Monday, November 28, 2022

Gabi-go

Shortly before the season started, I wrote a piece forecasting that the presence of Gabriel Jesus at centre-forward would see Gabriel Martinelli’s game progress to a new level this season. The point of this article is to gloat about how right I was. In seriousness, I don’t think it was soothsaying on my part.

Better more mobile striker gets best from wide forward is a prediction in the obvious. I wanted to look at how Martinelli’s game has improved so far this season and test some of my ‘predictions.’ The Brazilian has 690 Premier League minutes to his name this season compared to 1,860 in 2021-22, there is plenty of time for this sample size to flatten out the data.

Jesus has been fit for all the first eight games and Arsenal have been playing very well, dominating every game they have played so far. The pudding, where we are told the proof is concealed, is still baking. Or something. The eye test tells you that Martinelli’s game has improved this season, he has provided a constant source of danger for the Arsenal attack.

What surprised me, however, looking at his data, is where the numbers show derivation from last season. So far, his expected goals total per 90 of 0.27 is the lowest it has been across his four campaigns at the club- despite the fact that he is shooting more frequently and shooting on target more frequently.

 XGp90Shots p90SOTp90
2019-200.310.411.63
2020-210.520.313.06
2021-220.340.292.42
2022-230.270.393.13

Part of my pre-season thesis was that Jesus would be able to move into wide areas and allow Martinelli to move into some of those more central areas. “Jesus knows how to facilitate for a wide forward who likes to commit players.” However, that’s not really what has happened. Jesus has moved into some of those wide left areas and, on occasion, Martinelli has indeed showed up in central positions.

But really, it’s Xhaka and Zinchenko that Martinelli is rotating with, while Jesus has total freedom to drift where he likes. A lot of Martinelli’s data profiles as a very natural winger often playing close to the touchline and stretching play. Even his average shot distance has been slightly further away from goal this season because most of his shots involve him cutting in from wide positions with the ball at his feet.

 Average shot distance in yards
2019-2013.2
2020-2113.1
2021-2214.4
2022-2316.9

I think the first thing to say here is that Gabriel Jesus’ presence puts less pressure on Martinelli to get into scoring positions. Lacazette carried next to no goal threat, his role in the number 9 position was to facilitate for Saka and Martinelli both of whom had to be relied upon to move in-field and take shots. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Saka’s revised role this season as a much more fixed presence on the touchline.

While his role is slightly more fluid than the one assigned to Saka, Martinelli’s data is profiling much more as you would expect from a winger. On the most basic creative level, he is taking more touches this season and he is passing the ball more, which tells you that he has more of a role in build-up than he did last year.

 Passes p90Touches p90
2019-2018.637.2
2020-2124.538.9
2021-2229.644.0
2022-2337.356.0

We should acknowledge that Arsenal still have four games against Liverpool and Manchester City yet this season, which might bring some of those averages down, as well as a couple of games against Chelsea. However, the leap in the passing and touch numbers are significant. This is against the backdrop of a team who are dominating possession and territory far more potently this season.

Martinelli’s touch count is not a result of dropping back into more defensive areas either. The addition of Zinchenko has made Arsenal more secure in that area. Arsenal also had to play Nuno Tavares in that position a lot last season and he needed a little more protection from his left-wing partner.

 Touches in defensive third p90Touches in middle third p90Touches in attacking third p90Total distance carried p90
2019-208.3815.017.7179.5
2020-215.3510.924.3151.8
2021-225.0214.128.3218.0
2022-232.6015.835.7244.9

In that final column, we can see he is receiving the ball to feet and attacking the right-back more often as well. Again, Arsenal’s overall attacking improvement, combined with the technical security offered by Xhaka and Zinchenko on that left-side, means that he can be encouraged to take players on. This is translating into other, more wingery, type behaviour. This is where Gabriel Jesus’ presence is significant once more.

 Crosses p90
2019-202.16
2020-212.15
2021-222.32
2022-234.16

This is where part of my pre-season premise was indeed accurate. Not only is Martinelli not under as much pressure to get into goalscoring positions, he has a striker willing to attack balls into the box, be they crosses, cut-backs or parried shots. Or as I put it in July, “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…Martinelli is a player that thrives on busy spaces.” The penalty area is a busier space than it was last season, so the player has more incentive to take full-backs on and drive balls into the box.

 Passes that travel more than 40 yards the width of the pitch p90
2019-202.16
2020-212.15
2021-222.32
2022-234.16

I have included this data on cross-field passes, only because I think it emphasises how wide Martinelli often is in possession (out of possession, he often fills the centre-forward position to create space for the movement of Xhaka and Jesus). Arsenal have begun to use switches of play far more effectively this season and Martinelli is executing them far more often.

That speaks to receiving the ball in a wider starting position far more often- the wider you are, the more likely you are to be able to hit a pass with more than 40 yards width on it. My premise that Jesus would wring the best from Martinelli was correct, elements of my thinking proved to be correct but I didn’t really anticipate the main development- that Jesus’ presence as a striker would free Martinelli to be an attacking winger rather than a second centre-forward.

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