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Gabriel Martinelli deserves to be a starter

Arsenal has a wealth of attacking options, but despite them all, the young Brazilian starlet Gabriel Martinelli has proven his right to be a starter.

When Arsenal has struggled in the 2019-20 season, there isn’t a lone blunder that could be fixed to make the team perfect. Sure, you could say the central midfield has been the most obvious point of weakness. But so has the defense, both central and occasionally the outside. There have also been creativity and production issues in the attack, and a need for more consistent goal-scoring outside of Pierre-Emerick Abubameyang remains.

While it is easy to point out the flaws, it is just as easy to overlook the encouraging details. One element that Gooners should take away from this season is the emergence of Gabriel Martinelli.

He smashed onto the scene as one of the most talented teenage footballers in the world. Martinelli made his case as a serial goal-scorer in the Europa League and League Cup. In his first start as a Gunner, he scored a brace in an EFL match against Nottingham Forest. He followed his outstanding debut with two more goals in his second start, this time in the Europa League against Standard Liege. Then, in another League Cup tie, he scored a third brace against Liverpool. This was enough to win him Arsenal’s player of the month in October, and for Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp to call him “a talent of the century.”

Arsenal must commit to starting Gabriel Martinelli

It wasn’t long after that Martinelli was named to Arsenal’s starting 11 for a Premier League matchup. His first start came against West Ham in December, when Freddie Ljunberg was acting as the stand-in manager. This came at the same time as Alexandre Lacazette’s slump. Down 1-0 away from home, Martinelli scored a goal to put Arsenal back in the game. This kickstarted a 3-1 comeback victory for the club.

The Brazilian 18-year-old produced numerous unforgettable moments during an Arsenal season that is, well, forgettable. His 70 yard sprint which led to a poised goal against Chelsea was undoubtedly one of those moments. Down to a 10-man side at Stamford Bridge, the teenager showed the nerve of a veteran striker when he tucked away a goal to tie the game.

As was on display during his end-to-end goal, Martinelli’s composer sets him apart from other young talents. He possesses the skill to make dazzling plays on the ball, but his tranquility when dribbling, shooting, or passing is special. It looks like he is fluttering when the ball is at his feet, his control stays intact even though he is darting past defenders.

He also stays calm inside the opposing penalty area. Many times, you see young players become eager or flustered while in dangerous attacking positions. Shots are rushed, eyes are glued to the ground, and chances are missed. Martinelli showed his natural footballing IQ this year, especially while in these situations.

For example, in Arsenal’s Europa League encounter with Standard Liege, he made scoring a goal look easy after finding himself too deep towards the goal line. Surrounded by defenders, he took a calm touch away from goal, then struck a shot into the side-net for his second of the game.

He can create for himself, but Martinelli seems to have a knack for coming up on the end of crosses. At times it has almost looked like the ball is being pulled toward his head like a magnet. This is not by coincidence; his timely runs in front and behind defenders set him on the trajectory to be in the perfect spots for both crosses and rebounds. His relentless motor can be attributed to him popping up in dangerous areas.

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Much like other aspects of his game, his work rate is on another level. Playing on the left-wing, he posed a huge threat as an attacker but also as a major contributor to defense. It was noticeable in games he started, as he would often pester opposing attackers to win back possession. He made 34 tackles in only 26 matches. Compared to Arsenal’s other wingers such as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe, Martinelli won more tackles even though he played fewer games.

His help in the defensive third is noticeable, but his contribution is truly displayed offensively. Martinelli made 24 shot-creating actions in all competitions, averaging about 2 per game. This came in only 16.7 full 90 minutes played. He isn’t afraid to take shots, either, taking almost three shots per 90 minutes in all competitions. The substantial amount of shots he took paid off, too, since he scored about one goal in every four he took.

Compared to some of the other attacking players, Martinelli was much more of a threat with the ball at his feet. Martinelli attempted 50 total dribbles and passed 24 defenders, Lacazette attempted 44 and passed 27, and Nketiah only attempted four and dribbled past two. While Martinelli passed a few less than Lacazette, he covered more total distance while doing so. He also had 34 miscontrolled passes versus Lacazette’s 58, and 29 dispossessions versus Lacazette’s 40. Lacazette may be more enticing as a starter at the moment due to his link with Aubameyang and his experience, but his contributions dwindled this season. Also, with Aubameyang potentially out the door this summer, Martinelli could establish himself as the reliable choice to start at left-wing, or even at Lacazette’s position up top.

To make even more of a claim as Arsenal’s future, Martinelli has exhibited solid collaboration with some other young players on the team. He had clear connections with both Bukayo Saka and Kieran Tierney, scoring multiple goals off crosses from both. In a Reddit AMA with Tierney, the left-back had nothing but praise for Martinelli.

 Who was the player you were most blown away by during your first few training sessions?

Gabriel Martinelli. When I first did a full training session with the team I was put up against him and the intensity of his play was honestly mind-blowing and I thought to myself: this is the standard I need to be at to play for Arsenal.

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Camaraderie between Arsenal’s youngsters could be huge for the club moving forward. Some of the veteran players like Aubameyang, Lacazette, and Mesut Ozil could be on the way out as soon as this summer. A shift in the team’s core seems inevitable, and Martinelli could be at the center.

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