The name of Gabriel Martinelli has regularly been on the lips of Arsenal fans in recent weeks, who are desperate to see the young Brazilian given more regular.
Just five Premier League appearances have been forthcoming for the 19-year-old this season, the last of which came in the goalless draw against Manchester United at the end of January.
His involvement has, of course, been heavily hampered by injury issues, with a knee injury meaning he had to wait until mid-December for his first appearance of the season.
Now back fit and looking to make an impression, Martinelli has found obstacles in his way in the form of team-mates Willian and Nicolas Pepe.
Martinelli has been an unused substitute in Arsenal‘s last five Premier League matches, with Willian given the nod ahead of him on two occasions and then named as a starter in Sunday’s victory over Leicester City.
Meanwhile, Nicolas Pepe has been a starter in four of those five matches, making it clear where Martinelli is positioned in the pecking order.
Frustrations for Arsenal supporters orientated around the fact that Pepe and Willian were not contributing as many would expect, with fans keen to see Martinelli given his chance following his impressive debut campaign last year after his arrival from Ituano.
Against Leicester and Benfica, however, the pendulum has swung with Willian contributing three assists in two matches, following on from Pepe’s own upturn in form.
Arteta documented this after the victory over Benfica last week, explaining that he has an array of attacking options at the club.
“Everybody has raised the level in recent weeks,” he said. “Since Christmas the front players have given us something different.
“Laca [Alexandre Lacazette] has given us some really good spells, Nicolas Pepe is the same. I was really pleased with Willian yesterday because of the way he trains and he is starting to produce in games. Everybody has to step up in games and create big moments because the front players at the end have to be the ones who decide it for us.”
The Spaniard retains faith in Martinelli though, throwing down the gauntlet for him to earn his chances. Now, it’s down to him to take them. If he does, further opportunities are likely to present themselves.
Of course, how many chances he receives may depend significantly on the form and fitness of those ahead of him in the pecking order but, while it might restrict him, the improved performances of Pepe and Willian can be beneficial to the teenager.
Expectations for the Brazilian talent have been extremely high following 10 goals in his inaugural campaign in English football, so much so that when Arsenal were struggling in the opening months of the season, fans were looking ahead to Martinelli’s return to provide a much-needed boost.
In reality, it was always going to be difficult for Martinelli to hit the ground running after around 10 months without featuring in the first-team and even now, Arteta may admit that his return against Everton was perhaps premature.
It’s now also been over a year since Martinelli’s last goal, with it having been difficult for him to find rhythm with just three starts this season and only two of them back-to-back. At some stage, that record, however unfairly, will be used against him.
Still just 19, Martinelli has a long, fruitful career ahead of him and that sort of pressure is not good for a player of his age. Thankfully, the form of those ahead of him can allow him to build a second wind at the club.
If Pepe, Willian and Bukayo Saka continue to perform from the start, Martinelli can build his fitness off the bench without the pressure of needing to provide an immediate impact. Effectively, he is back to square one at his Arsenal career – though with the added benefit of everyone knowing what he is capable of.
It’s the sort of approach which has allowed Emile Smith Rowe to excel this season. His first opportunities of the campaign following injury came in two substitute appearances in the Europa League, followed by his first start in the competition and then another opportunity in the Carabao Cup defeat to Manchester City.
Boxing Day then brought a Premier League opportunity, where the Hale End graduate put in an eye-catching display against Chelsea and has been a staple of Mikel Arteta’s starting line-up ever since.
For Martinelli, that stage in the Europa League has passed and the exit from the FA Cup has not helped but he could get his own opportunity to grow at the back-end of the season.
Currently eight-points adrift of the top-four, there is still a slim chance of securing Champions League football next season via the Premier League, but the next four matches against Burnley, Tottenham, West Ham and Liverpool will be decisive.
Negative results in those matches will throw a spanner in the works and would ultimately kill off any chance of sneaking into the top-four, effectively putting all focus on the push for Europa League glory – providing the Gunners see off Olympiacos.
At the start of April, Arsenal’s final months of the season will be much, much clearer and there will still be plenty of Premier League matches remaining – including a number of games where Martinelli can be handed a start to prepare him for next season.
In reality, that is what Martinelli should now be looking at. He is unlikely to be the man to save Arsenal’s season or to propel them to Europa League glory but that was always unlikely to be the case. Next term, however, is a far different story.
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With Alexandre Lacazette likely to leave as he enters the final year of his contract and Eddie Nketiah in the same boat, Arsenal’s forward ranks will be depleted – especially with Folarin Balogun, the next in line amongst the youngsters, also seemingly on his way out.
While there may be a new signing in this area, with Celtic striker Odsonne Edouard repeatedly being linked with a move to the Emirates Stadium, the Gunners will also need further depth – and that is where Martinelli can shine, with the Brazilian’s versatility also having an added benefit.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang turns 32 in June and Martinelli is the leading candidate to take the mantle as the Gunners’ main man but, for now, fans must be patient.