“Balance” and “timing”, in Mikel Arteta’s own words, were the reasons Gabriel Martinelli had to wait for his first Arsenal start in over two months. The Spaniard might feel some vindication given the young forward’s impressive display in the 3-0 win over Sheffield United, but others will ponder whether the right balance could have been struck sooner to accommodate him.
Martinelli was an electrical charge for Arsenal at Bramall Lane. While the Gunners have faced accusations this season of being slow and static in the attacking third, the 19-year-old never stopped moving, demanding the ball at every opportunity and creating space for others when he didn’t have it himself.
Injuries and illness effectively forced Arteta to pick Martinelli, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Emile Smith Rowe missing, but the 19-year-old was so eye-catching that he will surely be in the manager’s thoughts for a starting spot against Slavia Prague on Thursday night.
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Deployed on the left wing, Martinelli had fewer touches of the ball (30) than any Arsenal player who started the match against Sheffield United, but the Brazilian’s use of possession demonstrated the different dimension he brings to Arteta’s attack. He isn’t often hesitant to get a shot away, showing a poacher's instinct to score the second goal.
In fact, Martinelli registered more shots on target in the first half (three) than the entire Sheffield United team combined. He was unfortunate not to find the back of the net with one of his four efforts before his substitution after 82 minutes, but still played a key role in the way Arsenal turned their territorial dominance into actual chances.
Arteta has still to find the right formula in the final third, but Martinelli could be the perfect attacker for the Spaniard. The teenager is highly effective at pressing high. He brings a great deal of energy and drive to the Gunners’ frontline and is versatile enough to play either off the wing or through the middle as a centre forward.
Some difficult transfer market decisions will have to be made by Arteta. Aubameyang is the highest-paid player at the Emirates Stadium on a weekly wage of £250,000, but there is the growing sense that Arsenal have ended up with another Mesut Ozil-like situation on their hands as the Gabonese forward has underwhelmed.
Somewhat interestingly, Alexandre Lacazette’s last six goals for Arsenal have come when Aubameyang has been off the pitch, but the French striker’s future is also up in the air. This summer could be the Gunners’ last chance to collect a fee for a player who has just one year left on his contract.
Smith Rowe has emerged as a reliable option on the left wing, but the 20-year-old is a central operator by trade. Even when he is used as a wide man, Smith Rowe frequently finds himself cutting inside to link up with the likes of Martin Odegaard and Granit Xhaka, relying on the full back on the overlap to offer width.
Martinelli, on the other hand, is a more natural attacker. With Bukayo Saka’s fitness now in doubt after coming off early against Sheffield United, it’s possible the young Brazilian could play a key role for Arsenal between now and the end of the season, with objectives still to be achieved in both the Premier League and Europa League.
Regardless of whether Arteta should have been quicker to reintroduce Martinelli after a period out through injury, the young forward has now proven his worth as a starter again. His potential is undeniable to anyone who has watched him, including those who caught the 3-0 win on Sunday. Martinelli could in fact come to epitomise what the Arsenal boss wants from his attackers.
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