Matteo Guendouzi shapes as the signing that may come to define the relatively short, relatively fruitful era of Sven Mislintat at Arsenal.
Plucked for £7.2 million as an unknown from FC Lorient in Ligue 2, Guendouzi surpassed even the most positive outlooks for him in his first season at the Emirates Stadium, firmly establishing himself as the third-choice central midfielder behind Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira.
It is in Xhaka’s position as the deep-lying playmaker that is likely to be the Frenchman’s long-term role in the first-team set-up. While Xhaka can divide Arsenal’s fanbase at times, he undeniably brings some unique and advantageous qualities to the line-up, justifying Unai Emery’s continual selection.
In order to surpass the Swiss in the Arsenal line-up, Guendouzi must improve in the following areas in order to become an automatic selection in the centre of the park for the Gunners.
Guendouzi is a very good passer from deep already, averaging 9.00 deep progressions per game, just one less than Xhaka. However, his passing became more simplistic as last season wore on.
While this is an understandable effect of a young player fearful of making a mistake, an important part of the 20-year old’s development is overriding this fear and developing the self-belief needed to make an impact in Arsenal’s build-up.
There were small signs of improvement against Newcastle on Sunday: a particular highlight was Guendouzi picking out a trademark Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang run in stoppage time with an exquisite ball over the top.
Guendouzi is blessed with great vision, a trait he shares with Xhaka. Where they currently differ is Xhaka’s willingness to actually attempt and execute risky or difficult passes through defensive lines and structures.
This is the Swiss international’s key strength and why he’s such an important part of Arsenal’s side. If Guendouzi can nullify this disadvantage he currently has, he would ensure Emery did not lose a key pillar of Arsenal’s build-up should he select Guendouzi.
Like Xhaka, defending is arguably Guendouzi’s major weakness, although for different reasons. The Frenchman averages almost 1.6 interceptions (adjusted for possession) per 90 minutes, a hugely impressive effort for a number eight-player, however, can often be caught out being overly front-footed.
Too often last season, Guendouzi was dribbled past after over-committing to a defensive action instead of covering multiple passing and dribbling lanes. He is also a poor tackler, averaging 1.6 per 90 (possession adjusted), and 3.5 pressure regains despite attempting 19 pressures per game.
Essentially, Guendouzi needs to improve his tackle technique as well as be mature with how he presses the opposition midfield.
Furthermore, the Frenchman can be very one-paced in defence. This was no more evident than for Rennes third goal against Arsenal last season, where he was overtaken by Aaron Ramsey tracking back despite a 25-yard head start.
While Guendouzi consistently covers the most distance per 90 for Arsenal, he needs to develop the fitness and desire to move between gears in order to stop counter-attacks and snuff out danger for Arsenal.
If he can become a strong defender, it will make it almost impossible for Unai Emery not to play him, given Arsenal’s defensive record in 2018/19.
With Xhaka an undisputed leader at the club, a huge advantage he has over Guendouzi is his leadership on and off the pitch. In a team badly lacking leaders last season, Xhaka serves as a rare beacon of the qualities that drag Arsenal over the line in difficult games.
A model footballer who is always willing to engage with the press – note his numerous and extensive press conferences and interviews during Arsenal’s run of defeats at the end of last season – and fight for his teammates on the pitch, Xhaka serves as an important role model for Arsenal’s increasingly young squad.
Guendouzi has previously impressed with his maturity for such a young, raw footballer, however, he must step up again this season. Arsenal needs an organiser in the centre of the park, and Guendouzi’s style of play – sitting deep and dictating tempo – is ideal for organising his teammates through both his movements and voice.
Another key measurement of his improvement in leadership will be his performances in big games or games where Arsenal require grit and determination to get over the line. Add these qualities to his game, and replaces Xhaka with Guendouzi will no longer leave a leadership void on the pitch at the Emirates.
While Matteo Guendouzi is one of the most promising moves Arsenal have made in recent times, he is still third-choice behind the solid Lucas Torreira and the error-prone Xhaka for a spot in Arsenal’s midfield.
His game needs maturity, and if the 20-year old can develop the mental side of his game quicker than most, he will become the ambitious passer, mature and committed defender and adored leader that Arsenal so badly needs at the heart of their team.