Born and raised in Guarulhos, São Paulo, Gabriel Martinelli started his footballing career playing for Corinthians’ futsal team. It was only at the age of 14 that the teenager broke into football with Ituano. The Brazilian signed his first professional contract in 2017, and soon became the club’s youngest debutant of the century later that season.
Despite making just 17 appearances and netting only 6 times for the lower division side, he was soon jetting off to London to sign for Arsenal. Since joining the Gunners on the 2nd July last year, Martinelli has made quite the impact – bursting onto the scene with 10 goals in a little over 16 90s (in all competitions), all whilst playing in a variety of positions across a front line, and under three different managers.
In this piece, I’ll dissect what makes the 19-year-old such a force up front, where he best fits, and how he and his team can work to bring out the best of such a special talent.
Martinelli’s standout quality is undoubtedly his ability to attack the penalty area. His positioning and movement are a constant – always adapting to the side the balls are being delivered from and where the pockets of space are.
The way he manages to consistently position himself between defenders, rather than up against them, is how 3 of his 10 goals have come via headers. It acts as a good way of avoiding the physical disadvantages he often suffers from due to being 5’11” and not the leanest of players.
In terms of his attacking positioning, he does well to offer at different depths. Often, he’s keen to get to the near post, deeper on the cutback, or – and especially so – across to the face of goal, where his positioning directly in-between defenders frees him up for these chances that bit more.
An issue of his foremost movements to the near post are how close they tend to be in relation to the deliverer, and how readable they are, also. The teenager doesn’t offer enough variety in his run paths, so it’s rare that he fully catches out defenders and stretches the space he wants to attack. Instead, he will frequently run across the eye-line of his opponent, aggressively pointing to the space he’s attacking, which is at an angle far too narrow for headed or volleyed attempts, in spite of his best efforts and occasional successes.
It’s these which illustrate some of the lacking blind-sided awareness to his game that can mean he isn’t always filling the correct channels despite his constant movement. However, inadvertently or not, these persistent, testing runs towards the ball have served to free up teammates closer to the centre on numerous occasions.
General attacking movement
What makes Martinelli such a joy to watch is his relentlessness. He always has his eye on where the vacancies are in the channels of the opposition’s defence, as well as where the ball is. Because of this, he’s so switched on to opportunities to test the last line with sharp runs. When a teammate doesn’t find him – or doesn’t even attempt to do so – his head never drops, he just ploughs on and readjusts his position.
He’s comfortable attempting runs from any direction within the central channels but could improve by playing more directly off the shoulder. Currently, he manages to keep onside the majority of the time because he starts a little too far in front, or, more notably, makes runs going too far across the eye-line of his opponents.
In terms testing runs from wider areas, he’s far more adept at making runs from out-to-in on the left-wing than he is on the right-wing, albeit based on a small sample.
And, relevant to his alertness is how quick-witted he is in running off teammates, anticipating 2nd balls and where they will likely drop.
A lot of the positives and negatives of this are also replicated in transition attacks. Typically, he’ll peel wide on the side nearest to him to offer, but problems can begin to mount when leading the line centrally. This is down to his lingering in front of the back-tracking defenders, as he doesn’t fully recognise which channels to pin and how best to strategically open spaces for teammates, thus clogging up the space the ball-carrier has.
Due to this lack of awareness, he’ll also often attack channels one lane too far in or one too far out, which is limiting to both his teammate and himself since they’re not necessarily into the most exploitable channel. If he isn’t too detached from his teammates, he’s instead congesting the lane they’re attacking.
Where that can and will almost certainly improve is through Mikel Arteta’s clear implementation of system-based automatisms. Having specific types of movements regimented into his game should help to rapidly improve his decision-making on this front.
In Possession of the Ball
Offering and handling of the ball
Martinelli isn’t a ball-to-feet kind of player, per se. When starting as a centre-forward he doesn’t go searching for the ball; he’s most open to receiving when he’s close to the ball. And he’s more highly involved when playing on the left, largely due to certain system-based mechanisms.
He rotates well for the ball and isn’t caught slacking when asked to move into unfamiliar positions, either. The Brazilian is an incredibly willing runner short ahead of his teammates, linking up well with this season’s other breakout star, Bukayo Saka – always looking to provide sharp, underlapping runs that enable him to get to the byline.
