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In the Premier League this season, Gabriel Martinelli’s level of end product has dropped from the heights of last season. In 2021-22 he began to become a more prominent member of the team but shared the left-wing role with Emile Smith Rowe. He had 21 Premier League starts in 2021-22 and that shot up to 34 Premier League starts in 2022-23.
Part of this was informed by injuries to Emile Smith Rowe which have yet to clear. Part of it was rocket fuelled by a devastating partnership with his compatriot Gabriel Jesus. Jesus’ arrival in the summer of 2022 was a set of jump cables for the Arsenal forward line and Martinelli’s engine purred in concert. With Oleksandr Zinchenko’s transformative interpretation of the left-back role and Granit Xhaka reliably chugging away in that left midfield lane, the left-side was transformed.
It took teams a little while to get to grips with how Arteta had tweaked his side but they soon adapted. When Jesus was injured during the World Cup, Martinelli endured a similar fallow period to the one he is experiencing now in the New Year (which I wrote about here). I felt the Brazilian briefly suffered for the absence of Jesus and the arrival of Leandro Trossard later in January coincided with an improvement in production.
It is tempting to argue that Jesus’ fitful availability has had a similar impact this season. However, there have been four Premier League games with Jesus upfront and Martinelli to the left. Martinelli has one goal and no assists in those games, so his compatriot’s presence has not led to a notable boost in output.
Of course, the left side of the team has been subject to further transition too. Granit Xhaka is no longer chugging along in that left-midfield lane and it has taken a while for Kai Havertz to nail the part (and Fabio Vieira, Declan Rice and Leandro Trossard have all spent some time in the role). Zinchenko has been in and out of the team too so the picture on the left side of the team has been a little disturbed.
While I think these factors, as well as the fact that Martinelli had a small injury in October, have contributed to a drop in output, none of them appear to have impacted him in the Champions League, where he has really shone. His performance at home to Sevilla was one of his best in an Arsenal shirt and Zinchenko did not play on that day and neither did Gabriel Jesus.
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Even allowing for the smaller sample size, his data in the Champions League tells you the same as your eyes, that he looks far more dangerous in these games. The same goes for the whole team and, again, the eye test tells you this is because RC Lens, PSV and Sevilla were prepared to take Arsenal on and not sit in a deep block in their penalty areas.
Jesus, Saka and Martinelli have all seen heightened output in the Champions League group stage. Sevilla’s decision to consistently allow right-back Juanlu Sanchez to defend Martinelli alone was a joy to watch for anyone of a Gunners persuasion. The goal he scores at home to Lens is predicated by a nice, brisk run in open green space, like a Labrador happily bounding after an airborne stick.
I think the explanations for his domestic drop off are reasonably straightforward. Every good team has players they ‘overburden.’ William Saliba and Gabriel defend large spaces. Zinchenko is asked to be a left-back and a central midfielder at the same time. And Gabriel Martinelli operates on an island. He doesn’t have an overlapping full-back.
Teams have gotten wise to the threat of Arsenal’s wide players, not least because they don’t have a Haaland level goal scorer anywhere else in the team (though they have plenty of ‘chips in’ types). This has led to teams doubling up on both Saka and Martinelli. I would argue that Saka has a superior support network to deal with this, with Ben White overlapping and Odegaard combining with him ad infinitum.
Arsenal ask Martinelli to stay wide to stretch the pitch and allow Havertz and Zinchenko to move inside him. The system relies on him being isolated and available for a switch of play and as teams have doubled up on the wide players, he has fewer decoy options and is asked to beat two men on his own.
In the Champions League, he has yet to attempt a cross into the penalty area this season and that’s because he hasn’t needed to. He has been able to dribble his way into superior positions in the penalty area, either by the by-line for a cutback or for a shot. He attempts almost seven fewer passes more game in the Champions League but take-ons are where the numbers really begin to sing.
In the Premier League he is attempting 4.91 take ons per 90. In the Champions League, it’s 10.3 per 90. Again, we have to be careful with the small sample size but that is a sizeable jump. A player who is passing the ball less and powering at defenders more often is a player who sees spaces to attack, avenues of opportunity. In the Premier League, he is often finding larger fences erected in front of him.
He has 3.45 carries into the penalty area per 90 in Europe compared to 1.75 in the Premier League. Martinelli is also fouled more often in domestic games, which speaks to the approach of opponents and the respective levels of permissiveness in the officiating. The spaces are far less clogged. The question, I guess, is what the player and the team does about it.
Arsenal are still somewhat of a novelty in Europe and soon teams will cotton on. Better opponents await in the competition in 2024 and Martinelli and / or Arsenal are going to have to evolve to put up with the increased attention. My own view remains that Saka and Martinelli remain overburdened in the team without satisfactory alternatives.
Emile Smith Rowe is no longer considered a wide player, Arteta can’t be far away from forming a similar conclusion with Leandro Trossard and Reiss Nelson is barely trusted to play any significant minutes at all. I maintain that Arsenal need another explosive wide player to share the load, keep teams honest and allow Martinelli and Saka to go full throttle without feeling like they have to preserve energy. The problems being posed to Martinelli are problems faced by very good players. The very best rise to meet that challenge.
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