Nine minutes. That’s all Gabriel Martinelli was given against Olympiacos.
Nine minutes to show why Mikel Arteta had been wrong to give him just 67 minutes of first team football since the turn of the year. Nine minutes to prove the Arsenal fans demanding he be given more game time were right. Nine minutes to prove he was still sharp as ever after almost a year of injury setbacks.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on the shoulders of a 19-year-old.
But as it turned out, nine minutes was all Martinelli needed.
It is so often the case that youngsters seeking to burst onto the scene through substitute appearances in the first team, end up being anonymous when they are given the chance. So nervous are they to put a foot wrong, that the brief cameo ends up passing them by.
Martinelli is not one of those youngsters though. It is no coincidence that whenever he seems to be on the pitch for Arsenal, action seems to follow.
Within a minute of coming on the Brazilian had been involved in the first yellow card of Oussenyou Ba whose subsequent moment of petulance saw him red carded and with it any slight chance Olympiacos had of an unlikely late comeback.
Moments later Martinelli picked the ball up again and drove towards the Greek champions’ box before fashioning a cross that a more confident Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would probably have put away.
These glimpses within five minutes of coming on were enough to leave an impression within the minds of most Arsenal fans watching on of why the 19-year-old deserved to be playing more often than he has been since his return from injury.
But what will have impressed Mikel Arteta most is the forward’s actions in the closing stages of the game that may well have gone under the radar.
Like with his mentor Pep Guardiola, starting positions are little more than words on a piece of paper for Arteta. As long as they are able to keep their positional integrity, then he is happy to see his side rotate where they find themselves on the pitch throughout the game.
So as Aubameyang found himself pulling to the left at points towards the end of the game as he sought to take advantage of the gaps left by Ba’s red card, it was Martinelli who took over the role in the centre forward position. This can be seen in the picture below (image courtesy of Wyscout )
Positioned between the centre backs with his body open to receive the ball and take it in his stride towards goal, Martinelli is showing the kind of movements and making the kind of runs typical of a ‘number nine.’
Arteta has already stated that this is where he views the Brazilian’s future in the long-term at Arsenal.
“[Martinelli is a] centre forward but with the squad balance that we have at the moment, to play on those positions on the left we don’t have five players,” Arteta told reporters after a 1-0 win over West Ham United a year ago.
“We are using one left-winger to play as a left-back [Saka] and he is not a left-back so we’re just trying to adapt to the situation that we have today, trying to create an amount of goal threat that can be successful for the team.
“That’s part of managing the players that we have.”
With this in mind Arteta will have been overjoyed with what he saw in the Brazilian’s brief cameo the other night.
At centre forward Martinelli has eight goals and assists in just nine appearances in comparison to five goal involvements in 14 on the left. It’s worth noting, of course, that many of those ‘number nine’ appearances came against lesser opposition in the Europa League, while his games in the Premier League have been almost exclusively on the left, but the signs are still promising.
Arteta has previously also described Aubameyang’s “natural” position as being on the left wing, so it’s easy to see how the two could dovetail next season to fulfil the Arsenal boss’ dream, if Alexandre Lacazette ends up leaving in the summer.
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It should be said that that is not set in stone however. Emile Smith Rowe has been impressive on the left forming a nice partnership with Martin Odegaard when played in that position, while Nicolas Pepe looks likely to see most of his game time come on that side with Bukayo Saka‘s continued excellence on the right.
But having as many attacking options as possible will be vital as the Gunners seek to get back to days of regular Champions League football that Arteta is aiming for.
In just nine minutes against Olympiacos, Martinelli showed that he can be one of the most dangerous among them.