Time For Guendouzi to Convert Prodigious Talent Into Contributing Role at Arsenal
Arsenal is a club full of enigmatic characters, but perhaps no player provides such a curious blend of genuine promise and infuriating moments as young Mattéo Guendouzi. At the start of last season, few supporters knew much about the young midfielder with the big hair that the club had signed from Lorient in the French second division for a paltry £7 million in the summer. That didn’t last long, however, as the World Cup had left the squad in a varied state of readiness heading into the new season, and Guendouzi took his chance in August to leave a mark on the first team.
With a palpable enthusiasm in his play and a fearlessness on the ball that is rare for midfielders in his age group, Guendouzi quickly earned himself plenty of backers in the Emirates crowd. Along with the more heralded fellow summer arrival Lucas Torreira, the Frenchman helped to generate a lot of buzz over Arsenal’s new-look midfield. Surely, many fans assumed, the much-maligned and always polarising Granit Xhaka was not long for the Arsenal starting XI?
While it did seem for a time that Guendouzi would rapidly become an important starter in the team, his performances began to dip badly in December as Arsenal’s bright form at the start of the season faded in the second half. Guendouzi still found himself called upon fairly regularly, finishing the year with 33 appearances in the Premier League alone, but the audacious surges forward on the ball and the exuberant, all-action style lost a bit of their spark.
This season, Guendouzi has alternated between the starting XI and the bench as Arsenal’s trio of head coaches have searched for balance within the team. The instincts and the fearlessness are still present, but Xhaka and Torreira have solidified their hold on the double pivot in the midfield under Mikel Arteta, and with Mesut Ozil getting a run of games at the 10 of late, Guendouzi has been left without a clear role in the side. His ceiling remains tantalisingly high, and he may in fact be the best young midfielder currently at the club, but the time has come for him to carve out a role as a contributor within the side.
In truth, as Unai Emery’s time at Arsenal came to an unceremonious halt, few players could have been considered to have been playing up to their potential. For many, this was seen as confirmation of a squad undeserving of their premium wage packets and of a collective mentality that was seriously lacking. Through the reactive, tactically schizophrenic Emery era, Guendouzi remained among the Spaniard’s most used players, even apparently supplanting Torreira at the base of the Arsenal midfield, given Emery’s desire to push the Uruguayan into more advanced positions.
However, in spite of his young age and immense promise showed in his first season, the massive improvements have not yet come for Guendouzi this season. Though his defensive numbers have experienced a slight uptick this season, with tackles rising from 1.2 to 1.6 per match and his interceptions going from 0.9 to 1.4, he has largely remained the same this season when Arsenal have the ball. He completes around 90% of his passes, but he has not been too adventurous with his distribution this season, maintaining his average of 0.5 key passes per match from last season.
Despite many fans believing him a more progressive player than fellow Gunner Granit Xhaka, he has been far less of a threat this season with his vertical passes, attempting almost half of his Swiss teammate’s long balls. Advanced metrics also seem to suggest that Guendouzi doesn’t often contribute to Arsenal’s goal tally, not only managing just one assist this season, but trailing Xhaka in his xG Buildup score (0.41 to 0.49) and xG Chain (0.48 to 0.55) in the Premier League this season, numbers that essentially seek to assign a value to a player within the passages of play leading to Arsenal goals.
Though the statistics, and at times this season the eye test, don’t make for particularly exciting reading as it relates to Guendouzi’s contributions to the team, it also doesn’t do the considerable talent he possesses and the instinctive way in which he plays the game nearly the justice it deserves. While not blessed with exceptional pace or quickness, there is little that Mattéo Guendouzi can’t do on a football pitch. He has the height, at nearly six feet tall, to be a reliable presence in the centre of the park, and his long, gangly frame should be able to take on considerably more muscle as his body matures.
When Arsenal have the ball, he is never afraid to call for the pass, and he has shown that he can up his intensity levels late in matches as Arsenal push on for a goal, often providing a spark with a surging run or drawing a key foul deep in the opponents end with his crafty body positioning. Despite not yet showing much of a penchant for finding the back of the net thus far in his career, the young French international is not afraid of trying his shot from distance at times, and he has shown as well that he is capable of picking out a forward with well-weighted through balls.
