Three days before last Christmas, Gabriel Martinelli set about making up for lost time. The young forward had arrived in England with a bang but knee surgery meant he missed the opening months of 2019-20. He finally returned to the starting lineup for a Carabao Cup game against Manchester City and it was some performance: for 45 minutes Martinelli ran around like a man possessed, charging down clearances before putting himself in the line of danger. There was serious concern when he hurled himself into a 50-50 with Zack Steffen, who was marginally the favourite for a through ball, and went down in a heap; he was soon up and about but, in a poor side, the Brazilian had been the only player operating on the edge.
That frenetic night’s work came to mind on Wednesday after Mikel Arteta was asked whether Martinelli had put in the best performance of his Arsenal career against West Ham. It was certainly up there: the 20-year-old had opened the scoring with a sleek finish and, alongside the characteristic hustle, there was a refinement and precision to his general work. “He’s able to put some gears into his play,” Arteta said, referencing a tendency to “do everything at 100 miles per hour”.
The message to Martinelli has been simple: pick your moments, slow it down when the game demands and, at times, just take a breath. It is filtering through. The challenge is to channel his zest and spirit rather than curb them; there was little time spent chasing marginal causes in the win over David Moyes’s side and most of his contributions around the penalty area had purpose. An accurate cut-back for Bukayo Saka would have brought Arsenal’s second goal without Issa Diop’s intervention; earlier he had taken up threatening positions where, at least once, the right release from Saka or another teammate would have found him unmarked.
Arteta knows the exhilarating, emphatic edge to Martinelli’s game can elevate him among the best. Before that tie with City a year ago it was put to him that, in a dismal winter for Arsenal, the comeback kid might offer salvation. “We cannot put that pressure on his shoulders – it’s not fair on him,” he said. “He brings that enthusiasm the fans can see because he’s got something special, a special energy every time he steps on that field.”
Expectations were high because of the bar Martinelli set when, in his first season, he scored 10 times. Nobody could miss his rough edges but the eye test did not lie: he ran with the pack-dog gait of Luis Suárez and finished with the explosive, fully meant thrust of Gabriel Batistuta. It is gratifying that South America still produces players like this, with a seemingly innate taste for drama. You can barely take your eyes off them and, watching Martinelli, the parallels with past greats were clear.
Although his predatory gifts lend themselves, on the face of things, to the centre-forward role, Martinelli has been preferred on the left by Arteta and Unai Emery. It is an area more conducive to smoothing those jagged parts but also, famously, to unique menace. Thierry Henry and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang thrived through a blend of directness and smart timing, measuring their runs into the inside-left channel and duly augmenting their goalscoring stats. Martinelli’s goal against West Ham was reminiscent of both and, in its measured nature, perhaps the type he had not previously scored for Arsenal.
Aubameyang looms large in the Martinelli conversation now. When Martinelli arrived from Ituano at 18 there was little serious suggestion he could immediately depose his older teammate, who was still banging in the goals for fun, despite those early flourishes. The picture is different now, with question marks gathering around the succession plan to Arsenal’s club captain even before he was stripped of the armband on Tuesday. Martinelli’s most convincing display yet could not have been better timed and, given he is now at an age where regular starts are a realistic aim, may make the transition into a new era considerably easier.
As always, notes of caution hover. Martinelli scored a smart goal against Newcastle last month but had only started twice in the league this season at that point, Arteta giving short shrift to clamour for his greater involvement. After those headlong dashes against City, his performances in feeling a way back from injury were sometimes scratchy and fitful; the endeavour was never in question but the clarity and combinations with teammates were off beam. Arteta was right to preach patience and, on Wednesday, Arsenal were rewarded with something close to the complete package: now they must see whether Martinelli can produce it over a sustained run.
“We have such a young team and we have to find the right timing,” Arteta said earlier this month. “It’s very clear what we want to do with Gabi.” Arsenal’s opponents are beginning to see at first hand.