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Gabriel Martinelli & Arsenal: The deal owed everything to Man Utd

Gabriel Martinelli and Arsenal. Who needs a football director? Especially when you can have a Premier League rival put the idea into the player's head. Do all the groundwork. And then step in and sign the lad unopposed...

Officially Martinelli, the 17 year-old striker from Juninho's Ituano, missed this week's Paulista awards night as "he was on vacation". But those close to Ituano concede the player and his minders are now in Europe - potentially in London - to finalise a move to Arsenal. A move that was initiated, developed - but not completed - by Manchester United.

It was United which convinced Martinelli to snub bigger city clubs to sign for Ituano. It was United which urged the family to get the ball rolling on securing an Italian passport. And it was United which first brought a 16 year-old Martinelli to Europe to train and test with their U18 team.

Yet, when it came to the crunch, it was Arsenal which were prepared to meet Ituano's asking price: €10m. One unnamed English club had offered €3.5m. While all the major local players had expressed interest, without getting anywhere close to Ituano's valuation.

Controlling things from Ituano's end is Juninho. The former Middlesbrough captain - through his company - has been running Ituano for almost ten years. The sale of Martinelli representing his biggest piece of business to date. A negotiation owed much to United and their recommendation Martinelli move to Ituano ahead of the likes of Corinthians and Sao Paulo four years ago. Officially (again that phrase) the decision was based on the player's family relocating to the area. But local sources insist United suggested the move so their scouts could keep a closer watch - along with the greater chance of first team football.

"The choice for the Ituano was because it was the city that my parents chose to live," explained Martinelli recently. "In addition, the club has always shown interest in my football and appreciated my work, giving me great opportunities and career development."

It's those opportunities which led to Martinelli breaking into the first team this past season - and successfully. At that aforementioned Paulista awards night, he was to collect three individual gongs for his season's work.

Paulo Silvestri, just named Ituano's new managing director, said this week: "He's created a lot of attention and did well in the Copinha and Paulistao. For those who have been watching him, it was no surprise. He has aroused attention, by his age and speed with which he has emerged."

And while confirming that 'vacation' story, Silvestri conceded Martinelli may not be seen in a Red and Black shirt again.

"There is concrete interest from other teams, that's what we can talk about right now. He's on vacation, we do not count on him now, for the moment. He may return from vacation or not..."

So what will Arsenal be getting? Well, in his own words, Martinelli likens himself to Cristiano Ronaldo. A prolific goalscorer, the teen says he's at his best playing behind a centre-forward, facing the goal - and the opponent. Which is no surprise given his futsal education with Corinthians.

"I play as an attacker, but not necessarily a centre-forward. When I play this role, working centrally, I consider myself more of the modern style, with speed and a lot of movement," says Martinelli.

"I really like Cristiano Ronaldo, because I also do not like to play with my back to the marker holding the ball, like in the old fashion way. But if I have to, I also know how to act like that."

It's a style which not only brought him to the attention of United as a younger player, but also Barcelona where he spent time at La Masia.

"It was one of the best experiences I've had in football, besides being one of the biggest clubs in the world, the level of training demanded is very high and it made me grow a lot in my football, both in quality and tactics."

Eighteen months on and like United, while Barca also had kept in touch, it was Arsenal who moved decisively to clinch an agreement.

"To be honest we expected that to happen," revealed Marcos Casseb, one of Martinelli's prime advisers. "His evolution since last year has been very fast, he is above average. The initial planning was always for him to go straight to Europe."

Indeed, an unnamed director at Flamengo, having learned of the Arsenal deal, lamented the loss to Brazilian football Martinelli's transfer would represent.

"He's the best player for his age in the country," the Fla chief was quoted, which is some claim given among Martinelli's peers is the Real Madrid-owned Rodrygo Goes, now playing out his final weeks as a Santos player.

With his EU passport due next month. And turning 18 in June. Martinelli's move to the Gunners should be rubberstamped before preseason.

"For us at Ituano, it is gratifying to have the possibility of a direct transfer," adds Silvestri. "He's a player full of potential and capable of going abroad straight away."

And that country "abroad" will be England. The city will be London. The club Arsenal. And it's all thanks to the groundwork laid by a rival up north.

Chris Beattie
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Chris Beattie

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