team action has been gradual, with some fans expressing concern after a series of unconvincing cameos in the league and Carabao Cup led to doubts over whether he would realise his enormous potential. Now, those fears have been completely dispelled, and it feels like Martinelli has truly established himself as a key, exciting figure in the Arsenal attack. So what factors have led to Martinelli’s meteoric rise?

The answer to this question appears to be very obvious – Martinelli has now reached a point in his development where he can consistently fulfil the demands of Arteta in that position on the left flank. The exact nature of how this has come about though, is what really draws one’s attention. This is the story of a player who has always had the talent and skill to play at an extremely high level, but has required time and patience to reach the level of maturity needed to claim a starting berth. Time and patience are two things not usually associated with football fans, especially with those as demanding as the Arsenal fan base, and so the clamours to see Martinelli in action had grown over the last few months. Now, Arteta’s decision to hold him back has been vindicated. Martinelli has spent his time out of the first team adding a savviness and intelligence to his game, which has enabled him to manage his stamina effectively and execute the more tactical demands of his position. Combining this with his explosive pace, excellent dribbling and natural finishing instinct, Martinelli now has a deadly fusion of power and maturity in his skill set that is sure to terrorize any opposition defence.

Injury woes, occasional cameos, and learning to take a breather

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Now is his time!

Following Arsenal’s 2-0 win over West Ham, Arteta spoke of Martinelli “adding gears to his game”, and it is clear that the Gunners boss has worked hard with Martinelli on a one to one basis to achieve this. Described as a “Duracell battery” by Arsenal legend and former interim manager Freddie Ljungberg, Martinelli’s relentless work rate has been a valuable asset to the team more often than not. However, at times he has seemed absolutely desperate, perhaps too desperate, to prove to Arteta that he is worthy of a place in the starting XI; indeed, earlier this season when minutes were hard to come by for the Brazilian sensation, Martinelli was straining every sinew while on the pitch in an effort to display his quality. While his drive and tireless running have endeared him to the Arsenal faithful, it has come at the cost of maintaining his fitness levels over 90 minutes. 

It is this desire to go at “100 miles an hour”, as Arteta describes it, over 90 minutes which has perhaps been a key factor in why the manager had been reluctant to start him; he would have been a substitution waiting to happen once he inevitably tired in the latter stages of the 90. Now though, it is clear that Martinelli has a much greater understanding of how to structure his energy levels over the course of the 90. His performances against West Ham and Leeds showed a player that had not concealed the zeal and dynamism of his playing style, but had learned to manage it in bursts, maintaining his fitness and utilizing his trademark relentlessness and drive at the most opportune moments. This major adjustment to the young Brazilian’s game is a huge step in the transition from a raw, powerful talent, to a mature elite level winger. 

Why it has taken so long for Martinelli to make this adjustment to his game cannot simply be attributed to the inexperience of youth, and it is possibly down to the culmination of a number of factors and unfortunate events that have hindered his progress. Arteta has cultivated a competitive culture at Arsenal in which every player is keen to put on their best display when given the opportunity. Every member of the starting XI knows that they cannot become complacent, lest they give up their position to the numerous fringe/bench players fighting tooth and nail to work their way towards a prized starting spot. Martinelli is well aware of the hard work required to succeed in this environment, and it is likely this has elevated his competitiveness and match intensity to new heights.

However, it is the injuries that have consistently sidelined him up until this season that have perhaps pushed his competitive nature a little over the edge; a knee injury that required surgery on his cartilage sustained in training in early 2020, followed by an ankle injury shortly after his return to the side after almost a year out, surely frustrated him to no end. In many of his appearances post-injury troubles, the youngster looked determined to remind everyone that he still possessed the physical attributes that make him such a talent, and remind them he did. However, he has often cut a frustrated figure when things just wouldn’t happen for him, particularly in his early appearances this season, which would only contribute to his relentless work rate and inevitable burnout. 

Things certainly did not happen for the Brazilian in the period from the season opener right up to his goal against Newcastle. Although an injury crisis early in the season handed Martinelli a few league starts, Arteta hooked him before the 80 minute mark against Brentford and Chelsea, as Arsenal slumped to three consecutive league defeats with no goals scored after the first three games. After being consigned to the bench for the next five league games without a single substitute appearance, Martinelli was used extremely sparingly; he only completed 90 minutes on one occasion, against Leeds in the Carabao Cup fourth round, prior to his first Premier League 90 minutes of the season against Manchester United in early December. 

The pain and frustration of enduring this period during which Martinelli’s long term future at Arsenal was questioned always needed time and a sensitive approach to fix. In fact, it speaks volumes about the mental fortitude he has displayed at such a young age to get in the right headspace and subsequently make the necessary alterations to his game to play more regularly.  It serves as a timely reminder that much of the damage dealt by long term injuries manifests itself mentally even more than it does physically, and that young players in particular deserve time and patience to work their way back into any side. 

