Gabriel Martinelli: A well nurtured talent flourishing under Arteta
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
"Arteta is holding Martinelli back. He hates him".
Just a month or so ago, this bizarre narrative was becoming increasingly mainstream. The young Brazilian had played just 12 minutes of Premier League football between late August and late November, and this meant that people genuinely believed our coach held a personal vendetta against him.
Now, Gabriel Martinelli is an undroppable cog in our system. After being introduced with 27 to play against Newcastle merely a matter of weeks ago, ahead of Nicolas Pepe, he swept in an astounding volley to secure the victory. This impact off the bench earned him his first league start since 22nd August at Old Trafford, and although the game ended in disappointment for Mikel Arteta's side, he produced an exciting display, which included supplying an assist for Martin Odegaard. Then followed a bright performance at home to Southampton where he managed another assist, and then 3 goals in two games against West Ham and Leeds. Some impact.
Those who were questioning his ability just because he wasn't playing regularly now look rather foolish. As do those who were lamenting Arteta for limiting his opportunities. Perhaps Arteta was nurturing Martinelli after his serious knee injury, managing him carefully and working intensively on certain aspects of his game.
The truth is, despite the clear abundance of talent, Martinelli looked rather raw when he first came to England. At just 18 years old, he possessed both the technical and physical qualities to excel in the English game, but this exuberant enthusiasm often meant he lacked in certain areas. Ball retention was an issue, whilst maintaining the positions on the pitch required and implementing the tactical instructions asked of him were clearly problems. He got away with these flaws in lesser competitions, but they often presented more of an issue at Premier League level. For a highly structured and tactical coach like Mikel Arteta, this was quite significant a concern.
No game represented more of a marker for these issues than Manchester United at home in January. Martinelli had only recently returned to the side after his injury and was being used relatively frequently by Arteta, but also with some level of reticence. In a surprisingly ruthless substitution from the Spanish manager, the former Ituano man was hooked at half-time for Willian (yes, that guy). Arteta had spent almost the entirety of the first half barking at Martinelli, trying to coach him through the game positionally. He explained in his post match interview that he'd wanted his young winger to retain much higher starting positions, but he instead kept trying to come towards the ball and get involved in build-up play.
Martinelli's enthusiasm to be involved meant he'd lost sight of the tactical role he was sent out to fulfil. After that day, he didn't start another game until mid-April and only another three after that for the remaining duration of the season.
It's clear that Arteta wanted to work on these issues. He wanted to nurture the Brazilian into not just a raw talent who had some potentially elite attributes but someone who could fit into a system and utilise these attributes in a more effective and cohesive way. Once Arteta felt Martinelli had overcome these problems in his game, then he'd feel comfortable dropping him into the side on a frequent basis.
Extensive work appears to have taken place on the training ground. In recent games, Martinelli has looked much more mature in his performances, gelling better in the system. Against West Ham and Leeds, the Sao Paulo born man was clearly instructed to stay high up the pitch, positioning himself in the half spaces ready to make out to in runs and exploit the spaces left by Alex Lacazette. This role directly resulted in the goal scored against West Ham and the second at Elland Road. Six or seven months ago, would this chaotic teenager have made these types of runs or even have been in the positions to do so?
Arteta never doubted Martinelli's talent, rather questioned some aspects of his game and was able to work on them and overcome them because of the 20-year-olds attitude and willingness to learn and improve. Now, he's reaping the rewards and so are we as a team.
It wouldn't be an Alfie Cairns Culshaw piece without some FBRef usage. Martinelli sits in the 92nd percentile for non-penalty goals per 90, the 94th for non-penalty xG per 90, the 80th for expected assists per 90 and the 99th for pressures in the attacking third. Some of the metrics look phenomenal and really are an indicator of better things to come. Although there is some concern over his passing suffering due to being a very shot-heavy forward, this is also an area of his game that can be worked on on the training ground.
The ceiling for this player is utterly ridiculous.