“I’m not the Messiah!” “I say you are, Lord, and I should know – I’ve followed a few.” – Monty Python’s Life of Brian

Has a goal ever looked so breathtakingly easy and ludicrously difficult all at once? As Gabriel Martinelli gathered the ball in his own half on Tuesday night, he found himself all on his own, 80 yards from goal, with N’Golo Kanté blocking his path. And yet within a few seconds the ball was rolling past Kepa Arrizabalaga into the Chelsea net, the 18-year-old Martinelli having simply run the length of the field in a very fast straight line, dumping perhaps the world’s best covering midfielder on his backside in the process. You know, as you do.

Somehow, it feels pointless trying to piece together the sequence of events linking these two tableaux. Certainly you sense Arsenal fans will not be unduly troubling themselves with the finer details of Martinelli’s equaliser against Chelsea: the sizeable slice of fortune by which a heavy touch leads to a clear run on goal by dint of a calamitous turn and slip from Kanté, who looks like a player desperately short of form and confidence. All that really matters, for our current purposes, is that Arsenal were 1-0 down with 10 men. And then, Martinelli. And then … well, perhaps this is the exciting part.

Has a goal so seemingly random and fortuitous felt so inescapably preordained? All night there had been a sort of humming energy to Martinelli, a whirring of the gears, the beating of a restless heart. He pressed tirelessly. He tried to carve out openings. He berated teammates when they failed to put the ball where he wanted it. Even as the minutes began to tick away on a night that seemed destined to be the latest chapter in Arsenal’s banter era – from the comedy dismissal of David Luiz to the sight of Mesut Özil playing holding midfield – Martinelli obstinately refused to follow the script.

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Adding to the sense of predestination was the fact that he wasn’t even meant to be on the pitch. Following David Luiz’s dismissal, Arteta was considering sacrificing Martinelli for a defender. Rob Holding was stretched and stripped and ready on the sideline. At the last second, however, Arteta changed his mind. He moved Granit Xhaka back into defence and left all his attacking players on the pitch. “I didn’t want to send that message to the team,” he would later say. “I wanted to see how they could respond [to the sending-off]. I didn’t want to make a decision that didn’t let them decide for themselves.”


Arteta praises Arsenal’s ‘spirit, fight and leadership’ after coming back to draw at Chelsea – video

And so, has a goal ever felt quite so germinal, quite so invigorating, quite so startlingly emblematic of a corner being turned? These are, of course, early days in the Arteta era: a time of promise and renewal, when moral victories are still being accepted in lieu of the real thing. Even so, it was possible to see in Arsenal’s double comeback a faint outline of how the Arteta revolution might work in practice: a revolution not just of tactics but of tone, and one embodied by their brilliant, industrious Brazilian.

In notching his 10th goal of the season, Martinelli became the first teenager to reach that mark for Arsenal since Nicolas Anelka more than two decades ago, and the parallels between the two are more than superficial. For all the goals Anelka contributed to the 1997-98 Double winners, his real impact was as a form of shock therapy: the pace and sophistication, the power and stubbornness, the clean break with the past, the freshness of youth and the boldness to trust it. More than any other player, it was Anelka who offered the clearest insight into Arsène Wenger’s vision. And in the same way, Arteta’s faith in Martinelli is perhaps the best indication of where he might want to take this flawed, talented team.

The popular trope of the bustling, street-reared South American striker is one that often obscures as much as it reveals. Equally, it’s hard not to credit Martinelli’s robustness and maturity with his tutelage in Brazilian grassroots football, where he was still playing until a few months ago. Eschewing the relative comforts of the Corinthians academy for the fourth-tier club Ituano at the age of 14, Martinelli’s career has been plotted out with a draughtsman’s precision: senior debut aged 16, first goal aged 17, the extra strength training, the private English lessons. Those in the know have long been convinced he is the real deal. Now, finally, the rest of the Premier League is getting a look.

Gabriel Martinelli



Gabriel Martinelli celebrates his goal with the away fans at Stamford Bridge. Is he the man to make the Arsenal faithful dream again? Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

This is the point at which we should habitually be tempering expectations, reminding ourselves that the path to glory is not always a clean straight line. Arsenal fans have been here many times before. Jay Simpson, after all, was the real deal once. So was Gedion Zelalem. So was Jeff Reine-Adélaïde. So was Ryo Miyaichi. The recent history of Arsenal’s talent pipeline is one of hype outpacing delivery, where young players too often crumble under the immense expectations invested in them.

And yet it’s hard to remember an Arsenal youngster making this sort of impact, this soon, this young. It’s hard to remember any player, let alone an 18-year-old, humiliating Kanté so comprehensively. Besides, Martinelli seems such a natural fit for what Arteta seems to want: relentless forward thrust, murderous aggression, tireless barrelling energy in attack and defence, a hunger verging on obsession. “He turns up early every day,” says Héctor Bellerín. “He’s the first player to press and the last player to leave. The goals are just a plus. He helps us in every single way.”

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In a way, every club needs their Martinelli, their Mason Greenwood, their Rhian Brewster: the player who points the way forward, who portends better times ahead. Over the long years of famine, Arsenal fans have learned to shackle their expectations, to temper their optimism, to make their peace with compromise and beige sensible choices. Their warm embrace of Martinelli suggests that a new dawn may be at hand: one in which they throw off the handbrake, throw open the curtains and let hope fly.



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