Saturday, December 3, 2022

Gabriel²

Gabriel Martinelli’s ascension at Arsenal felt very swift. Signed from Ituano in the São Paulo regional leagues in the summer of 2019, he impressed very quickly in the summer of 2019 and he made an impression in the Europa League group stages and early rounds of the League Cup, scoring seven goals before Christmas 2019.

When Pierre Emerick Aubameyang served a three-match suspension in January 2020, Martinelli scored twice during Auba’s absence, including a memorable solo goal at Stamford Bridge. Once Aubameyang came back into the team, that form subsided before he gave way to a bad knee injury in the summer of 2020.

In terms of forcing his way into regular recognition, Martinelli had to wait for a lot more senior colleagues to be ushered out of the way. He and Aubameyang were far too similar to operate in the same forward line, which restricted the Brazilian’s level of opportunity. It is no coincidence that Martinelli gathered more minutes between Aubameyang’s final Arsenal appearance in December and the end of this season than he had in his previous two-and-a-half seasons combined.

Auba was a big blocker for Martinelli but so too were Willian and Nicolas Pepe. Although they operated predominantly on the right, both were often selected on the left flank too. Martinelli can also play on the right; the presence of both players represented another obstacle for him.

Willian was surgically removed from the club last summer while Mikel Arteta gave up on the idea that Pepe could be moulded into his tactical vision and Gabriel I started to take those minutes that were once hopefully apportioned to Pepe. Now Martinelli’s main source of competition on the left is Emile Smith Rowe.

However, that feels more like a healthy competition between two vibrant young players who both hold perpendicular ambitions to break into crowded international setups. The contest between Martinelli and Smith Rowe felt more like two good players duking it out for a spot rather than ill-fitted more senior players being given another reluctant opportunity to raise the floor.

Martinelli is a compelling option for Arteta not just because of his quality but because he offers some unique attributes, especially when it comes to pressing high up the pitch. That wasn’t Aubameyang’s strength and it isn’t especially Smith Rowe’s either, it’s a USP that he can offer Arteta.

What is curious about Martinelli’s first stretch as a starter in the team is that he is associated with a high level of end-product. Some wide players are like wider central midfielders and some are like wider strikers and Martinelli certainly seems to fit into the latter category. The ‘project’ for the Arsenal coaching staff is to close the gap between technical build-up quality and end-product.

We can see Bukayo Saka taking that leap already, from a more dribbly, creative build-up player he is beginning to add goals to his game. Martinelli improved in the technical aspect last season, he was far more judicious about when to take players on and when to keep the ball. His combination play improved too.

However, his end-product probably wasn’t where we expected it to be. 0.29 goals per 90 represented his lowest goals per 90 tally since arriving at the club. There is a caveat that the sample size grew significantly last season, whereas he played 663 Premier League minutes in 2019-20 and 589 in 2020-21, in the most recent campaign he clocked up 1,860.

We have moved from small sample sizes to a more conclusive data set and sometimes the numbers can stretch a little when the data pool widens. He did not manage a goal from open play after March 6th and that strike at Watford put an end to a spell of three months without a goal. There is no doubt that those numbers need to climb significantly next season.

This is where the signing of Gabriel Jesus will make a difference, in my opinion. Sometimes a player elevates those around him and I can see Jesus doing that- not necessarily because of soft factors. During Martinelli’s spell in the team after the departure of Aubameyang, the team were essentially playing without a centre-forward.

There are minor and major attributes that forwards need, Lacazette had some of the minor attributes but none of the majors. Martinelli is a firecracker of an attacker, his modus operandi is to get the ball as close to goal as he can by any means necessary. Whether that ends in a shot for himself, or whether it involves pulling the ball across the goal for a teammate, he just wants to break into that penalty area by hook or by crook.

Call me a galaxy brained footballing effete but I think having a moving target in the penalty area will be a very valuable ally for Martinelli. Smashing the lock and breaking into enemy territory only to find your partner in crime still sat in the passenger seat of the getaway car doesn’t make for an effective heist.

The signing of Gabriel Jesus gives Arsenal far more activity in the penalty area and Martinelli is a player that thrives on busy spaces. There is also the opportunity for the players to combine and swap. For several years, Jesus was an incredibly effective foil for Neymar in the Brazilian national team, acting like an NFL style blocker to keep defenders away from Neymar’s tramlines. (Their partnership was so bountiful that the players decided to get matching tattoos after Brazil won the Olympic gold in 2016).

Jesus knows how to facilitate for a wide forward who likes to commit players and that is a gift horse Martinelli ought not to look in the mouth. There is an opportunity for a symbiotic relationship there. All of a sudden, Martinelli will also be playing alongside a player who presses and harries opponents as intently as he does.

South American forwards tend to be ruthless physically because of the lack of structure for young footballers. In street football, age groups are totally mixed, eight year olds often find themselves playing against 13 and 14 year olds from the local neighbourhood and they have to be able to look after themselves.

Jesus and Martinelli were both street footballers in São Paulo- Martinelli was a futsal player too which explains why he is strong in short spaces. This is a big season for Martinelli in beginning to make that leap from potential to potential realised, to make a difference week after week. I am pretty positive that the signing of Gabriel Jesus will be a springboard to help him to make that jump.

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