During a recent episode of Arsecast Extra, I was struck when Arsenal’s recruitment record over the last five years or so was laid bare. There are very few qualified successes and the most recent recruitment round this summer has yielded mixed results so far, if we are being kind. However, the signing of Gabriel Martinelli has been a rare hit.
He has eight goals so far this season in seven starts and, on Monday evening, became the youngest Arsenal player to score on his Premier League debut. The goal against West Ham was not mere window dressing either; it was a crucial equaliser at a time when the team required an intervention, to say the least. The goal demonstrated many of the qualities that have quickly become apparent in the 18-year old.
He makes a clever run in-field at the outset of the move to make way for Kolasinac on the overlap and when the ball is delivered into the box, Martinelli is brighter than anyone else and scampers towards it with the puppyishness that characterised his performances. He doesn’t stand on the penalty spot sheepishly next to a marker and he stays out of Aubameyang’s way on the back post to create a second line run into space.
All but one of Martinelli’s Arsenal goals have emanated from wide deliveries. Whether it be a low cross along the floor or a looped cross into the air, the Brazilian has shown the instinct to find space and his finishing has been meticulous too- with his feet and his head. His seven goals have come from just 26 shots
The teenager’s work rate is noticeable too. He has a way of allowing defenders to relax for half a second before scampering towards them at light speed, his short legs motoring along the ground Scrappy-Doo style. If he sometimes looks like he’s playing 5-a-side, that’s probably not a surprise. Like many Brazilians, Martinelli’s grounding was in futsal.
Futsal is credited with honing the technical skills of a number of notable Brazilian players, most famously Ronaldinho. Because futsal is played on a hard court, the ball moves very quickly. The speed and intensity of futsal requires a delicate first touch, but it also requires an exceptional work rate to close opponents down.
Martinelli first joined Corinthians as a futsal player, aged 9, before graduating to football. He has something of the street footballer about him, Arsene Wenger once observed that South America tends to produce better strikers than Europe because it has maintained its connection to street football, where children often play in mixed age groups and in challenging conditions.
This develops a striker’s sense of cunning, not least if he is playing against older, bigger kids not averse to wrapping the ankles of an unruly youngster. It is little coincidence that many of the best South American forwards of recent times- Sergio Aguero, Luis Suarez, Gabriel Jesus, Alexis Sanchez- are diminutive in stature.
Gabriel has a very Luis Suarez vibe to him in the way that he yaps at defender’s ankles and the relentlessness with which he pursues duels. His scuttling running style makes him peculiarly difficult to read for defenders when he is carrying the ball and he has plenty of nuisance factor off the ball. What makes Martinelli so interesting, however, is his varied football upbringing.
As Jack Lang’s Martinelli profile piece in The Athletic (£) points out, he and his father have been mapping his path to Europe for some years. Gabriel and his father drew up a kind of strategy so that the player could succeed in the European game. Jack reports that the player deployed a nutritionist and underwent extra perception training and injury prevention training while still at school age.
However, Martinelli’s footballing education has not been entirely ivy league. Aged 15, he moved from the academy of São Paulo giants Corinthians to small regional club Ituano, in the Brazilian fourth tier. His father got a job in Itu, a few hours away from where Corinthians are based, so the family took the decision for him to join local side Ituano.
It is unclear whether this move fit neatly into the Martinelli strategy for stardom, but it almost certainly accelerated his development. Now the teenager was playing regular men’s football, on the sort of pitches that really ought to violate basic employment law, against men playing for their win bonuses.
I think you can see that grounding in his swift acclimatisation to English football. Futsal schooled him well in the currency of speed and intensity. Playing in Série D, where lunk-headed defenders swipe at his ankles on unctuous pitches, has made the English game seem like a cakewalk in comparison. There is probably a good reason why he moves like the road-runner and can shoot with a short backlift- see his second goal against Standard Liege for an illustration.
At Ituano, Martinelli made the wide-left berth his own, where his ability to cut in on his right foot and steer shots into the far corner became his speciality. His link-up play was also considered one of his most fruitful attributes. Playing in an overlapping full-back before darting into the penalty area was another popular avenue to goal for the Brazilian and we’ve seen evidence of that in his nascent Gunners career.
While Martinelli has been gearing up for his European adventure for some years, his style has a sort of unvarnished quality to it because of his lower league grounding. It is unclear how much, if anything, Edu had to do with the acquisition of the player, but he was invited to train with the Brazilian national team just before Copa América in May.
Arsenal fans have seen enough teenage talent promise much and deliver little, so it is worth retaining some caution with Martinelli. I do think a front three with him alongside Pepe and Aubameyang has a nice balance, potentially, with a good mix of creativity and firepower. Yet his development will still need to be managed carefully.
Matteo Guendouzi is two years older and his performances are still up and down. Martinelli already has two full seasons of league football behind him in Brazil and several years prior to that living the life of a pro thanks to his father’s fastidiousness. In a season where Arsenal fans have had precious little to get excited about, Martinelli’s emergence has thrown a shaft of light onto the gloom.