Mikel Arteta told the story this past week of how Gabriel Martinelli, frustrated at being in and out of the Arsenal team for the past two seasons, would hammer at his door. “When he wasn’t playing he was all the time in my office, and every time showing me on the pitch how wrong I was,” he said.
“He was just a sad boy. He loves what he does so much, he’s so eager to do whatever it takes for him to play that he’s there all the time, pushing you and giving you the right reasons, in the right way, to give him more minutes.”
Martinelli’s output has stepped up a few notches in this season’s early weeks and the same can be said of Arsenal’s collective. Hunger has been matched by refinement: Arteta’s side can rip you apart but they can also gather themselves, take a breath and consider how to go again when one of the errors that still slip through seems likely to cost them.
That is how they defeated Fulham last Saturday after Aleksandar Mitrovic’s soft opener and they were similarly composed in immediately recovering from Douglas Luiz’s freakish equaliser for Aston Villa four days later.
It was Martinelli who secured all three points that night, finishing brilliantly at the far post to complete a move he had started, although the goal’s creator deserved high praise too. Bukayo Saka’s clipped, teasing delivery gave Martinelli the chance and the sequence was a reminder of the way Arsenal’s young wide men have risen above the wild undulations of recent years to produce virtually unparalleled results.
“It’s really rare what they’re doing at a big, big club,” Arteta said. “Really rare. If not, just give me examples of things that are happening [elsewhere].”
There are not many. On Monday Saka will turn 21, the same age as Martinelli. The pair are cultivated talents now: they have 129 Premier League starts between them and have seen off far more senior, expensive teammates such as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pépé. The assist Saka provided for Martinelli against Villa was his 17th in the top flight: only Cesc Fàbregas, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen had more to their name at the same age and it is the bracket in which his talents belong.
Perhaps the fact both players are yet to play Champions League football, with no European diversions whatsoever last season, has kept them a rung below such company in the popular consciousness. They have had to graft through Arsenal’s dog days during their apprenticeships while others wilted, and the satisfaction Arteta feels at seeing them come out on top, for what is now a front-footed and often scintillating team, is visible. “It’s just a joy to watch the freedom and personality he plays with,” he said of Martinelli.
Saka, in particular, took on a hefty burden in dragging Arsenal through the rollercoaster of tedium and turbulence experienced during late-stage Unai Emery and the earlier days of Arteta. “When I came in, it wasn’t easy: there were quite a few ups and downs,” he said, revealing a talent for understatement. “I learned to understand that this is football. It was the same at the start of last season, when we lost the first three games.”
This time Arsenal have won the opening five, their best start for 18 years, and a similar outcome at Manchester United on Sunday would suggest the maturity into a credible top-four outfit is for real. While a confused Chelsea flounder, Liverpool recalibrate and Tottenham flatter to deceive, Arteta’s primary gripe may be that they have not won some of those fixtures more comfortably.
He can be credited for devising a plan centred on youth and then holding his nerve, which is something their opponents at Old Trafford could usefully learn to do. Martinelli endured a sticky patch after missing the second half of 2020 with a knee injury, leading to some of those conflabs with the manager, but Arteta’s faith never wavered.
Saka looked tired towards the end of last season and will require judicious rotation this time around, in Europa League games at least, but the lack of specialist competition for his perch on the right leaves no question marks regarding who the man for a big occasion may be.
Arteta was illuminating when asked how to make a philosophy cut through the maelstrom of noise and disturbance surrounding a superpower that had been down on its luck. “For me, it’s about being consistent,” he said. “When you try to bring an idea, you share that vision with the football club. Then you take that direction and you go for it.
“Try to do something you’ve committed to with everybody. Because when it starts to move in other directions, I think that brings all the time a lot of chaos, a lot of uncertainties and a lack of clarity.
When that happens, normally everybody disperses and everything breaks away. We stick together, we believed in what we did and hopefully we can achieve it.”
They are on the right path: a unit that looks polished, now, rather than raw. Arteta laughed when asked whether Saka and Martinelli have become men, suggesting that generally comes with the settled family life that tends to arrive later in the 20s. But Saka accepts, at least to an extent, that he has been ahead of the curve. “I’ve played some important matches, and a lot of matches, which has accelerated my learning,” he said. “But there’s still a lot to learn.”
Saka was Arsenal’s top scorer last season with a relatively paltry 11 goals and it is notable that he is yet to get off the mark this time. He should have buried a glaring chance against Villa but that took on little relevance when he helped settle the game later.
The arrival of Gabriel Jesus, whose high-energy start has been accompanied by three goals, means he does not have to be all things to all people; Martinelli, who did not open his account until late November 2021, has scored the same number and is finding threatening positions more regularly. Arsenal look explosive across their attack and their tyros can operate with the handbrake off.
“The way he’s improved, the way he’s helping the team and the room for improvement he still has, it’s phenomenal,” Arteta said, again waxing lyrical about Martinelli. The Brazilian has pushed on to the extent that, even with the supremely capable Emile Smith Rowe as an understudy, he would be missed as much as Saka if misfortune befell him. As they travel to Manchester, though, the feelings emitting from Arsenal and their two bone fide wing stars are only positive.