Every time Jurgen Klopp sees Gabriel Martinelli play, he cannot help but marvel.
The first time the Liverpool boss watched the Arsenal youngster in late 2019, he had just seen Martinelli score twice in a 5-5 Carabao Cup thriller at Anfield. The Brazilian forward was just 18 at the time, but Klopp described him as a “talent of the century”.
“He’s really unbelievable,” Klopp added. “So young, looks so mature already, is a proper threat. Yeah, he looks like a really decent player.
“I didn’t want to put any backpack [pressure] on his back with this thing but I just really like good football players and obviously he’s a very good one.”
Fast forward three years and Klopp’s prophecy looks to be coming true. Arsenal are flying at the top of the Premier League ahead of the visit of Liverpool on Super Sunday, with Martinelli’s form at the heart of their good play.
This season, the Brazilian is one of the most exciting wingers in the division – sitting at the top of the league’s rankings for successful dribbles with 20 – while only Kevin De Bruyne, Mohamed Salah and Bukayo Saka have created more chances than Martinelli this term. It is not bad company at all.
So is Martinelli on the way to greatness? The foundations are certainly there – but so is the mentality.
In the All or Nothing documentary which unveiled the behind-the-scenes story of last season’s campaign at the Emirates Stadium, Martinelli claimed the secret to becoming a “top player”- is the difference between working at 90 per cent and 100 per cent in training and matches.
That seems to be rubbing off on his Arsenal team-mates. Goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale revealed the Gunners now have an “eff it” mentality this season – to keep going and running with whatever happens, good or bad. It sounds like Martinelli’s philosophy and style of play.
“He’s so sharp, he’s so fast, he’s so aggressive,” said Arsenal assistant manager Steve Round in the documentary. “He trains every day like it’s his last day on Earth. He’s a diamond.”
Another popular Arsenal player at the moment in Granit Xhaka agrees. “Gabriel Martinelli has a lot to be one of the best,” said the midfielder after last Saturday’s 3-1 win over Tottenham.
“He goes 100mph. He has to push himself with how far he can go. He has the team and everything around to help him.”
It has not always been this plain sailing for Martinelli and that is where another Klopp quote on the Brazilian comes in.
“Little Martinelli, we will talk about this player in the future, I can promise,” said Klopp after Liverpool’s Carabao Cup semi-final win over Arsenal in January of this year. “If he is without major injuries, he will have a proper career.”
What Klopp should have remembered is Martinelli has already picked up a serious injury. A training-ground knee injury sustained at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in June 2020 ruled him out for six months. All the hard work since arriving at Arsenal for £6m from Brazilian minnows Ituano that previous summer had been reduced to ash.
Martinelli had to start again. In the first 11 months since returning from injury in December 2020, the young forward started just nine Premier League or European matches. The emergence of Emile Smith Rowe as an option on the Arsenal left did not help.
Nobody felt Martinelli’s frustration more than manager Mikel Arteta.
“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,” said the Arsenal boss in September.
“And the moment that we agreed that he was ready to do it, the way he has improved, the way he is helping the team and still the room for improvement he has is phenomenal.
“He’s just a sad boy [when he’s not playing]. He loves what he does. He’s so eager to do whatever it takes for him to play that he’s all the time there, pushing you and giving you the right reasons to give him more minutes. It’s just a joy to watch the freedom and personality that he plays with.”
Martinelli’s recovery from injury just makes his story even more impressive. Arsenal’s most recent speed demons to have picked up long-term injuries have never recovered their pace and power after their setbacks – Hector Bellerin, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to name a few.
Martinelli, meanwhile, has maintained – and even developed – his own powerful play.
How does Trent stop the in-form Martinelli?
It is the topic which has dominated a lot of Premier League and World Cup conversation. Is Trent Alexander-Arnold a good enough defender to be deemed top level? Well, Klopp was discussing this very subject six months ago, with Martinelli at the heart of the conversation.
Back in March, Liverpool had won 2-0 at Arsenal and the Gunners’ Brazilian winger had troubled Alexander-Arnold all game, even though he ended up on the winning side. At the time, Klopp was adamant about the Liverpool defender’s defensive capabilities, which have been questioned in recent weeks.
“Trent defended incredibly,” said Klopp in March. “Martinelli is such a talented boy. It’s really tricky.
“If anyone says Trent can’t defend, they should come to me and I’ll knock them down. I cannot hear that anymore, I don’t know what the boy has to do.”
As mentioned, Alexander-Arnold is under-fire after some poor Liverpool displays, which has resulted in further questions about whether he will make England’s World Cup squad for the Qatar World Cup.
The Liverpool right-back’s most recent Premier League display saw Brighton’s left-winger Leandro Trossard score a hat-trick in a 3-3 draw at Anfield – with Alexander-Arnold picked out by some pundits as being at fault for all three goals.
With Alexander-Arnold coming up against the “tricky” and in-form Martinelli once again at the Emirates this Sunday, Arsenal and Arteta would be foolish not to look at the space behind Alexander-Arnold on the Liverpool right – an area which Martinelli has operated in so effectively so far this season – as an area to target.
But what Alexander-Arnold must also remember is that Martinelli has a job on his hands to keep him quiet on Sunday, not just the other way round.
In January’s Carabao Cup semi-final between Arsenal and Liverpool, Martinelli once again proved to be a difficult challenge for Alexander-Arnold, but the England international came away from the game with two assists, a clean sheet and a spot in the final.
Both Arsenal and Liverpool are looking at Sunday’s match as pivotal points in their seasons. The Gunners will see this as the ultimate acid test to see if they have replaced the Reds as title contenders to City, while Klopp’s side cannot afford another slip-up in their top-four battle, let alone their title credentials.
The Martinelli vs Alexander-Arnold battle is likely to be at the centre of this crucial Super Sunday clash.
Watch Arsenal vs Liverpool live on Super Sunday this weekend on Sky Sports Premier League, kick-off 4.30pm