Monday, May 16, 2022

Gabi-gears

Back in December, when Pierre Emerick Aubameyang was just beginning to carve out an arse groove on the naughty step, I wrote about how Gabriel Martinelli would be the chief beneficiary of Auba’s exile. Martinelli was always a slightly awkward fit in a forward line that featured the Gabonese due to the similarities between the players.

Both are relatively low touch players who want to be on the business end of moves rather than the build-up. They both like to attack that left corridor into the area, essentially, they are both inside forwards, it’s just that Auba starts centrally and wanders left, whereas Martinelli starts from the left and wanders inside.

It’s uneasy having two players like that in the same forward line, especially when you throw in Nicolas Pepe who is of a similar mould. Martinelli’s first breakthrough into the Arsenal team, when he scored in consecutive games against Sheffield United and Chelsea in the winter of 2020, came when Aubameyang was serving a three-match suspension.

Aubameyang returned for an away match at Burnley in February 2020 in a forward line that featured Auba on the left and Martinelli on the right either side of Lacazette. Arsenal mustered two shots on target in a dull 0-0 draw and the experiment wasn’t repeated. The BBC’s match report from that game tells the story.

“But as Aubameyang was controlled by Burnley right-back Matt Lowton, Arsenal’s attacking threat diminished to almost nothing, their front four dithering over the few scraps they were fed.”

Of course, none of this now matters since Auba has moved on to Barcelona. With that obstacle removed for Martinelli and Arteta now fully resolved that Pepe is an impact sub, he has been able to flourish with a long spell in the starting XI. With the caveat that he was injured for the first part of last season, he has already more than doubled his playing time compared to the 2020-21 campaign amassing 1,246 Premier League minutes compared to 589 last season.

With Lacazette firmly ensconced in the role of facilitator, Martinelli has become the de facto striker in the way that Salah is for Liverpool and Raheem Sterling often has been for Manchester City. However, it obviously isn’t just the case that Martinelli was waiting for a couple of pillars of the attack to be removed in his favour.

While the rhythm and confidence of increased game time has added bows and whistles to his game, there is clearly an effort to coach the player further behind the scenes. Arteta has made reference to some of the improvements he has sought from the Brazilian. Speaking after Martinelli’s man of the match performance against West Ham in December, the coach spoke in specifics.

“He’s able to put some gears into his play. Sometimes he’s still doing everything at 100 miles per hour but the energy and quality he shows at times is top.”

A glance at Martinelli’s data (source FBRef) certainly points to moderation in his game. His goals (0.36 per 90) and assists (0.22) per 90 are slightly up on last season (when they were 0.31 and 0.15 per 90 respectively). Again, the player spent some time in the early recovery stages from a meniscus injury, which impacted his sharpness.

However, he is taking fewer shots this season, (2.54 per 90 compared to 3.08 last season). He is scoring slightly more with slightly fewer shots, which suggests that his shot selection is getting better. Going back to Arteta’s “sometimes he’s still doing everything at 100 miles per hour” comment, that’s not just a comment on his physical intensity.

Playing at that pace constantly often impacts decision making. It’s worth pointing out that the sample size of 589 minutes from his 2020-21 data is quite small but often, data looks can look better for players in smaller sample sizes. Martinelli is also now a starter rather than an impact sub, which lends itself to greater physical efficiency.

We see that in the pressing data too, he is actually completing four fewer pressures per 90 but is winning the ball back for his team more often. Again, that suggests that he is picking his moments better rather than just pressing everyone all the time. One of the key tenets of positional play is for each player to master their area of the pitch.

Positional play essentially splits the pitch into zones and what Arteta really wants is for each player to master their assigned zone. We have seen Xhaka move into the left eight zone in recent months, for example, with Partey assigned the much larger central area. Odegaard and Saka have Arsenal’s right hand pod locked down in an attacking sense.

I would wager that we will get even more from Martinelli if and when Xhaka is replaced in that left eight area, which is not a criticism of Xhaka per se. He is performing the role reasonably well but if Arsenal are able to procure a player who can make the leap from ‘reasonably well’ to ‘excellently’, as Odegaard has done in the right eight area, Martinelli and Tierney’s supply line should become even more fruitful.

I think selection is the main theme of what Arteta is trying to coach into Martinelli. When to shoot, when to press but, also, I think where to stand and when. It is no coincidence that the manager is playing with a pair of inverted wingers in Saka and Martinelli (Pepe and Smith Rowe likewise fall into this category when they occupy their respective flanks).

However, I think the next step is to teach Martinelli that there is a time to roam inside and a time to hug the touchline and stretch the play. We have seen in recent games that he has gotten far better at beating his full-back on the outside and powering to the by-line. He is not always the most aesthetically pleasing dribbler but he can carry the ball and beat a man.

In a positional play setting, a good attack is like an accordion, it expands and retracts at will, breathing in and out like a set of lungs. We can see that Bukayo Saka is brilliant at knowing when to play on the extremities of the pitch and when to move inside. Often, he can carry the ball from the touchline to the corner of the penalty area in the blink of an eye.

If Martinelli can continue to develop in that respect, in knowing when to be a winger and when to be a forward (he has the latter part pretty much nailed), his development will continue to accelerate. It’s difficult not to think of Saka and Martinelli and compare them to Manchester City’s Sterling and Sane duo, whom Arteta coached for some years. That’s not a bad standard to aim for. Martinelli is “adding gears” to his game as Arteta puts it; he is not far away from becoming a Rolls Royce of a forward.

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