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Magic Martinelli leaves Arteta facing crucial decision as Arsenal enter make-or-break week

08:00 BST 03/05/2021
Gabriel Martinelli Mikel Arteta Arsenal GFX
The Gunners teenager produced a sparkling display during Sunday's 2-0 win against Newcastle, but will that mean he earns a start against Villarreal?

The cries from Arsenal fans to see more of Gabriel Martinelli this season have been relentless.

There are few players within Mikel Arteta’s squad who are as popular as the young Brazilian, but Arsenal’s manager has remained relatively unmoved in the face of such strong public demand.

Prior to Sunday’s game at Newcastle, Martinelli had started just twice in the Premier League since the 0-0 draw with Manchester United on January 30, with each of his other eight appearances in 2021 having come off the bench.

For Arsenal fans, his lack of game time has been a huge frustration, and the teenager’s sparkling performance as the Gunners cruised to a confidence-building 2-0 success at St James’ Park only added to the sense of what might have been.

It is tough to say for certain that Arsenal’s season would have been different had Arteta used Martinelli more, but there is no doubt he would have injected far more energy and excitement into a campaign that has often been dismal at best.

In his last three starts in the Premier League, he has scored once and contributed an assist - with his exceptional cross picking out Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on Sunday for Arsenal’s second goal in what was a convincing win.

When Martinelli starts, he tends to make things happen. He did in the 3-0 victory at Sheffield United earlier this month when he scored, and he did again in the north east as he gave Newcastle full-back Jacob Murphy a torrid afternoon.

“Gabi is improving every week,” a delighted Arteta said after the victory on Tyneside. “He’s taking his minutes in the right way and he is developing in the way we all believe he can.

“He had an assist and it was an important moment. He had some good moments off the left and also playing as the nine as well."

Under Arteta this season, Arsenal have been a side who tend to attack in a slow and patient way.

They work to plans that are clearly constructed on the training ground, and at times the pace at which they move the ball can be frustrating as it allows teams to sit in and make themselves difficult to break down.

The Gunners have struggled with that at times, especially at home where they have found goals and wins difficult to come by in all competitions.

Arteta’s squad is packed full of players who are comfortable in possession, but ball carriers who have the ability to stretch teams and make things happen are few and far between.

Martinelli and Nicolas Pepe are perhaps the only two attackers who really possess those qualities and they have both found it difficult to earn themselves a regular spell of starts under Arteta.

Martinelli’s energy and drive can bring chaos to a game and for a manager like Arteta, who wants his team to play in a disciplined, well-drilled way, that could be a frustration.

“The manager doesn’t like him. It’s as simple as that,” said former Arsenal defender Martin Keown after Arteta opted to play without a striker in the first leg of the Europa League semi-final against Villarreal last Thursday night, despite Martinelli being available.

There are plenty who share the same opinion, but Arteta is adamant that is far from the case.

“Guys, I love Gabi so much,” the Spaniard said after Sunday’s win. “More than all of you together.

“Just look at how much he’s played in the last two years and how much he has played with me when he’s been available and then we can discuss that.

“This is just what happens. This debate is always happening when you don’t win. If it wasn’t him, it would be someone else. It would be [Alexandre] Lacazette, or Willian or Pepe.”

Martinelli’s performance against Newcastle will certainly do his chances of starting Arsenal’s crucial Europa League semi-final second leg against Villarreal no harm.

With Aubameyang having come through 78 minutes following his return from malaria, the Gunners skipper looks certain to lead the line against Unai Emery’s side this Thursday.

And with Bukayo Saka given the afternoon off at the weekend to prepare for the make-or-break tie, it looks like Arteta must decide between Pepe or Martinelli for the spot on the left-hand side of the attack, although there is also the option of using Emile Smith Rowe there.

Martinelli was a constant thorn in Newcastle’s side on Sunday afternoon, especially in the first half when Murphy could not get close to him as the Arsenal attacker got in down the left time and time again.

He ended the game having put in more open-play crosses (4) than anyone else and having competed in more duels (14) than any other Arsenal player. 

He made 16 sprints, five more than any his team-mates and set up Aubameyang to double the lead Mohamed Elneny had handed the visitors in the first half.

"Gabi did incredible work," gushed Aubameyang after the game. "He gave me the assist. All the credit to him."

This was a mature performance from Martinelli, one that perhaps highlighted the work that Arteta and the Arsenal coaching staff are doing with him on training ground behind closes doors.

The one downside was that he managed just one of the 19 shots Arsenal fired in on the Newcastle goal, raising the debate once again over whether he should be used out wide or as a central striker.

“I would like to develop him in both positions because I think he has the potential to do both,” Arteta said after the game.

For Martinelli the possibilities are endless, and it is perhaps easy to forget that he is just 19.

Jurgen Klopp once famously described him as the ‘talent of the century’ following his blistering start to life at Arsenal, and those are the expectation levels that Arteta has had to try and deal with since he arrived to replace Emery.

So far he has resisted the urge to unleash the teenager on a regular basis, but more performances like we saw against Newcastle will soon start making Martinelli’s claims for a starting spot increasingly difficult to ignore.