However, his movements short off the ball aren’t always progressive. Juggling whether to narrow inwards or push wide/hold the width can be a difficult choice to decipher between, which he’s generally inconsistent at achieving correctly.
Often when moving to the ball, it tends to be vertical and with his back completely to goal, being followed intensely by a defender on his back. How he takes on the ball is generally very positive: always looking to open up his body with his first touch, be it through the use of his stronger right or weaker left foot.
The sharpness of his turning circle comes from his exceptional agility, which also makes it easy for him to burst into space from standing starts, thus helping him to evade pressure with ease.
Not only can his footwork be incredibly sharp but so can his improvisation. The way he tricks defenders through quick turns on the spot without even having to move the ball illustrates his speed of thought.
Where he struggles is taking the ball into his body and using it to bring others into play. Although he sometimes angles himself well and stops the ball in advance – and is often keen to hold the ball up for teammates to play off – he too often stops the ball and tries to withstand pressure completely ball-facing without keeping low, meaning he’s easily unbalanced by blind-sided pressure. It also results in him being easily cornered, where some of his unawareness seeps through as he misses simple opportunities to lay the ball off away from pressure.
In these scenarios, it would be ideal to see him incorporate more double movements that can create enough of a seperation to be able to receive on the half-turn.
In spite of this, many of his touches stepping back onto the ball are still pushed into space instead. So, even if he doesn’t reach a slightly looser touch, he has at least showed the intent and awareness of space to know where he can attack against the grain of his marker.
The attacker clearly operates better when things are moving at a one-touch pace; where he can combine with teammates sharply between the lines. In that respect, he’s more consistent with the quality of his short passing, and looks to instigate combinations as well as trying to be a backboard for them.
A fair amount of the time, these combinations can be so clever and well-executed, especially in linkups with Saka as their synergy continues to blossom.
In other situations, though, his passing, unfortunately, lacks quite a bit. This being amplified by his 62% passing accuracy in the league this season. It’s when he has time to ponder on the ball that he makes more frequent mistakes, such as inaccurate and overhit passes, and these all too often occur after making good defensive contributions inside his team’s own third.
When it comes to more elaborate passing opportunities, Martinelli isn’t necessarily without a good eye for a pass. His operation speed is capable of hitting impressive heights, as is his speed of release, but the weighting of attempted through ball still needs working on.
His decision-making is also insufficient at times. He’s guilty of playing too short and safe at times, instead of recognising and having the confidence to feed the ball to more dangerous runs centrally.
From the left
Although it doesn’t shine through in his 1.46 (successful) dribbling average in the league, Martinelli has the ability to be a truly lethal 1v1 player, particularly when he’s driving inwards from the left-wing.
From that area, he has such good approach play in the way he keeps his body open whilst cutting across the ball with constant, very slight touches that maintain the direction and momentum of it.
Crucially, it’s how he uses his body that creates key separations: by being so aggressive in how he feints without moving the ball in a readable fashion, it sells defenders, which allows him to shift inside or outside so dynamically. It’s that sleight of hand, so to speak, that makes defenders nervous of committing to an early challenge, even when he’s doubled up on.
His willingness to shift the ball onto his weaker foot is as great as it can be impairing. The aforementioned speed at which he accelerates with the ball from one or two touches makes it so easy for him to catch defenders out with bursts to the byline, but this also sees him refuse to capitalise on opportunities to just as easily cut in to fire at goal. Because of this, his shooting stats stand at a substandard 2.03 per 90 across the league and Europa League this season.
Through the middle
Martinelli maintains a similar approach centrally which can both benefit and hinder him.
The frequency of his touches and how he cuts across the ball with his right foot allows him to adjust the path of the ball so sharply, in ways that can eliminate opponents just as easily as they can cause him to get the ball caught under his feet. The pace that comes with this is what makes each attempt so piercing.
However, his technique means he leaves the ball very exposed on the outside, so he has to be very sharp with his touches to avoid easy challenges onto him towards there. It’s not as though he uses his body much better when being pressured from the opposite side, either. In that respect, he could do more to use opponents as a way of rolling off them to evade pressure.
