Mikel Arteta faces tough summer transfer dilemma as Gabriel Martinelli’s Arsenal form explained

Martinelli has struggled to reach the heights of his form for Arsenal last season

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 28: Gabriel Martinelli of Arsenal looks on during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal FC at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on April 28, 2024 in London, England. (Photo by Chloe Knott - Danehouse/Getty Images) (Photo by Chloe Knott - Danehouse/Getty Images)

It’s late on between Arsenal and Bournemouth. Martin Odegaard has just slipped Gabriel Martinelli in behind and the Brazilian is baring down on goal. With deadlines fast approaching journalists need barely look up from their laptops. The outcome is surely inevitable.

Something unexpected happens though. Instead of finishing with ease, Martinelli takes one touch, and then another, and then another, failing to ever really get the ball under his spell. The Bournemouth defenders usher him away from goal and, sensing the moment is lost, Martinelli throws himself to the floor in the vein hope of getting a penalty which is never going to be given.

Were this a one off incident, perhaps it could be ignored. But in consecutive games against Wolves, Chelsea, Tottenham and now Bournemouth, Martinelli has passed up similar opportunities. The Brazilian was Arsenal’s top scorer last season, but this time he has just eight goals in 42 appearances and his last Premier League start came in early March.

Of course injuries are a factor in that, but something else seems to be up with Martinelli.

The team

One of the biggest factors that Martinelli has had to deal with this season is the way Arsenal have evolved as a team.

Last season the Gunners’ left hand side was pretty fixed. Oleksandr Zinchenko was the left back. No player who started over 10 games played more progressive passes than the Ukrainian (9.66 per 90 as per fbref), and being on the left hand side of the pitch, Martinelli was the natural beneficiary. Contrastingly, Jakub Kiwior is down in 12th for the same metric this season.

Granit Xhaka meanwhile was the left eight. The Swiss international would constantly drift out to the left wing as we can see from his average heat map below.

Taking up these areas on the pitch gave Martinelli the chance to interchange positions in a fluid manner that enabled him to find space. On the other hand, Declan Rice, who has played the left eight role for much of this season, doesn’t tend to find himself on the left hand side of the box anywhere near as often, restricting Martinelli’s movement.

Kiwior, Rice and Havertz have been chosen for analysis here, but this is purely because they are the players who have played most frequently in the starting positions. When you consider that Martinelli has had to combine with Jurrien Timber, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Zinchenko, Emile Smith Rowe, Fabio Vieira, Trossard, Jesus and Nketiah as Arteta has chopped his left hand side, it’s little wonder that he’s looked lost at times.

This is particularly when you contrast it to the relative stability of the right hand side. Ben White, Martin Odegaard and Bukayo Saka have formed a settled unit, that has proved impossible for opposition defences to stop. The trio have played at least 3,783 minutes each this season. Compare that to the left hand side where Martinelli leads the way in terms of minutes played with 2,526 and the instability is plain to see.

Arsenal also have a natural right sided bias in their attack anyway, with 40% of their offensive play coming down that side of the pitch (as per WhoScored). This leaves Martinelli isolated on the left an awful lot of the time in the build up.

This is not to be critical of any of the ways that Arsenal have moved forward this season. Havertz and Rice in particular have been two of the Gunners’ star men. But their ascension into the team does seem to have come slightly at the cost of Martinelli’s effectiveness.

The opposition

Martinelli has also had to deal with the different ways opposition sides face Arsenal. Last season the Gunners were the Premier League’s surprise package, but this time around they are established heavyweights. Unsurprisingly teams have adapted accordingly.

Arsenal have faced defensive lines with an average depth of 39.09m this season. For context, the deepest average defensive line in the Premier League last season was Nottingham Forest with 40.98m (as per Markstatsclub). Arsenal’s field tilt has also increased from 66.31% to 70.86%. In other, words they’re spending far more time in the opposition defensive third.

Martinelli has suffered. All eight of his goals this season have come in moments of transition or when the opposition defence hasn’t been set. This proves what a dangerous player the Brazilian can be in open spaces, but for Arsenal those are few and far between. Martinelli is constantly being doubled up on by opposition defences, and without the ability to interchange with his teammates, he has found space, and therefore goals, hard to come by.

The player

Martinelli of course is not totally blameless in this sense. Facing deep blocks is part and parcel of being a forward at an elite team, and if he is to recover his form, then he will have to find away of getting through them.

One thing that Saka has mastered on the other side of the pitch, is the ability to go both ways. The England international has an obvious preference for his left foot, but can be clinical on his right, making him very difficult to defend one-vs-one. Martinelli on the other hand has proved a little easier to deal with.

Take this instance from one of his last Premier League starts against Newcastle back in February. The Brazilian picks the ball up on the left where he is being doubled up on by Sean Longstaff and Miguel Almiron.

Sensing he can’t cut on his right to shoot, Martinelli decides to go down the line on his left.

Martinelli does well to steal the yard on Longstaff to get the cross in, but his final ball is poor and easily cleared by Fabian Schar at the near post.

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