The rise & rise (and slight demise) of Matteo Guendouzi
“I’m a bit surprised that everything has been going so well.” We’ve all heard what the pundits, fans and coaches think. But perhaps no one has summed up the Arsenal fanbase’s feeling towards the 19-year old Frenchman better than Guendouzi himself.
Acquired from Lorient – who ply their trade in the French second division – Matteo was the lesser known, under the radar-type signing from Unai Emery’s first transfer window as manager. That’s not to say there wasn’t a band of football hipsters who claimed to have been well aware of his 91.6% pass completion well before the rest of North London. But amongst company such as established German international Bernd Leno and seven-time Serie A winner Stephan Lichsteiner, Guendouzi was unheard of.
After some dominant displays in pre-season, the buzz surrounding the big-haired youngster began to grow. However, football fans, Arsenal ones, in particular, had read this script before. Promising teenage talent plays superbly against a big side on the Club’s tour of Asia/America/Australia, supporters begin to murmur his name as one to start for the first team next season, manager ignores – teenager is then shipped on loan for three seasons before seeing out his playing days in low league British/European football (see ‘Mark Randall’, ‘Sanchez Watt’, ‘Ryo Myiachi’ for reference). Fast forward just under seven months and Guendouzi has torn up said script.
Many were stunned to see his name amongst the starting 11 when Pep’s merry men rolled into town in August. At times looking like a deer in the headlights against Manchester City, Emery stuck by his prodigy and started him away at Chelsea the following week, where he grew in confidence as the game went on.
That was the pattern for the majority of the 22-game unbeaten run, Guendouzi went from strength to strength, averaging 55 passes a game – he was dictating the tempo already – even notching his first career goal in a 3-0 win at Qarabag. Offensively, Guendouzi could look to improve his output, still sitting on just the one goal and zero assists to his name. His wild celebrations from his car window post-NLD endeared him even further.
Much like the rest of the side, (and manager) Guendouzi seemingly hit a wall mid-December. No longer were his performances receiving lavish praise, more complaints and question marks over whether he actually offered this Arsenal side anything. Not exactly the strongest in the tackle, nor does he have the eye for a pass like a certain German we know. ‘Where does he fit?’ Was a debate pondered by many.
Supporters have questioned why Emery has persisted with him throughout this difficult period in the campaign, but the answer is simple. There is one quality that Matteo possesses that many others in red and white don’t: fight. In fear of sounding like a ‘Pash’un merchant’, Guendouzi’s hunger, his spirit AND ability is exactly why he’s needed in this side.
His confidence at 19, to voice his frustration at more senior players, to be the only shining light in an otherwise lacklustre performance away from home at the current champions. His 5.3% of possession meant he saw the ball more than any other Arsenal player. It’s exactly why there has been recent media speculation linking him with a £60 million move back to where it all began at Paris Saint Germain.
It’s early days yet. But if the first half of the season is anything to go by, Arsenal may not have to look very far for the natural born leader they so infamously crave.