Another key differential between his approach from the two locations is how he uses his head. From the left, his open-bodied stance sees him easily able to get his head up at the same time and assess where his teammates are. In contrast, he keeps his head locked firmly to the ground for many of his ball runs through the centre, which naturally restricts his awareness of teammates and the openings around him, and can consequently result in him running the ball into cul-de-sacs.
At the moment, it’s hard to definitively say whether he’s cut out to be a central dribbler but his agility, burst, improvisation, change of direction, and – most of all – his initiative to attack space offer him the tools to be able to do so. But those missing links are crucial in whether he’s cut out to be one, particularly in relation to his awareness.
From the right
From the right is probably where it’s at its worst. Although this is based on a minuscule sample, Martinelli’s lack of confidence to square up in the same fashion effects his ability to take on his man.
On this side, he’s too quick to shut off the angles inside – limiting himself to spaces directly ahead and outside of him. This also results in predictable forward touches that then rely on him beating his man for pace, only with the option of a cutback.
With more room to breathe, the 19-year-old has on many occasions showcased his outstanding pace with the ball at his feet.
It can’t be denied that, despite often taking the ball on well in his stride, his proceeding touch/touches that are aimed heavily into space can be a big let-down. However, as best displayed in his amazingly persistent ball-run for his memorable leveller at Stamford Bridge, the accuracy and speed of how he carries the ball when his touches are so close into his body is remarkable.
Martinelli hasn’t been a prolific creator in the league by any stretch – highlighted by his 0.03 open play xG per90, as well as his limp key pass total of 2 (overall).
However, this is not to say he’s incapable of producing quality chances for teammates, as is evident from the 4 assists he’s racked up in the 7 90s he’s played across the Europa League (3) and Carabao Cup (1). And, if you look more deeply at how he plays, he has the potential to create at a much more prolific rate.
Revolving around the previously alluded to explosivity of his dribbling, the teenager frequently finds himself getting to the byline and confidently aiming to pull balls back using his weaker foot. Since opponents don’t expect him to go to his weaker side, it makes creating gaps all the easier for him.
His final ball from those positions, though, can leave a lot to be desired. In earlier appearances, he got his head up fairly consistently to find teammates with accuracy on the cutback
However, in more recent performances, he’s delivered the same ball repeatedly without success – often boasting pace but always straight at the line of the opposition defence, and at a good height to be able to head it away from the grasp of any of his teammates.
At the moment, he could do with varying the height and placement of his crosses. In particular, aiming for the line across the face of goal could be a valuable type of delivery to add to his arsenal. No pun intended.
In many of his 1v1s heading towards the side of the box, he wouldn’t be ill-advised to cut in and go for goal. Increasing the volume of his shots is something that he should easily be able to improve.
Right now, the inconsistency of the quality of his non-goal finishes isn’t up to scratch. Although his finishing can be truly emphatic – both with his head and with his feet – it’s clear to see why his confidence lacks. His poor choice of timing makes it difficult for him to execute the shots he does actually take on.
Sometimes his foot will get wedged too far under the ball, raising it too high, or he’ll hit through it at an angle too skewed, making it destined to end wide of the goal.
Key to his attacking success is just that knack he has of being in the right place at the right time – finding those gaps constantly. Moreover, his coolness under pressure for big chances and how emphatic his finishes are subverts expectation given his lacking confidence in other shooting areas.
Whatever Martinelli lacks in the offensive department he makes up for defensively. The kid is a phenomenal worker out of possession in almost all respects.
From the front, he’s so energetic and is incredibly intelligent in the way he curves his presses to correctly direct play. Despite initially being beaten by simple passes into blind-sided opponents whom he hadn’t scanned for, the necessary defensive awareness has since come into his game as the season has progressed. He now regularly checks every angle and judges impeccably when it’s best to step out and when it’s best to hold his position.
What’s more, he doesn’t overcommit like many attackers do. Even with a quite narrow, forward-facing start – as opposed to a more flexible, side-on stance – he appropriately slows down just before reaching his opponent so not to be taken out by sharp turns against the grain. From this, he also springs back off his planted foot so that he can recover against combinative runs and just to generally follow the ball in whichever direction it takes him.