Even after the the lightning fast winger’s stunning performance against West Ham, crowned with a Henry-esque finish for his goal, Arteta still had some words of advice for him – a cramp late in the game forced Martinelli off, which Arteta pointed out was an indicator of the progress that Martinelli can still make in this area of his game. His progress so far though, has been of huge benefit to himself and the team.

Adding footballing brains to the brawn

Martinelli vs West Ham

London, England – 15/12/2021: Mikel Arteta acknowledges Gabriel Martinelli’s standout performance against West Ham at the Emirates stadium as the Gunners leapfrogged their London rivals into 4th place (photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

Tactically, we know that Arteta places very specific demands on his players that require a high level of football intelligence and technique to execute. As a disciple of Pep Guardiola’s successful positional approach to the Total Football style pioneered by Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, Arteta demands that his players use a combination of quick thinking, fluid movement and skill to create positional, qualitative and numerical overloads in different areas of the pitch.

These qualities are perhaps best exemplified in Arsenal’s other exciting youngsters – Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard all possess excellent technique, high positional intelligence that enables them to press well and exploit space, and rapid movement that pulls opposition defenders completely out of shape. Martinelli has always had the work rate and skill to carry out these demands, but now he has also added the necessary intelligence and maturity to operate on the level of his fellow young colleagues. In recent games, Martinelli’s performances have shown the qualities of a more well-rounded player in addition to his pace and power; he has displayed a good ability to link play, a willingness and comfortable ability to come into central, sometimes deeper positions to provide an outlet during transitions, better end product and decision making in the final third, and great instinct for when to use his pace to exploit spaces in opposition defences. These qualities were on full display in Martinelli’s two best performances of the season, against West Ham and Leeds.

Against West Ham at the Emirates, Martinelli demonstrated his excellent ability and intelligence to get into goal scoring positions, attempting a game high four attempts at goal. This included an expertly taken goal on the run from Alexandre Lacazette’s pinpoint through ball, sliding an elegant low finish into the bottom right corner of the goal that bore a remarkable resemblance to Thierry Henry’s famous goal against Leeds in 2012. In addition to his goal, Martinelli’s overall quality on the ball was good, completing 77% of his passes, 2/2 dribbles and making one key pass. A delicious nutmeg on Tomas Soucek to dribble out of a tight spot on the flank and set up a transition was a particular highlight of the game, showing Martinelli’s ability to use his skill on the ball to beat the opposition press, something which Arteta likes and demands from his players.

Another element of Martinelli’s game on display was his pressing and ability to regain possession, combining his tireless work rate with good spatial awareness to make four successful tackles (3rd highest total of all players) and six successful pressures (2nd to Lacazette out of Arsenal’s front four). Key to Martinelli’s good attacking and defensive work, as well as his general link up play, is his spatial awareness; he understands which zones to occupy within Arteta’s system to ensure a more efficient transition of the ball, finding spaces to relieve pressure and create positional and numerical overloads. Here, in a simple example, Martinelli shows a willingness to drop deep to give Kieran Tierney an option from a throw in, giving Arsenal an overload in the position and allowing Arsenal to build again from the back:

Martinelli dropping vs West Ham

Martinelli further showed his spatial awareness with the fluidity and timing of his movement from the flank into central areas; he showed an instinctive awareness of when to support Tierney on the left touchline, and when to support the likes of Lacazette and Odegaard in the middle and left half spaces. With Arsenal attacking in a 2-3-5 shape and Martinelli operating as the inside left forward, the Brazilian looked to attack the left half space with his direct running, and there was no better example of this than his goal to put Arsenal 1-0 up in the second half, exploiting the space left by West Ham’s high defensive line with an incisive run:

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Backing up his terrific performance against West Ham, Martinelli showed consistency in his improvement with a standout performance against Leeds United at Elland Road. A fine brace stole the headlines, but he also continued to showcase his improved footballing brain, with intelligent pressing, link up play and creativity in the final third. Martinelli attempted 21 pressures, 2nd only to Lacazette with eight of those pressures successful; he also made two tackles and three interceptions to complete a strong defensive showing. Another highlight of his performance was a game high five key passes, showcasing his creative abilities in addition to his goalscoring. In this example, Martinelli shows his spatial awareness and understanding of his teammates’ movement to create a shooting chance for Odegaard:

Martinelli vs Leeds

While Martinelli demonstrated notable improvements in his pressing and tactical awareness, he has continued to remind his manager and the fans of the X factor that made him such a unique talent in the first place: his lethality in front of goal. His two goals showed the qualities of a natural finisher – the first was a combination of alertness, quick reactions and composure to side foot home a powerful finish into the top right corner of the goal, leaving Illan Meslier with no chance after Lacazette’s tussle with Adam Forshaw led to a loose ball which the Brazilian pounced on in a flash. The second was a different type of goal, showcasing the range and versatility in the young forward’s finishing repertoire. Latching onto Granit Xhaka’s through ball, which sprung the counter after a turnover in possession from a sloppy Leeds pass, Martinelli applied the deftest of touches to chip the ball over Meslier; moreover, he did this all while running at full speed and being off balance due to the pressure of a recovering Cody Drameh, who was given a torrid time by Arsenal’s rapid Brazilian all game long.

