Few things are more exciting for a fan than a young player bursting with potential. Young players are popular for supporters for the same reason that transfers are- it’s an opportunity for us to live in a better future, potential enables us to forecast endless possibilities. In this world, injuries, loss of form, loss of appetite or interfering agents don’t exist.
As with a new signing, we have not become literate in a young player’s flaws yet, only his strengths. Any weaknesses we do spot will be ironed out by greater maturity and a little development in our minds. Of course, in the real world, injuries, loss of form, loss of appetite and interfering agents do exist.
In the real world, development is not always linear. Some players just peak early in their careers. When it comes to Gabriel Martinelli, Arsenal fans are ensconced in the honeymoon period, where the future promises a ready-made replacement for the goals of Aubameyang and the guile of Alexis Sanchez.
It says a lot about the grinding reality of modern football that many of us are already discussing the potential fee Arsenal could extort from one of the Spanish super-clubs when they eventually come knocking. Since missing the boat for Neymar and Gabriel Jesus, Real Madrid have made it a crusade to hoover up every highly rated Brazilian teenager they can get their hands on.
I wouldn’t mind betting they are already casting an envious eye towards N5 and kicking themselves for missing out on Martinelli. On Tuesday evening he scored his 10th goal of the season, Arsenal fans had already begun to consider him a bright spot on a fairly grim season. As from Tuesday, the whole world learned the name Gabriel Martinelli.
Suddenly, the social media switchboard lit up with replays of his 70-yard saunter towards Kepa Arrizabalaga’s goal, but this time the replays were not confined solely to ‘Arsenal twitter.’ What struck me also was that ‘Brazilian football twitter’, until now only tangentially curious about Martinelli’s Arsenal sojourn, became very interested indeed.
This time last year, the 18-year-old was playing in Brazil's regional leagues with Ituano FC. 🇧🇷
What a difference 12 months makes… 📅
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) January 22, 2020
What makes Martinelli’s ascension so remarkable is how unexpected it was. The player’s father has been preparing him for European stardom for some years, as this profile piece (£) from Jack Lang in the Athletic points out. There was interest from Barcelona and Manchester United, but the player and his father decided that playing time should be the priority.
Martinelli is as close to a factory footballer as you’ll see. Per Jack Lang’s piece, Gabi’s father persuaded his son to give up pretty much his only teenage vice- ice-cream. He has been living the life of a professional footballer since puberty. This has translated into a streak of ultra-professionalism, recognised by his captain Hector Bellerin in the wake of the 2-2 draw with Chelsea.
“He turns up early every day. He does all the stuff anyone asks him to do. He leaves everything on the pitch. The goals are just a plus,” Hector beamed. Many Brazilians find acclimatising to Europe difficult because the culture is so different, especially when it comes to training. Martinelli hasn’t had to adapt to this standard because his father introduced him to it from the cradle.
In Brazil, his reputation was not especially inflated. That’s understandable, it’s a big country with lots of footballers in it, plainly speaking. If Martinelli already looks like a seasoned pro, it’s because he has spent two seasons in Ituano’s first team in the Brazilian 4th division. He hasn’t been playing youth football on manicured pitches.
Martinelli was a winger in the Brazilian lower leagues, he spent his formative years playing on churned up potato fields having his ankles wrapped by men playing for their win bonuses. One of the most exciting things about Martinelli is that he doesn’t play like an 18-year old at all. He doesn’t *look* unpolished or tentative, he has that rarefied air of a young player who is at ease with his surroundings.
In the age of information, where data is the new oil, it is very rare for a young player to emerge seemingly from nowhere. His compatriots Renier, Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo have all moved to Real Madrid recently after years of being touted as Brazil’s next big talent. Gabriel Jesus had a choice between Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Manchester City when he moved from Palmeiras in 2017 after helping them to a league title and making an impact in the Copa Libertadores.
For Martinelli to arrive from the Brazilian 4th division, in a summer where Arsenal fans were excited by the signings of Ceballos, Pepe and Kieran Tierney, just seems so unlikely. Better than most clubs, Arsenal fans understand what potential looks like, after 22 years under Arsene Wenger and the fabled, stadium austerity driven ‘project youth’ of the mid-2000s.
That means we also recognise that realising potential is not a given. We have seen a lot of ‘potential’ at Arsenal in recent years, some of it has been realised and plenty of it hasn’t. There’s a rarity to Martinelli’s ‘aura’, for want of a better word, that gives me the same feeling I had when Nicolas Anelka and Cesc Fabregas were Martinelli’s age.
They too did not look like precocious teenage footballers, they looked as though they belonged straight away. They didn’t need to be rotated, or managed with kid gloves. They just played and I think the Brazilian has arrived at a similar point- especially in a team that lacks goals from players not named Pierre Emerick Aubameyang.
Gabi’s gonna be a superstar 🙏🏽 Not because of the Goal because of the attitude Energy and mindset ☝🏽
— Aubameyang P-E (@Aubameyang7) January 18, 2020
Of course the fascinating thing about Anelka and Fabregas is that, arguably, neither entirely realised their talent. Both have enjoyed excellent careers, but neither quite turned out to be the Ballon D’Or troubling, generational talents they appeared to be as teenagers. The disruptive influence of Anelka’s brothers and an ill-advised move to Real Madrid enervated Anelka’s career, along with his reputation as a surly trouble-maker.
In hindsight, I am certain he feels he should have stayed at Arsenal for another year or two before making the move to Madrid. His replacement in North London, Thierry Henry, surely served him with a dose of the “what could have beens.” Fabregas, it turns out, needs a team to be entirely carved around his considerable talents to operate at his maximum.
He never really enjoyed that luxury with Spain or with Barcelona, who already had one of the most symbiotic midfield partnerships the game has ever seen to avail of. The beginning of his Chelsea tenure saw him build an outstanding partnership with Diego Costa, much like the one he enjoyed with Adebayor at Arsenal. That Chelsea team was built to his specifications.
This changed when Antonio Conte and his wing-back system winged its away into West London. Now aged 32, Fabregas is, by his lofty standards, in semi-retirement at Monaco. That’s the problem with the future, eventually it becomes the complicated present and, lastly, the rueful past. For now, in the midst of a testing present, Arsenal fans can be forgiven for letting their imaginations run free, as they contemplate the future for their young Brazilian.
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