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Gabriel Martinelli reignites Arsenal flame after spell in the cold

Brazilian’s first goal of the season was a cathartic breakthrough after difficult 18 months

Tom Kershaw
Monday 29 November 2021 07:14
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Arteta: 'An important bounce back' as Arsenal win 2-0 against Newcastle

It had been 676 days since Gabriel Martinelli picked up the ball deep in Arsenal’s half, put his head to the floor, and sprinted like nothing could stand in his way. In the space of a dozen hair-raising and disbelieving seconds, the 18-year-old covered almost 70 yards, caused N’Golo Kante to trip over his own ankles, and calmly finished the free-wheeling goal that would announce him to the world.

Back then, it felt like more than just a breakthrough. Martinelli’s 10th goal of that season was a landmark and a promise: of Mikel Arteta’s revolution coming alive and a refreshing new face at its forefront. After scoring two goals against Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp had already hailed the teenager as the “talent of the century”. But of course, sooner or later,  the world - let alone its most violent sporting microcosm that is Arsenal - has a habit of replacing beaten obstacles with bigger ones. Arteta’s project has progressed, unravelled, and rebuilt itself again. Martinelli, though, in large part through cruel misfortune, has been a peripheral feature.

Since returning from the knee injury that sidelined him for nine months, the burdens of frustration seemed to temper the flame that ignited at Stamford Bridge. Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe had leapt out in front; Nicolas Pepe idled ahead purely on the basis of his ludicrous price-tag; and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang occasionally started on Martinelli’s favoured left-wing, too. What had been a breakneck speed became a little stagnant, with Martinelli’s minutes restricted to bits and pieces off the bench. On rare starts, his urgency to impress worked against him, squeezing harder at a wet bar of soap, and just three goals in 30 appearances told of a player more familiar with football’s pitfalls searching for that younger, blither version of himself.

For that reason, Martinelli’s exquisite volley against Newcastle on Saturday, guiding Takehiro Tomiyasu’s looping cross into the far corner, just 93 seconds after coming on, can act as more than just a sharp reminder of his quality. There was a sense of catharsis to his celebrations; the initial ecstasy right after he scored, revelling in the sensation that had deprived him for so long; and then the relief that came afterwards, embracing a group of friends who’d made their way down to the front row at full-time.

Progress in football can be so fickle, decided by sliding doors moments beyond the control of any one individual. Any number of factors, from injuries to competing teammates, coaches to comfort in another country, can reshape and undo years of progress in almost an instant. The manner in which Martinelli stormed through the entrance two years ago carried an insistence that he wouldn’t be stopped. His development has been deterred but not defeated, and Saturday felt like another one of those small but decisive snapshots in time.

Gabriel Martinelli of Arsenal celebrates with his friends

“I am especially happy for Gabi because of how he behaves,” Arteta said afterwards. “He is patient but, at the same time, he is really pushing and challenging, and he makes every decision that you make even harder because he deserves more. I am really pleased because he really helped the team get the points. The technique [for the goal] is so top. When the ball is flying over your head, to keep the ball down and have that quality to finish, it is impressive.”

The goal was a form of vindication for Arteta, too. When Saka limped off, Arsenal’s coach turned to the Brazilian ahead of Pepe and has never shied away from taking such decisions. Emile Smith Rowe has always maintained faith over Martin Odegaard, despite the club’s lengthy pursuit of the Norwegian this summer. Nuno Tavares, who consistently counteracted his threat going forwards by firing wild shots into thin air like a drunk on a hunt, remained on the pitch after half-time despite the crowd’s discontent and produced the deft touch that finally unlocked Newcastle’s defence soon afterwards.

Of course, from a cynical standpoint, victory over a misery-riven Newcastle was always the minimum requirement, even with the caveat of Arsenal’s jarring setback at Anfield. But it was still another steady step in the right direction. Arsenal’s world is, at least for the time being, becoming increasingly and unnervingly calm. And for Martinelli, Saturday might just have set the stage for another sudden burst into the centre of it.

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