Martinelli’s speed, directness and quality in front of goal give him all the tools to become, with time, one of the league’s most accomplished and lethal goalscorers, either as a wide forward or potentially in a more central role. His lethality and desire to get to goal give Arsenal different qualities in attack compared to the likes of Saka, Odegaard and Smith Rowe, who tend to be more technical players that like to find pockets of space to score or assist. Martinelli on the other hand, forces his way to goal with driving runs and lightning quick dribbling and movement, and he is arguably the most natural finisher of Arsenal’s young attacking quartet, despite the impressive goalscoring numbers of Emile Smith Rowe this season. 

These types of livewire attacking players are often the players that give defenders the most problems; at times, Arsenal are guilty of falling into a repetitive rhythm without penetration, but Martinelli is not one to sit back and let that happen; his constant desire to create goalscoring opportunities is a key part of why he is one of Arsenal’s most exciting players to watch. Now that he has added the football intelligence to effectively utilise his drive and exploit holes in opposition defences, he has become a terrifying prospect for defenders across the league.

Patience brings its reward

Martinelli vs Leeds

Leeds, England – 18/12/2021: Gabriel Martinelli celebrates opening the scoring in Arsenal’s 4-1 victory over Leeds United at Elland Road (photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

Arsenal fans have had to wait to see the best of Martinelli in the red and white, and in hindsight, it was perhaps foolish of anyone to expect anything else. In fact, it is possibly only due to Arteta’s coaching that Martinelli has developed as quickly as he has, especially considering the length of the spells he spent on the sidelines due to injuries. Some parallels have been drawn with Manchester City player, Phil Foden, due to Guardiola’s insistence that Foden be given time before being plunged into first team action. This decision, while met by impatience from fans eager to see their new star, has paid dividends, and the same could certainly be happening with Martinelli now. 

Another comparison to make is to the breakthrough of Arsenal’s own Emile Smith Rowe at a similar time in 2020; while the team’s predicament was significantly less dire this time round compared to the nightmare situation Arsenal found themselves in prior to Smith Rowe’s breakthrough against Chelsea, Martinelli’s performances similarly reinvigorated a side and fanbase in need of a lift, especially following consecutive defeats away to Manchester United and Everton. While other members of the squad have stepped up their game in recent matches, the dynamism and youthful energy brought by Martinelli’s stellar form has done more to repair belief in Arsenal’s top four ambitions this season than almost anything else. 

It is important to remember that Martinelli is of course still far from the finished product, as are most of Arsenal’s young squad, and he will be keen to prove that his stellar run in the team is more than just a purple patch. Despite playing well against Norwich and Manchester City, displaying much of the pressing and link up play he has developed into his skill set, his open goal miss at 1-1 against City was a costly flashpoint in that excruciating loss. The miss was perhaps most disappointing when viewed in the context of the game he’d been having; Martinelli had constantly threatened down the left hand channels, skipping past Joao Cancelo on a number of occasions and almost scoring what would have been an astonishing solo goal following a driving run from his own half. In addition to his attacking endeavours, Martinelli stuck to his task to press Cancelo and pin him back, playing his role in a tactically excellent and disciplined performance from Arsenal.

Eliminating those mistakes from his game, and therefore finding a more consistent end product, will come with confidence and experience; as a young player, the Brazilian still tends to rush things, which will affect his decision making and the quality of his end product. The more that Martinelli acknowledges his quality on and off the ball, and recognises that he is already capable of playing at an extremely high level worthy of a place in Arteta’s starting XI, the more confidence he will have to pause when needed and develop composure. Belief in one’s individual quality forms the basis for a calm, composed player; once Martinelli finds that belief, the misses will start to disappear.

What is certain is that Martinelli gives Arteta a nice selection headache as Arsenal enter a crucial period in their season, with the Gunners boss now having four young, high quality forwards at his disposal. Not only does this allow Arteta to rotate, but he also knows that should any of the three behind Lacazette suffer a loss of form, which is understandable considering their age, the spare forward on the bench is ready to step in and cover. Arteta now has a formidable weapon in his arsenal (pun intended) to head into the rest of the season, while the Arsenal faithful have a new, albeit familiar, hero: Gabi Martinelli.

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