Arsenal is a club filled with enigmatic characters, but perhaps no participant provides such a curious mix of real promise and infuriating minutes as youthful Mattéo Guendouzi. At the beginning of last season, few fans knew much about the young midfielder with the hair which the club had signed out of Lorient from the French second division for a paltry #7 million in the summertime. That did not last long, however, since the World Cup had left the squad at a diverse state of readiness heading into the new year, and Guendouzi took his opportunity in August to leave a mark on the first group.
Having a real enthusiasm in his drama and fearlessness on the ball that’s uncommon for midfielders in his age group, Guendouzi quickly earned himself plenty of backers from the Emirates audience. Certainly, many fans assumed, the much-maligned and constantly polarising Granit Xhaka wasn’t long for the Arsenal starting XI?
While it did seem for a time that Guendouzi would quickly become a significant starter in the group, his performances started to dip badly in December as Arsenal’s bright form at the beginning of the year faded in the second half.
His ceiling remains tantalisingly large, and he may actually be the very best young midfielder now at the club, but the time has come for him to carve out a role as a contributor over the side.
For many, this was viewed as confirmation of a group undeserving of the premium wage packets and of a collective mindset that was seriously lacking.
However, notwithstanding his youthful age and immense promise showed in his first season, the gigantic improvements still haven’t come for Guendouzi this year. Although his defensive numbers have undergone a small uptick this year, with tackles rising from 1.2 to 1.6 per game and his interceptions moving from 0.9 to 1.4, he has mostly remained the same this year when Arsenal have the ball. He completes around 90 percent of his passes, but he’s not been too adventurous with his supply this year, maintaining his average of 0.5 important moves per match from last year.
Despite many fans believing him a more innovative player than fellow Gunner Granit Xhaka, he’s been much less of a threat this year with his vertical moves, trying almost half of his Swiss teammate’s long balls. Advanced metrics also appear to suggest that Guendouzi does not often contribute to Arsenal’s goal tally, not only handling only one assist this season but monitoring Xhaka in his xG Buildup score (0.41 to 0.49) and xG Chain (0.48 to 0.55) in the Premier League this year, numbers that essentially want to assign a value to a participant within the passages of play resulting in Arsenal goals.
Although the numbers, and at times this year the eye test, do not make for particularly exciting reading as it pertains to Guendouzi’s contributions to the group, it also does not do the appreciable talent he possesses and the instinctive manner in which he plays the game almost the justice it deserves. While not blessed with exceptional pace or quickness, there’s not much that Mattéo Guendouzi can not do on a soccer pitch. He’s got the height, at almost six feet tall, to be a trusted presence in the middle of the park, along with his long, gangly frame ought to have the ability to undertake much more muscular as his body matures.
When Arsenal have the ball, he’s never afraid to call for the pass, and he’s shown he can up his intensity levels late in games as Arsenal push for a target, often providing a spark with a surging run or drawing on a key foul deep in the competitions end with his hairy body placement. Despite not showing much of a penchant for finding the back of the net so far in his career, the young French international isn’t afraid of trying his shot from distance occasionally, and he’s shown as well that he’s capable of picking out a forward with well-weighted through chunks.
Like most ball-hungry young gamers, Guendouzi is more prone to being pumped out of position when Arsenal are defending, especially in the center third of the pitch when Arsenal are attempting to stop teams from playing the midfield. Though Mikel Arteta will, without doubt, enjoy his excitement in these types of circumstances, his campaign is inconsistent once he’s been bypassed and he’s forced to trackback. Too often this year and last, the Arsenal defence was hung out to dry by midfielders not maintaining their positional disciple since the Gunner absorb strain, and Guendouzi was as guilty as Xhaka or Torreira in that respect.
Mercifully, these are issues that may be coached, and many players learn with expertise to cut these inconsistencies from their games. What Mattéo Guendouzi has in abundance — a well-rounded skillset, great instincts, and a very aggressive and determined mentality — are much more difficult to teach in young players.
When there are early signs that Guendouzi won’t feature as prominently under Mikel Arteta as he did when Unai Emery was accountable for the first time head trainer’s ball-dominant ethos and clarity of vision should finally suit the young midfielder far better in the long term. With fullbacks split as far wide as possible and stationed high up the flanks as Arsenal performed from the trunk, the majority of the responsibility for progressing up the side the pitch fell upon a set of central midfielders.
With the attack pushed in an attempt to extend the opponent’s contour, the midfielders were frequently isolated, together with the centrebacks, left to face increasingly intense presses as teams realised Arsenal struggled to advance into attacking regions when building up from the trunk. This was a project that Xhaka and Guendouzi, without elite dribbling ability and quickness to evade the media, fought with.
With Arteta currently heading up training sessions at London Colney, the strain put on the midfield was raised by improved organisation and better spacing when on the ball. Unlike Emery, Arteta stresses the need for the group to control possession in addition to distance, focusing on outnumbering the opponent in all regions of the pitch the ball is played into. This system puts requirements on all players in the side to know about their environment and also to move into open spaces, making more passing choices to the player on the ball. Where previously the midfield pairing frequently played in accord with one another, now they play from the other’s positioning, at times falling off to create depth inside the contour, at others stepping forward into the space vacated by pursuing markers.
This has made Arsenal less predictable when on the ball, much to the advantage of the midfielders such as Guendouzi. It’s nowhere near perfect, with the Gunners still falling into stretched of lethargic, uninspired play, but the early signs are positive that Arteta is the perfect manager not to only take the club forward but to extract the maximum from the players at the club.
Consequently, if the arrow is now pointing up once more on Arsenal’s season, and Mattéo Guendouzi is among the most gifted young players in the group, why has not he found a role within the group as a constant contributor? To put it simply, Guendouzi was something of a victim of this imbalance in this Arsenal squad, itself a product of the nation of flux of that the club was in since Arsene Wenger’s passing. While exceptionally gifted, the Arsenal squad is a mismatched hodgepodge of the disparate thoughts of the 3 individual regimes in that period of time.
With so much invested in an assault which includes Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Nicolas Pépé, and Mesut Ozil, the urge to get as many of them on the pitch at exactly the exact same time as possible has compelled some concessions to be made farther back. Ozil’s existence in the 10 leaves no space for a third central midfielder, especially with Arteta clearly wanting to use both strikers at precisely the exact same time, and Nicolas Pepe’s £72 million price tag and jaw-dropping ability also proving hard to exit.
While it might not be the preferred choice for a participant with his obvious desire to play and enhance, patience may be in order for Guendouzi as he develops to a player capable of inducing a selection headache week in and week out for Arteta at the Arsenal midfield. Granit Xhaka’s smart play and Lucas Torreira’s tenacity are proving to be the best base for the club’s midfield currently, but that is not to say that Guendouzi won’t work his way into that mix going forward.
In the meantime, it’s very important he keeps his head down in training and remains focused. Regardless of what, however, Mattéo Guendouzi is among the most exciting young players to arrive at Arsenal in the past ten years, and it’ll be a surprise if he does not go on to become one of the main players of this Arteta era.