In the 35th minute of Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Wolves, Oleksandr Zinchenko was dispossessed on the halfway line by Nelson Semedo. Arsenal briefly found themselves in retreat and under threat — until, that is, Gabriel Martinelli roared back to regain possession by his own corner flag.
On the touchline, Arsenal manager Mike Arteta clapped his hands above his head in delight.
Martinelli, however, was not done yet. Just 43 seconds later, he raced onto the end of a sweeping attacking move and bent a shot past the outstretched hand of Wolves substitute goalkeeper Daniel Bentley. Only the post denied him a superb goal.
It was an astonishing passage of play. But not for Arteta: he had seen it in training the day before.
“You have to see him in the training session yesterday because he did exactly the same,” Arteta told his post-match press conference. “I put on the video of it because the mentality is incredible. How much they want it.
“It was matchday +2 and -1 and they wanted to do it yesterday. So I had no doubt that they would want to do it today.”
The Briefing: Arsenal 2-1 Wolves – Odegaard’s goal of the season (so far) and sloppy Zinchenko
Martinelli, 22, exemplifies this iteration of Arteta’s Arsenal team: young, hungry and dogged in every phase of the game. A late defensive lapse made this 2-1 victory over Wolves look closer than it was. In truth, there was a considerable gulf between the two teams.
“I can only praise the players,” said Arteta. “They were excellent. We played against a really good side and generated so much and conceded almost nothing. The scoreline should have been very different. We were very unlucky because we hit the post three times, I think. At the end we made an error close to the goal – in the Premier League you get punished big time for that. Then at the end, it’s game on. Overall I’m really happy with how we performed again.”
Arsenal took the lead through Bukayo Saka, who is providing decisive moments with remarkable consistency. This strike took him to 18 goal contributions this season — eight goals and 10 assists from 20 club appearances. He has scored or assisted in 10 different Premier League games in 2023-24, a feat only Mohamed Salah can match.
On the opposite flank, however, Martinelli has not been quite so productive. He missed five games with a hamstring injury, but has just one Premier League goal so far this season, and only two assists. His record in Europe is better, with two goals and an assist from his three Champions League starts. Arsenal are finding that defences on the continent grant them more freedom than the awkward low-blocks they face in domestic competition.
Arteta seems unconcerned by Martinelli’s relatively low return this season. “I think he’s been unlucky in certain moments,” he said. “Today he had two big chances as well. The contribution he has in the team is immense. I’m really happy for him.”
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Nevertheless, the numbers speak for themselves. In last season’s push for the Premier League title, Martinelli was averaging 0.48 goals per game — practically one in two. This season, he is averaging a goal every 10 appearances.
There is a sense that while Saka has had to become more selfish for the benefit of the team, Martinelli has had to become more selfless.
While his work ethic has never been in question, he has had to adapt to Arteta’s strict structure and patterns of play. Martinelli arrived as an agent of chaos, full of running but occasionally lacking in discipline. When he plays for Brazil, he is granted more freedom to interchange positions, and that wilder side becomes apparent.
For his club, Martinelli is often instructed to hug the touchline, providing the team with width and stretching the opposition back line across the pitch, a point underlined by his touch map from the Wolves game.
It is reminiscent of how Pep Guardiola once tamed Thierry Henry. “Stay in your position, trust your teammate on the ball, and wait for the ball” — that’s how Henry recounted Guardiola’s instructions during an appearance on Sky Sports.
“Look at where I am [hugging the left touchline],” he said. “That position allowed [Andres] Iniesta to get the ball [in central midfield] because I’m occupying the right-back.”
If the great Henry can be coerced into holding the width, so can Martinelli.
The Brazilian also has to provide defensive support for left-back Zinchenko — which can be a fairly demanding role. This game showcased both the strengths and weakness of Zinchenko’s game. His assist for Martin Odegaard’s goal was a thing of beauty, but he also made a number of defensive errors, one of which led to Wolves’ late goal.
“You have to love him, how he is,” argued Arteta. “Every player has strengths and weaknesses. Alex has many more strengths. This happened and it can happen to any player.”
Martinelli was off the pitch by the time Wolves got their goal. Had he been there, he might well have zoomed in to bail out Zinchenko again.
Arteta believes that the goals will come, and the positioning can be taught. Martinelli’s desire, however, is as innate as it is invaluable.