In two consecutive matches, Arsenal have entered the final 30 minutes in desperate need of goals. On both occasions, Mikel Arteta has removed Gabriel Martinelli from the pitch. Against West Ham, it was after 64 minutes. Here against Fulham, it was after 67.
Martinelli? Hooked? Until recently, it would have been unthinkable to substitute the Brazilian with Arsenal in need of attacking spark. Over the past 18 months, few players in the league have been so consistent in causing problems for opposition defenders.
At this point of the season, though, there could be no objections. This is a sticky moment for Arsenal and no player appears to be more stuck between gears than the 22-year-old, who has scored just two goals in 18 league appearances this campaign. By comparison, he struck 15 goals in 36 league matches last season.
The problem has been made worse by the fact that Bukayo Saka, the other 22-year-old winger in Artea’s team, is also enduring an uncharacteristically challenging spell. Saka scored in this defeat at Fulham but it was his first goal in six matches, and he was a long way from his best. It was Saka who lost the ball in the build-up to Fulham’s equaliser.
This moment was always going to come for Arsenal. Players as young as Saka and Martinelli were always going to suffer dips in form. In many ways, it is remarkable these dips have taken this long to arrive. Saka, especially, has for years appeared immune to the usual fluctuations in performance that one would expect from a player of his age.
The issue for Arsenal is that Martinelli and Saka have both slumped at the same time. For so much of the last 18 months, one would step up when the other was struggling. If Saka did not drive Arsenal forward, Martinelli would. Now they are both looking towards each other, hoping the other can lead the way.
For Arteta, it must be a source of considerable concern. Even if, after five minutes at Craven Cottage, those two players combined for Saka’s goal. The Arsenal manager might have thought it was a sign that they were back to their best but, as the rest of the game proved, it was instead a brief moment of light on an otherwise bleak afternoon.
According to Opta figures, Martinelli did not attempt one take-on in the game. A player who has built his game on terrifying defenders, deciding against running at his full-back. From Arsenal’s perspective, it did not look — or feel — right.
Clearly, this is more complicated than Martinelli and Saka simply losing their spark. In many ways, their struggles are a reflection of the quality they have shown in recent seasons. Opponents are so frightened of Arsenal’s wingers that they double up, closing down the space and blocking their usual avenues.
It was no coincidence that Arsenal’s goal came from the one occasion in which Martinelli had space to run. Fulham, who were excellent throughout, did not make the same mistake twice.
Within the Arsenal fanbase, there are increasingly loud demands for a new striker. The counter-argument is that Arteta needs another winger – a player who can ease the burden on Saka and Martinelli, and provide a different option on the flanks.
Arsenal know they are short in these wide positions. Over the past 18 months they have made attempts to sign Pedro Neto from Wolves, Mykhailo Mudryk from Shakhtar Donetsk (before Chelsea hijacked the deal) and Raphinha, who moved to Barcelona from Leeds United. They also explored the possibility of signing Joao Felix from Atletico Madrid last January.
There is another winger in Arsenal’s squad: Reiss Nelson. There is little evidence to suggest, however, that he is capable of contributing regularly for a team with genuine ambitions of winning the Premier League title. Leandro Trossard, meanwhile, prefers to drift inside rather than stretch the game.
These back-to-back defeats have exposed some of the weaknesses in Arsenal’s squad. A centre-forward would be helpful, and so would another winger. More defensive cover would be appreciated, too. For now, though, Arteta can only work with what he has got. And Arsenal can only hope that Saka and Martinelli return to form soon