Arsenal's Gabriel Martinelli on the knee injury hell that 'broke' him
Arsenal’s Brazilian star Gabriel Martinelli on the injury hell that ‘broke’ him and left him in tears, training at Manchester United as a kid and returning to save the Gunners’ season
- Arsenal forward Gabriel Martinelli has revealed his injury woes from last season
- The wonderkid, 19, scored 10 goals in his debut campaign in English football
- Brazil U23 international Martinelli has set his sights on playing for Brazil in future
- But he is first focused on helping Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal in the Premier League
For Gabriel Martinelli the passion and the pain of football have always been closely aligned.
When he was young, at the family home in Guarulhos, Sao Paulo, when the ball was some kind of a best friend, he used to play near a bookcase with glass doors.
Every so often, Martinelli would kick the ball and break the glass pane, and his mother Elizabete would replace the glass and advise her boy: ‘My son, you’ll end up getting hurt.’
Arsenal forward Gabriel Martinelli has spoken out about his injury hell since last season
And he did. ‘One time, I was playing and, of course, the ball broke all the glass,’ Martinelli laughs. ‘A splinter from the glass got stuck in one of my feet and it hurt.
‘I still have the scar on my left foot to prove that it happened. But I didn’t stop playing. I kept playing. The only thing that changed was, after a while, mum stopped installing the glass there.’
The return of the Brazilian 19-year-old after six months out with a knee injury has been one of the most positive aspects of a gloomy start to the campaign for Arsenal. It coincided with an upturn in form for Mikel Arteta’s team and three much-needed wins on the spin.
His energy and fearlessness have given the side new impetus and his infectious enthusiasm has helped lift the mood at the club ahead of Saturday evening’s FA Cup tie with Newcastle.
‘Mikel talked to me during my recovery,’ Martinelli tells Sportsmail. ‘Always calling me to know how I was, even when I returned to Brazil for a time in August. When the club needed me, he talked to me again, asking if I was feeling ready to play.
‘I said, yes. I still feel a bit of pain in the knee, but the doctors say that it is fine. I’ve not been able to play 90 minutes yet, but it also needs time. My focus is on getting better and helping Arsenal.’
The 19-year-old’s return from injury coincided with an upturn in form for Mikel Arteta’s team
Martinelli and his football were always together: at school during the mornings, when he played on the fields during the afternoon, as he practised futsal in the evening.
When he got home, his mother would tell him to study, which he tried. But she would find him sleeping on top of the books, dreaming of the goals he would score the next day.
His family lived in the city of Sao Paulo, where he played in the youth ranks for Corinthians until his father Joao got a job opportunity in Itu, a smaller city in the state, with a population of about 150,000.
When he moved, he chose to join Ituano, the strongest team in the area and with the best connections throughout Brazil. His ambition to become a professional footballer still burned.
Martinelli made headlines with a superb solo run and finish against Chelsea last campaign
Ituano, at the time, also had a close relationship with Manchester United. Martinelli and his family always envisaged him playing in Europe. From the age of about 13, the big European teams were interested in him.
United were one of the first to invite him to trials. He had scored 122 goals in futsal at Corinthians. At Ituano, he scored only four goals in his first season, but 15 the following year in just 19 games.
‘For three or four years, I used to practise at Manchester United,’ says Martinelli. ‘I would come to England, usually in the middle of the year, for about 15 or 20 days.
‘It was a great experience, because I could find how European players behaved, how they defend, how they attack, how fast it is in their game.
The goal was one of the teenager’s 10 strikes in all competitions during his first year at Arsenal
‘I improved a lot and brought it all back with me to Brazil, always trying to secure my place in the team. My dream was to play in Europe and these practices in England helped me do it.’
At 16, he signed as a professional for Ituano, and, in 2019, was named as the ‘revelation’ of Sao Paulo’s state championship and was named in the competition’s team of the year. He scored six goals. Despite their knowledge of him, United was not the club to make the best offer.
Arsenal paid a fee of around £6million to sign him from Ituano. They convinced him and his family to change their lives. At 18, he left Brazil for the opportunity of a lifetime, an opportunity to play professional football in the Premier League.
‘I could not say a word in English. Of course, I felt the pressure of this move, but I had to do it. It was my dream, my family’s dream. My mum and my father helped me a lot, always being by my side. I talk to them three, four times a day.’
Martinelli picked up a knee injury last year which would keep him out for around six months
Emiliano Martinez, the goalkeeper who left Arsenal for Aston Villa at the start of this season, was a huge help and influence on him. Martinez is an Argentine and Spanish is his first language but he also speaks fluent Portuguese.
‘Emi was always by my side,’ says Martinelli. ‘Telling me what the coaches were saying. He was always helping me. Also, me and centre back Gabriel Magalhaes have the support of David Luiz and Willian, part of a great Brazilian generation.’
Martinelli impressed on the pitch during his first season in London. He was awarded the club’s player of the month in October 2019 and he performed well against Chelsea, Vitoria de Guimaraes and Liverpool.
The former Ituano player has opened up on the mental anguish of suffering a long-term injury
Jurgen Klopp hailed him as the ‘talent of the century’ after his two goals in a 5-5 draw in the Carabao Cup, at Anfield, last season. Then the coronavirus virus struck and a knee injury in training, in June, brought his rapid progress to a halt.
‘I was about to receive the ball and felt a little pain on my knee,’ Martinelli recalls. ‘Not enough for me to stop practising, but, while we were on the finishing session, I told them that I was in pain. They told me to rest and, if I felt the pain the next day, to let them know.
‘When I woke up, I felt it but I was able to walk. I thought it was nothing at first, but it was a pain I’d never felt before. I went to the club for the examinations and they said it was not good and I would need surgery. It broke me. I cried a lot.’
Scans showed a tear in the cartilage in his left knee. His sadness, however, lasted just a week. He could not afford to lose time during his recovery and began to exercise well, eat well and prepare his mind well. He was eager to recover and the fans willed him back.
Arsenal were developing and changing under Arteta. They won the FA Cup beating Chelsea in August in the final. Martinelli was at Wembley to support his team-mates and at a celebration dinner. The pandemic meant there were no parties but, having taken part in the third round at Portsmouth, he received his first senior medal.
But the new season started badly and a lack of goals was one of the big problems. Arsenal were six without a win in the Premier League when Martinelli came on as a substitute for the game at Everton, last month.
It was his first senior appearance for nine months and, three days later, he started in a Carabao Cup quarter-final against Manchester City, creating the goal for Alexandre Lacazette in a 4-1 defeat.
Now it is three consecutive victories with Martinelli starting the first two, against Chelsea and Brighton, before sitting out the defeat of West Bromwich Albion. His return has certainly sparked a fire in the Gunners.
On Saturday it is the FA Cup as the holders face Newcastle, the opponents when the Brazilian made his first-team debut, in August 2019, as a late substitute for Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
‘We had a bad phase going on earlier in the season,’ says Martinelli. ‘But the players never stopped running for each other. We have this strength to play every game and try to win. Now, it is going better for us, but we need to keep that focus if we are to turn this into a great season.
‘I have so many dreams in my mind, such as representing Brazil, but first I need to focus on my recovery and help Arsenal with my football. I’ll think of the rest after I do that.’
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