Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Gabi-Role: Analysing Martinelli’s Stuttering Season

After 15 goals and five assists in 36 Premier League appearances (34 of them starts) in 2022-23, there is no denying that Gabriel Martinelli’s output and performances in 2023-24 felt a little anti-climactic. Six goals and four assists in this campaign felt meagre and a little unexpected after a truly breakout 2022-23.

There are caveats, of course. On this occasion, injury slightly disrupted Martinelli’s season, of his 35 Premier League appearances this time around, 24 were starts and he played 700 fewer minutes than last season. Parcelled out per 90 minutes his goals dropped from 0.48 to 0.27. His assists actually went up slightly from 0.16 to 0.18 per 90.

Goal contributions reduced from 0.65 to 0.55 per 90 which, in fairness, is not a seismic drop. But at the age of 22, many would have anticipated that he at least equal his 2022-23 output. So why didn’t he? Well, like I said, I think a couple of niggling injuries, one in the autumn and one in the spring, did not help his rhythm.

He lost his place in the team after picking up a gashed foot against Sheffield United in early March but that, in my view, was more to do with Trossard’s frankly incredibly return of end-product. Trossard scored seven goals from an XG of 3.1 in the wake of that Sheffield United match (which is all the more impressive given that he missed a 0.5 XG chance against Aston Villa at home in April).

Trossard was Arsenal’s joint top scorer with Kai Havertz in terms of non-penalty goals this season and it was the Belgian’s form, more than the Brazilian’s lack of form, that kept Martinelli out of the team. Martinelli’s underlying numbers do him some favours, in terms of his proximity to end-product, but suggest his execution was off.

His XG per 90 was 0.30 this season compared to 0.29 in 2022-23 and his expected assists were 0.27 per 90 this season compared to 0.29 in 2022-23. So his expected goal contributions per 90 only fell from 0.59 per 90 to 0.58. It could be that Trossard ran a little hot and Martinelli ran a little cold and that could course correct next season. (Equally it might not!)

I think there are other reasons, related to team dynamics, that caused Martinelli to stutter a little this season. Most of those reasons I expect to be reasonably short-term, involving the mechanics of the left hand-side of the team.

On Arsenal’s right-hand side, Ben White, Bukayo Saka and Martin Odegaard are as thick as thieves, they go together like ramma-lamma-ka-dingity-da-dinga-dong. Of Arsenal’s 48 games across the Premier League and Champions League this year, Ben White started 45 and Saka and Odegaard each started 44. Fusion begets chemistry.

In 2022-23, the left unit of the Arsenal team was rather settled. Martinelli had 40 starts on the left wing, Granit Xhaka had 43 in the left eight position and Zinchenko started 28 games at left-back. This season, we saw a bumpy transition between Xhaka and Havertz in the left eight position (which didn’t endure anyway due to other circumstances).

At left-back, Zinchenko started 23 of Arsenal’s 48 (PL and CL) games at left-back, Jakob Kiwior started 14 games at left-back (he started at left centre-back once) and Tomiyasu started 11- four of those were the final four matches of the season, none of which Martinelli started himself. In short, the left-side around Martinelli chopped and changed and the function of the left-back also altered.

Declan Rice veers off to the left of the Arsenal midfield and Kai Havertz had a run of games upfront. Most of those games with Havertz upfront occurred when Martinelli was out of the team but the chemistry between Havertz and Trossard proved very strong.

Havertz is very good at occupying defenders with both his running and his size and that was a pleasant cocktail for Trossard to be able to arrive onto the ball undetected and provide one touch finishes in the area. The good news for Martinelli is that I think that is well within his skill set too.

Perhaps the Brazilian’s biggest intervention of the season saw him score a late winner at home to Manchester City in October as he collected a knockdown from Havertz and ran onto the German’s scraps to score. Martinelli teed up Havertz for his goal at Bramall Lane nicely too.

This is also significant for Martinelli because his partnership with Gabriel Jesus was a big part of his improvement in 2022-23. The pair had an instant chemistry, swapping positions between left and centre at will and playing short combination passes.

Both Brazilians are cut from a similar cloth but if Havertz (and / or Sesko?) continues to be Arteta’s preferred centre-forward model, Martinelli is going to have to develop chemistry with this type of striker, his output cannot be dependent on a partnership with a single player.

Assuming Zinchenko is sold or continues to undertake a reduced role at left-back, I think that could help Martinelli too. The eye test suggests that too often earlier in the season, when Zinchenko was drifting into midfield areas, it left Martinelli isolated, receiving the ball close to the touchline, often faced with two or three opponents to try to beat without a decoy run from a left-back.

Look back at Martinelli’s goal against Sheffield United, his final strike of the season, and it comes from Jakob Kiwior offering a decoy run and providing him with a cutback, which is not the kind of supporting play Zinchenko was asked to provide from left-back.

A more traditional left-back and a more physical centre-forward have the potential to unlock Martinelli next season, as well as a cleaner bill of health. However, while I think there is credence in all the mitigations I have proffered, elite football is harsh and under Arteta’s gaze, it is harsher still.

There are only so many mitigations one can provide before you start to look suspiciously like a ‘Goldilocks player.’ My personal belief is that Martinelli is not a Goldilocks player, that he has elite potential and there were a few niggling factors that derailed his season that I don’t expect to foment into long-term issues.

However, the likes of Aaron Ramsdale, Kieran Tierney and probably Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko can tell you that Arteta waits for no man and your status in his teams is always on loan. Martinelli has been selected for Brazil’s Copa America squad this summer, though he is unlikely to dislodge Vinicius Junior from the starting line-up, the tournament could offer him a chance to recapture his mojo and correct his aim. He will want to be careful not to start next season too slowly off the back of it though, otherwise his stumble could turn into a full-blown tumble.

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