TFN Editor Hugo Greenhalgh on Matteo Guendouzi’s brilliant performance against Tottenham Hotspur…
Sunday gave the world another thrilling North London Derby. In what is fast becoming one of the most entertaining fixtures in world football, it was hard to think of a player at the Emirates yesterday who for reasons good or bad, did not have some sort of an impact on the final result.
It was the 20-year-old with curly hair and the infectious smile who was perhaps the most influential of all. Matteo Guendouzi continues to ooze an impressive combination of quality and maturity beyond his years, and his assist for Arsenal’s equaliser was no less than his performance deserved.
While Granit Xhaka, supposedly a figure of authority and the man entrusted with armband by Unai Emery, looked like a fish out of water and a calamity waiting to happen, Guendouzi showed poise and purpose in the midfield. Xhaka gave away seven fouls, including the rash challenge on Son for Spurs’ penalty which allowed them to affirm their stake in the game. Meanwhile Guendouzi rarely ever went to ground; it’s more his style to make a standing challenge, win back the ball and look to play the pass.
Dressing rooms at any level are often divided along boundaries of experience. Elder statesman command respect and will not always be inclined to fraternise with younger players. Guendouzi’s confidence and attitude means he can cross those barriers. Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, two players at the top of the pile at Arsenal, who can count scores of career appearances and goals to their names, both see Guendouzi as an equal rather than just a junior member of the squad.
They are Emery’s lieutenants and their opinions count for a lot. When you watch Guendouzi put in a performance like he did yesterday, working alongside seasoned players and delivering the kind of service he did, it speaks of a deeper trust and of teammates acting on the same wavelength.
Still so fresh into his senior playing career, former coaches speak of Guendouzi’s hunger and his desire for self-improvement. “He loves football, he eats football, drinks football sleeps football,” Sylvain Ripoll, his manager at Lorient, said last year. For Emery, who preaches the importance of the training ground and of players who do their homework, he must be a dream to work with. “This year he’s starting to give us one step more tactically with the ball. He gives us a lot of control”, the Spaniard said after yesterday’s game.
There is something reassuring about watching a precocious, young French footballer breaking through at Arsenal that – inevitably – harks back to the Wenger era and there are obvious parallels with past players. Lucas Torreira may have been the recipient of Patrick Vieira’s chant, but it is Guendouzi who is now carrying the mantle of being Arsenal’s most effective midfielder. He is undroppable.
Guendouzi plays with a touch of class and a passing range reminiscent of Vieira in his pomp, but he also shares his leadership qualities. Remember his debut against Manchester City on the opening day of last season, when Emery decided to throw him in at the deep end? It was a baptism of fire against the Champions – both for player and manager – but Guendouzi’s confidence shone through.
He was never afraid to ask for the ball, or to attempt something ambitious because of his faith in his own ability. He seems to tackle every game with unfazed determination, as if he does not care whether he is playing against Ligue 2 relegation fodder or Pep Guardiola’s City. 50 odd appearances on for Arsenal and that same drive has remained a constant feature of his displays.
That’s why we shouldn’t call this a “coming of age” performance. The most exciting thing about Guendouzi is that this wasn’t unexpected. Anyone who watched the young Frenchman last season – or even just in Arsenal’s other games so far this year – will have known he had this level of tenacity up his sleeve. He is already so far along in development, it’s almost irrelevant to talk about age.
With the regrettable exit of Aaron Ramsey this summer and the ongoing angst around what Granit Xhaka actually brings to the table, Arsenal are crying out for a man to marshall their midfield. For the time being, no one looks more capable than Matteo Guendouzi.