Arsenal has not been a place where much hope resides in recent times. But one brilliant youngster is providing some…
The Emirates has been a pretty dispiriting place for quite a long time now. Visiting the stadium is a pretty safe experience, emotionally speaking: you know nothing especially good or exciting is going to happen, but you also know that nothing especially bad is going to happen. It’s just somewhere that slightly nice or slightly disappointing things happen. It’s the palace of ennui.
You can often feel quite sorry for the spectators there, their situation not really bad enough to elicit more widespread sympathy but not good enough to be, well, good. In many ways it’s worse than them being really awful: at least then they have some true despair to cling onto.
Therefore, it was quite pleasing on Saturday, in their otherwise frustrating 1-1 draw with Sheffield United in which they displayed all the foibles and mental instabilities that they have displayed for years and will take a pretty long time to shake off, that they actually had a few things to be excited about.
One of them was Eddie Nketiah, who came on late in the game and was greeted like a glamorous, big money new signing. You can put that down to the innocent hope and faith in homegrown youth, the affection that every set of fans has for ‘one of their own’. Every club has one of these, a highly-rated young player who everyone is convinced is going to be brilliant, but with absolutely no evidence to support it. He might be brilliant, but at this stage of his career it’s almost all based on blind faith.
There is more evidence for another reason to be cheerful, though. Gabriel Martinelli was only in the team because of Pierre Emerick Aubameyang’s suspension, but he did such a convincing Aubameyang impression that Arsenal’s biggest goal threat and arguably best player wasn’t really missed.
The extraordinary thing about Martinelli is not just that he scored his ninth goal of the season on Saturday – impressive enough tally at this stage of the season for a regular – but that he has those goals from ten starts and has been on the pitch for just 1,030 minutes over 20 appearances.
And all this from a boy who won’t be 19 until the summer and whose facial hair you would charitably describe as ‘whispy’. Martinelli was signed in the summer almost as an afterthought, a kid for the future that a semi-casual observer might have filed alongside your Denilsons and your Fran Meridas and your Wellington Silvas as Arsenal youngsters briefly touted as the chosen one to bring balance to the Emirates, but who then eventually disappeared in a cloud of loan moves to Levante and Sao Paulo.
Of course that might be his fate, but not on current evidence. “He’s an 18-year-old kid with all the enthusiasm,” said Mikel Arteta after the Sheffield United game, “but as well, he’s so brave to make decisions, to threaten the opponent every time.
“He’s all the time in the middle of the goal, waiting for an opportunity to come. He hasn’t played 90 minutes for a while…but still the way he went about every single action is impressive.”
Pretty much everything is impressive about Martinelli. With Aubameyang out of the team he must nominally play that left-sided forward role, and as a kid still learning the trade you could easily forgive him for broadly sticking to the flank, concentrating on one thing at a time, but he recognised that it’s also his job to provide some sort of goal threat and spend time in the middle too. So there he was, when Buyako Saka’s deflected cross looped into the area, to volley home. It looked like a straightforward chance, an open goal, but there was a remarkable maturity to everything that ultimately made it a simple finish.
Watch him in the build up to that goal: as the ball is shifted to the left flank Martinelli immediately spotted, as Aubameyang so often does, that he needed to make tracks into the middle. Alexandre Lacazette made a little more space by dropping deep to receive a pass from Mesut Ozil, which he then returned to Saka, running into the box from the wing. Martinelli at this stage is in an indeterminate position, not deep but not quite on the shoulder of the defenders: essentially the perfect spot if you want to avoid picking up a marker.
Then you need a real burst of speed to get yourself into the business area of the goal, and luckily enough that’s exactly what Martinelli has. A quick sprint and he’s lost the markers again, and was there in a few yards of space to apply that finish, his physical and mental gifts combining to perfection.
For a striker to be in that much space in the six-yard box, it’s probably either because the defence is negligent or the forward is brilliant. Sheffield United have conceded 22 goals this season, only Liverpool having let in fewer, so you can make your own mind up which one applies in this case.
“He always tells me ‘just put it in behind the defence and I’ll be there,’” said Saka after the weekend, “so I did it for him. That’s how he got his goal. Gabi just wants to drive at defenders.”
Indeed he does. The comparisons to Luis Suarez have been made and might sound a little premature, but they’re not without foundation. Martinelli has that same relentlessness, that same ability to inspire panic in a defender if they suddenly realise they don’t know where Martinelli is.
If there is one thing that has emerged from Arteta’s early, admittedly quite patchy games in charge, it’s that the movement and sharp interplay of their front four will be the thing that brings success. In theory that front four is Aubameyang, Lacazette, Ozil and Nicolas Pepe. But the biggest compliment you can probably pay Martinelli is that on Saturday they didn’t miss the man who has scored 14 of their 30 Premier League goals this season. And furthermore, that Martinelli could easily excel in three, maybe even all four of those attacking roles, as required.
Yes, it’s been a dispiriting time to be an Arsenal fan, but there is hope. There is at least one reason to be cheerful. There is Gabriel Martinelli.
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