Martinelli and Saka the leading lights in Arsenal's unlikely title challenge but there is more to come

By Sports Desk November 05, 2022

Even the most ardent Arsenal supporter would struggle to convince you they could have envisaged their team making such a brilliant start to the season.

The idea of the Gunners being title challengers in the context of a disappointing end to the previous campaign, in which they were pipped for fourth by fierce rivals Tottenham having looked certainties for Champions League qualification, was pretty fanciful – even accounting for the shrewd signings of Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko from rivals Manchester City.

And yet, here we are – just two Premier League games to play before the top flight signs off for the World Cup break and Arsenal lead the way by two points from City having lost only once in 12 league outings.

Lovers of caveats will of course point out the blindingly obvious…we're still only in November. And indeed Arsenal do have questions to answer. Is their squad deep enough to take City all the way? Are they strong enough defensively to remain contenders?

But their success so far has been built on two longer term squad members, namely in the form of local favourite Bukayo Saka and the Brazilian flair of Gabriel Martinelli and they perhaps hold the key to sustaining their present position.

Their roles in this Arsenal team have been increasingly important with Arteta having to shuffle his pack following the exits of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette in January and June respectively.

The addition of Jesus has added significant star quality of course, but there is little doubt Saka and Martinelli have stepped up a gear so far this term.

Martinelli making his mark

In the North Bank at Emirates Stadium in August, Arsenal fans' chants were predominantly directed towards Hale End graduates Saka and Emile Smith Rowe.

But Smith Rowe's rise to first-team star has been tempered a little this term due to injuries, and Martinelli has grasped his opportunity at consistent playing time.

While the Brazilian made 29 Premier League appearances last season, he only completed 90 minutes on nine occasions and was subbed off in 11 of his 21 starts and received a red card against Wolves in February.

This season, Martinelli has started all 12 of Arsenal's league matches and has played the entirety of the game on eight occasions.

That has resulted in a significant improvement in front of goal, with Martinelli netting five times in 12 matches and sitting just one shy of the six-goal tally he achieved last term, adding two assists to boot.

Martinelli's involvement is up there with the best in the Premier League, standing eighth overall for the most involvements in attacking sequences (67) and ranking second in that regard for Arsenal, behind only Jesus (90).

Saka coming of age

On the opposing side, Arsenal continue to deploy Saka to expert effect, with the England international now in his fourth year as a regular fixture within the Gunners' ranks and showing real maturity at the age of 21.

While appearances have been plentiful, it has taken time for Saka to be integrated fully into his natural role after first making a breakthrough filling in at left-back, then featuring on the left-side of the attack.

Now in his favoured role on the right, Saka has shown his consistency with nine goal involvements in 12 matches (four goals, five assists). Only once in the past nine matches has Saka not registered a goal or an assist in the Premier League.

Managing Saka will be Arteta's biggest challenge given the amount of football he has played in the past four years and it is something that is clearly being considered, with Saka subbed off in seven of his 12 appearances this term.

Eyes will be cast towards the World Cup and Saka's important role for Gareth Southgate's side, which Arsenal fans may not find comfortable to watch given the injury risk to their star man – something that highlights the Gunners' need for depth beyond their first XI.

More to come

Settling into the side alongside Jesus, Arsenal's fluid front-three is one that is attracting envy across the Premier League and, worryingly for their opponents, the Gunners trio are still not at the peak of their powers.

For all their brilliance, neither Saka or Martinelli have quite managed to craft a deadly relationship with Jesus just yet – with Saka and Jesus yet to combine for an assist this season, while Jesus has laid on one for Martinelli.

In comparison, Martinelli has assisted Saka once, with two assists in the opposing direction. Last season, the pair did not combine for an assist.

The chances have been there, with Martinelli and Jesus combining for nine opportunities, while Saka and the Brazilian have combined for five. Improving those numbers will increase the chances of the assist tally also trending upwards.

The performances of Martin Odegaard, Granit Xhaka and Thomas Partey have had a major influence on the attack, but if Saka and Martinelli can continue to improve their own output then Arsenal can continue to provide the role of unlikely challengers and, who knows, perhaps even end a wait for title glory that stretches back to 2004.

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