Like most ball-hungry young players, Guendouzi is prone to being sucked out of position when Arsenal are defending, particularly in the middle third of the pitch when Arsenal are trying to prevent teams from playing through the midfield. Though Mikel Arteta will no doubt enjoy his enthusiasm in these situations, his effort is inconsistent once he has been bypassed and he is forced to track back. Too often this season and last, the Arsenal defence has been hung out to dry by midfielders not maintaining their positional disciple as the Gunner absorb pressure, and Guendouzi has been as guilty as Xhaka or Torreira in that regard.
Mercifully, these are problems that can be coached, and most players learn with experience to cut these inconsistencies out of their games. What Mattéo Guendouzi has in abundance – a well-rounded skillset, good instincts and a very competitive and determined mentality – are much harder to teach in young players.
Adapting to Shifting Priorities
While there are early indications that Guendouzi will not feature as prominently under Mikel Arteta as he did when Unai Emery was in charge, the first-time head coach’s ball-dominant ethos and clarity of vision should ultimately suit the young midfielder far better in the long run. Under Emery, the central midfielders were tasked with near-impossible roles within the construct of his team. With fullbacks split as far wide as possible and stationed high up the flanks as Arsenal played out from the back, the bulk of the responsibility for advancing the side up the pitch fell upon a pair of central midfielders.
With the attack pushed high in an effort to stretch the opponent’s shape, the midfielders were often isolated, along with the centrebacks, left to face increasingly intense presses as teams realised Arsenal struggled to progress into attacking areas when building up from the back. This often left Guendouzi and his midfield partners with little choice but to recycle possession backwards or to send a speculative ball over the top to the well-marked Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. This was a job that Xhaka and Guendouzi, without elite dribbling ability and quickness to evade the press, struggled mightily with.
With Arteta now heading up training sessions at London Colney, the stress placed on the midfield had been elevated by improved organisation and better spacing when on the ball. Unlike Emery, Arteta stresses the need for the team to dominate possession as well as space, focusing on outnumbering the opponent in whatever areas of the pitch the ball is played into. This system places demands on all players in the side to be aware of their surroundings and to move into open spaces, creating more passing options for the player on the ball. Where formerly the midfield pairing often played in line with each other, now they play off of the other’s positioning, at times dropping off to create depth within the shape, at others stepping forward into space vacated by a pursuing marker.
This has made Arsenal much less predictable when on the ball, much to the benefit of the midfielders like Guendouzi. It is nowhere near perfect, with the Gunners still falling into stretched of lethargic, uninspired play, but the early indications are positive that Arteta is the right manager to not just take the club forward but to extract the maximum out of the players already at the club.
Finding His Niche
So, if the arrow is now pointing up once again on Arsenal’s season, and Mattéo Guendouzi is one of the most talented young players in the team, why hasn’t he found a role within the team as a consistent contributor? Simply put, Guendouzi has been something of a victim of the imbalance within this Arsenal squad, itself a product of the state of flux the club has been in since Arsene Wenger’s departure. While extremely talented, the Arsenal squad is a mismatched hodgepodge of the disparate ideas of the 3 separate regimes in that time period.
With so much invested in an attack that includes Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Nicolas Pépé and Mesut Ozil, the temptation to get as many of them on the pitch at the same time as possible has forced some concessions to be made further back. Ozil’s presence at the 10 leaves no room for a third central midfielder, particularly with Arteta clearly wanting to use both strikers at the same time, and Nicolas Pepe’s £72 million price tag and jaw-dropping ability also proving difficult to leave out.
While it may not be the preferred option for a player with his obvious hunger to play and improve, patience may be in order for Guendouzi as he grows into a player capable of causing a selection headache week in and week out for Arteta in the Arsenal midfield. Granit Xhaka’s intelligent play and Lucas Torreira’s tenacity are proving to be the best foundation for the club’s midfield at present, but that’s not to say that Guendouzi won’t work his way into that mix going forward.
In the meantime, it is imperative that he keeps his head down in training and stays focused. On the pitch, he could perhaps focus less on trying to draw fouls and more on his responsibilities when Arsenal lose the ball, but these should come with maturity. No matter what, however, Mattéo Guendouzi is one of the most exciting young players to arrive at Arsenal in the last decade, and it will be a real shock if he doesn’t go on to become one of the most important players of the Arteta era.