Arsenal have a long-lineage of French midfielders meshing intense grit and technical grace with Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Viera exemplifying a generation of success. As Petit’s long blonde locks covered acres of Highbury grass while his passes exuded calm and composure, Matteo Guendouzi’s brown curls bob back and forth at the Emirates while his daring passes through the lines exude adventure. Lucas Torreira and Guendouzi are the crowning jewels of Sven Mislintat’s diamond eye as both have added structure and options at a once problem position for Arsenal. It is no wonder why Arsenal are spending a sum of their transfer ‘war chest’ on extending Guendouzi’s contract with a whopping pay rise only a year after he joined.
Paris is battling London as Europe’s capital for football talent as Guendouzi was born in the French capital and joined local team, Paris Saint Germain before leaving to join Lorient as a teenager. Mislintat did not last long enough at Arsenal for some of his acquisitions to be considered a success but his eye for talent in France is undoubted as unearthing Guendouzi from the obscurity of Ligue 2 proved an excellent find. The move is more impressive given the fact that Arsenal originally sought to acquire Yacine Adli from PSG before Adli chose to sign a new contract with the Parisian club as Mislintat identified another elegant, lanky and curly haired French teenager.
His inclusion in Arsenal’s opening day starting lineup against Manchester City proved a surprise but not unfounded. Arsenal sat in a 4-4-2 defensive shape as they tried to press the Premier League champions in a 4-3-3 with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Aaron Ramsey leading the first wave of pressure. Guendouzi was crucial in covering for the immobile Granit Xhaka and Mesut Ozil in the second wave of pressure, bustling around to plug gaps in midfield while also moving out wide to try and help limit the influence of left back, Benjamin Mendy. Arsenal were dominated and handily beaten 2-0 but Guendouzi left with his reputation enhanced.
In Guendouzi’s debut, he proved his abilities as a defensive player, but he has since shown so much potential as a player in possession. His ability to remain available for passes and demand possession in the deeper areas is an exemplary trait for a player of his age. In Arsenal’s third goal against Leicester, Torreira played a magnificent through ball for Mesut Ozil to flick to Guendouzi who spread the ball for Bellerin to square for an Ozil dummy as Lacazette played a pass through for Ozil who chipped over Schmeichel and into the path of Aubameyang to tap in.
Guendouzi thrives at playing early balls into the pockets in transition so Arsenal can work moves in between the lines. In Arsenal’s away match against Manchester City, Guendouzi showed tremendous poise to receive the ball in tight spaces and try to work passes forward. He was also clever in drawing fouls from the opposition in order to earn free-kicks higher up the pitch when he had a paucity of true passing options as he was Arsenal’s calmest player in possession in another defeat.
Arsenal’s dominant home defeat of Newcastle United to earn ten Premier League home wins in a row was one of Guendouzi’s finest performances in an Arsenal shirt. He played in a double-pivot with Ramsey as he worked combinations with the Welshman in the deeper positions to evade Newcastle pressure. He then held his position as Arsenal’s deepest lying midfielder when Ramsey ventured forward to work passing moves in the final third. For Arsenal’s first goal, Guendouzi played a pass through the lines to Ramsey who flicked for Lacazette to drive into the box, get tackled for the ball to roll into the path of Ramsey to sweep the ball into the net. Guendouzi then played a pass to Lacazette who flicked a lob onto the head of Aubameyang to head the French striker through to lob over the Newcastle keeper.
This facet of his game also allows Arsenal to break with pace as at home to Burnley, he lobbed a pass for Sead Kolasinac to burst free on the left flank for the Bosnian to play in Ozil who spread the ball for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to finish. He then won a tackle in his own half for Alex Iwobi to drive forward and work a pass to Ozil in the opposition half as the German weaved into the box and had a tame shot blocked into the path of the Nigerian to finish with aplomb.
Arsenal face rigid low blocks with well organised targeted pressing as well as smartly rehearsed pressing traps so Guendouzi’s calm in possession and ability to thread the early ball through the lines for layoffs and flick-ons to instigate combination play is a vital facet of Emery’s approach play at Arsenal. The midfielder who only turned 20 this month, is also mobile enough to move out wide and engage in passing combinations in the wide areas. In the Europa League semi-final second leg away to Valencia, he played a pass to Lacazette who dummied for Mkhitaryan to play him through as the prolific Gabonese striker smashed the opportunity into the roof of the net.
Guendouzi’s mobility allows him to be a tigerish counter-presser for Emery as once Arsenal lose possession in the higher areas, he closes the space for the opposition player in possession to recover the ball. Guendouzi willingly engages in physical tussles as when he is deployed as the deepest-lying midfielder, he cleverly positions himself behind play in the opposition half to make early challenges to prevent breaks and win possession. However, this does have its drawbacks as Guendouzi can lunge too late at times which creates fouls and yellow cards for him. He also misses tackles which gives the opposition an opportunity to break on a vulnerable Arsenal defensive line as he will need to develop his reading of the game. He can sometimes close down the space and usher his opponent to the by-line or into a backwards or sideways pass.
Guendouzi’s future lies in midfield as a defensive midfield pivot or a box-to-box engine as he has impressed in both roles at Arsenal. In Arsenal’s final Premier League game against Burnley, he controlled the game at the base of midfield as he played next to Mohamed Elneny. He received passes from deep and was aware of when to hold possession and when to release possession. He used clever feints to jink past opponents and progress play while using both of his feet to distribute the ball.
“The first impression from him is very good. We saw this from the first weeks of pre-season when he arrived here and started training. For example, his very big decision to decide not to play with the national team in the summer because he wanted to stay and work with us to show his capacity in pre-season. He earned the possibility to take minutes in the first XI. His adaptation was very quick. Now his progress is very good. He is very young,” said Emery in a press conference earlier this year.
Guendouzi only had eight appearances to his name when he joined Arsenal as he acclimated to the more physical and faster paced Premier League with his usual ease. An already financially stretched Arsenal doubling his wage after his first year in London makes little sense although it is understandable that the club would want to tie down one of its finest prospects in the modern-day market. Guendouzi certainly has the potential to develop into the club’s next commanding French midfielder.