I think one of the things I have learned from watching football across the years is that player productivity never drops for no reason. There is always a reason and it is almost always tactical or to do with connections with teammates, maybe a tactical shift or the absence of a key player for example.
There are occasional exceptions, fatigue can drive a drop in form, as can something happening in a player’s private life which may impact performance. Fitness- or lack thereof- is also a very key driver of form. Oftentimes, there is a tactical explanation. Which brings me onto Gabriel Martinelli. A lot of Arsenal fans have opined on his recent dip.
Many have attributed it to the break in the season for the World Cup and there may be a kernel of truth in that but, for me, the absolutely blindingly obvious explanation is the absence of Gabriel Jesus through injury. During pre-season, I wrote a piece forecasting (if you will) how I felt the relationship between these two players would work.
Martinelli scored in the first two games after the post World Cup restart. Since scoring against Brighton on New Year’s Eve, he has had one assist, which came against Oxford United. The Brazilian was rested for the FA Cup game at Manchester City but produced a livewire performance from the bench when Arsenal were chasing the game.
At Everton, he was subbed before the hour mark for January signing Leandro Trossard. In isolation, that is not a big deal, this is exactly the situation that Arsenal bought Trossard for. However, generally speaking, if you are hooked before the hour mark and you’re not injured, it is not because you are playing especially well.
Firstly, I think some of the frustration and criticism of Martinelli fails to appreciate his role in the team. Oleksandr Zinchenko does not overlap him from left-back given that he drifts into midfield. The system, intentionally, isolates Martinelli against the opposing right-back in one-on-one situations.
And the thing about one-on-one situations with full-backs is that you won’t beat them and produce an inch-perfect cross, cutback or shot every single time. It’s a really hard job that asks for repeatability above efficiency. Martinelli’s role is not to paint pretty pictures, it’s to chip away at the coal face again and again and again and again.
His indefatigability makes him very suited for this role. Like some of his South American counterparts- Alexis Sanchez and Luis Suarez- it’s not just the fact that he will try to hit you, it’s that if you hit him, he will just get up and try again until he lands a square punch.
Of course, while Martinelli doesn’t have an overlap to help him to occupy a full-back, he does have an underlap in Granit Xhaka. Earlier in the season, Granit Xhaka was enjoying an incredibly productive season in the final third, liberated to attack the left channel while opposition defences were busy dealing with the dizzying duo of Jesus and Martinelli.
Just look at the goal above from August against Leicester City, Gabriel Jesus is on the left extremity of the pitch and Martinelli moves inside. The movement creates a frisson in the Leicester defence and the two combine for Jesus to score from the inside left channel.
In this example, Jesus again dribbles towards the left channel and combines with Martinelli, who is then able to tee up Odegaard from a prime position at the by-line. Or the example below from the opening minutes of the season, where Jesus dribbles in from the right this time, occupying a host of Palace defenders in the process, which frees Martinelli for a gilt-edged chance he should really score.
In short, Martinelli misses the movement and interchange with his compatriot. Nketiah is a different type of player, which is not a criticism, but the focus of the attack has had to switch to providing him with service. That has some give and take. Nketiah has a far better goal scoring rate than Gabriel Jesus.
However, it probably has a tax on goals from other areas of the team at times and it does on Martinelli. Now Arsenal’s build-up is slightly more laboured and when Martinelli receives the ball, he is closer to the touchline and usually faced up by two opponents.
He has more to do and a longer distance to travel. Against Everton, Martinelli passed the ball to Nketiah once and Nketiah didn’t manage to land a single pass to Martinelli. In the Manchester United game where the Gunners dominated and Nketiah scored twice, the two players didn’t exchange a single pass in either direction.
Against Spurs, the picture was far better, with Martinelli finding Nketiah five times with Nketiah returning the favour twice as Tottenham sat off in the first half. But in the 0-0 draw against Newcastle, they exchanged a pass each. So in the last four Premier League games, Nketiah has passed the ball to Martinelli twice.
Again, that isn’t a criticism of Nketiah per se, he is a different type of player and he has provided plenty of penalty area threat. However, you can see why Martinelli’s performances and output might have dipped recently. When Arsenal brought Leandro Trossard on at Goodison Park, it did little to change the pattern of the game (Trossard found Nketiah twice in his 32 minutes on the pitch but Nketiah was unable to find him).
The impact of Jesus’ loss has not been as profound with Bukayo Saka, for example, because his main partnerships in the team- Martin Odegaard, Ben White and Thomas Partey- are in tact. Martinelli’s role in the team has always called for him to be on something of an island, isolating full-backs in one v one scenarios.
In Gabriel Jesus, he had the occasional lifeboat drifting towards him with a rope and a hot cup of cocoa. It’s not that Martinelli is doing anything particularly different, or that any kind of talent drain occurred over recent weeks. The picture in his immediate area of the field has changed so of course his performance will be impacted.
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