His 5.13 pressure regains per 90 in the league this season ranks in the 99th percentile for attacking midfielders/wingers.
As a result, he doesn’t accumulate many fouls nor receives many bookings. And even when he is caught out, he doesn’t let his head drop; he recovers quickly and goes again, much like in attack.
Just like in attack, also, he’s so alert to any loose balls. The way he anticipates these by leaping in front of possible exiting options for the ball-holder forces so many problems.
Again, Martinelli is quick onto the scene when the ball is turned over high up the pitch. In spite of an often narrow body shape that makes shifting from side-to-side mid-run more difficult, the sheer pace on display and his reading of the game make him a menace to escape the clutches of.
If the youngster is guilty of anything, it’s his positioning when the ball is on the far side. In those instances, he slacks off there more than anywhere else and tends to linger up the pitch.
But from these hovering, high up positions, he also relishes the chance to press backwards in on opposition ball-carriers. That fire in his belly sees him sprint to squeeze the space between attack and defence on his side so often, and he does is it with such great control to regain possession.
Up and down the pitch, he’s not afraid to get his foot in from any which direction, and the majority of the time he’s successful. He scarcely oversteps the mark by going through his opponent, instead, being equally aggressive but in a more measured fashion.
Across the league and Europe this season, Martinelli has made 1.98 possession adjusted tackles per 90, which is quite high even in the ranks for defensive midfielders, let alone for an attacker.
Defending in his own third
When the ball is down his side, Martinelli works consistently to get back in support of his wide teammate. Just as alluded to above, he’s always on the case of his opponents but without overstepping the mark. He’s become increasingly alert to underlaps and to the positions of opposing attackers.
Most impressive is the enthusiasm and relentlessness of how he presses backward passes. They’re a key trigger for him and he appreciates the opportunity it presents to strike fear into the ball-holders’ eyes as they then scramble to weight their passes correctly, subsequently forcing them to play the long way around to the other side, which affords his team’s defensive shape time to shift across.
When it comes to 1v1 defending, it’s not much of a surprise that he isn’t a specialist. Given that he’s a forward, it’s fair to give him a pass, but what remains an impressive feature is how he’s clearly soaked up the information given to him on which direction to show his opponent to. As highlighted below, it’s what type of body shape you have that can essentially void whatever your directional approach might’ve been.
Gabriel Martinelli’s energetic persona is infectious, particularly from a fans point of view. He’s electrifying at his best, even if, understandably, a little frustrating at times. But that’s more than what can be said for many central attackers who become easily lost in games. It’s a joy to watch him put in so many consistently impressive performances.
As is rather perfectly encapsulated by the radar from his small sample of games in the Premier League this season, courtesy of StatsBomb, the Brazilian’s figures configure quite perfectly with the reality.
It highlights his lack of shot-taking, so too the extent of their average quality due to this apparent reluctance. They also illustrate his impressive xG per 90, his presence in the box, and raise the point of his poorer contributions with the ball.
For what might seem like a fairly weak radar is anything but considering his age, his momentous shift in home life, and how easy it is to foresee him directly improving in just about all of those aspects.
Moving forwards, positionally, he, in my opinion, is best suited to almost any kind of left-sided role, revolving around the left halfspace. His playing style and what he’s capable of seems quite comparable to the role Timo Werner possessed at Leipzig under Julian Nagelsmann this campaign. Although he has shown far fewer signs of being as adept as Timo in offering to and manipulating the ball with forward passing from deep, there are so many other characteristics that could be used to maximise the Brazilian’s potentially special level of output.
In spite of him being a stronger threat from the left side, it still feels as though you could place him anywhere across the central lanes and he’ll have no problem making a nuisance of himself – exploiting all the possible gaps there are to exploit in the opposition’s defence. You would imagine this to be the case having considered the historically poor level of attacking output from Arsenal this season, in addition to the tossing and turning of managers.
It’s such a shame that he suffered such a severe injury and can’t offer his services until the new year now, especially since he could comfortably fit into the role Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang currently facilitates in Arteta’s 3-4-3/3-4-1-2 setup. Until then, I’m on tenterhooks to see how the kid from São Paulo develops at this club with such exciting potential attached to his name.
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