How A 19-Year-Old Has Become A Bright Spot To Arsenal’s Poor Season StartWhen the fixtures computer drew Manchester City and Chelsea as Arsenal’s first two opponents of the season, it looked a tough introduction to the Premier League for new manager Unai Emery. And so it proved, with a 3-2 loss at Stamford Bridge following up a 2-0 defeat at the hands of the defending champions on the opening weekend.
But while their team remain pointless after two matches there is one positive to be gleaned from Arsenal’s slow start – Matteo Guendouzi.
Arsenal fans could have been forgiven for not knowing who their newest recruit was when Guendouzi joined for £8million in the summer. The midfielder’s arrival from French second division side Lorient went under the radar amid the more high-profile signings of Lucas Torreira, Sokratis, Bernd Leno and Stephan Lichtsteiner.
Guendouzi was with Paris Saint-Germain’s academy before leaving aged 15 to join Lorient, where he eventually progressed into the first team. After making his debut as a 17-year-old, the Frenchman made eight appearances his breakthrough 2016-17 season as Lorient were relegated but featured 18 times in Ligue 2 last campaign. Guendouzi has represented France’s age group sides from U-18s, U-19s to U-20s. He is of Moroccan heritage but turned down an approach to play for Morocco in favour of representing Le Bleus.
Guendouzi was identified by Arsenal’s head of recruitment Sven Mislintat as one for the future and the Gunners pounced when Guendouzi refused to sign a new contract with Lorient. The 19-year-old had fallen out with Lorient head coach Mickael Landreau during half-time of a match against Valienciennes and was subsequently frozen out by his boss. Arsenal took advantage and sealed a £7m deal plus add-ons to make Guendouzi their fifth and final summer signing of the window.
The newest Gunner is an all-action central midfielder who is both combative in the tackle and tidy in the pass. Guendouzi caught Mislintat’s eye when he posted a 91 per cent passing accuracy in his first season in the top flight of French football for Lorient. He is capable of breaking up opposition attacks with his advanced reading of the game before beginning attacking moves further up the pitch on the counter.
After his surprise inclusion in Arsenal’s team to face Manchester City on the opening weekend, Guendouzi acquitted himself admirably considering it was his debut against the Premier League champions. The Frenchman was always showing for the ball and made more touches (71) than any of his team-mates against some of the best midfielders in Europe.
Though he was caught out for a chance that Sergio Aguero eventually fluffed, Guendouzi was a bright spot in Emery’s first match with his confidence on the ball.
Guendouzi followed that up with an assured display in Arsenal’s 3-2 defeat by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge when he repeatedly carved open the Blues’ high line with his incisive passing, let down only by the finishing of his team-mates.
At half-time it was notable that Granit Xhaka was the midfielder hooked by Emery for Torreira, while Guendouzi remained on the pitch until the final whistle for the second time in his first two Gunners matches. Having started him against two of the league’s top teams Emery has displayed a bold show of faith in the teenager.
Torreira will expect to command a starting spot having worked his way back to fitness following Uruguay’s World Cup campaign but the other spot in central midfield looks up for grabs. Xhaka has started his third season at Arsenal poorly while Aaron Ramsey was deployed as No 10 before being dropped for the Stamford Bridge trip. The Welshman’s uncertain contract situation further hinders his chances.
Fellow floppy-haired midfielder Mohamed Elneny is a more defensive option but has yet to make an appearance this campaign while Ainsley Maitland-Niles is sidelined for eight weeks following his left back cameo against City. So following Guendouzi’s surprise inclusion, the Frenchman could well have flown up the pecking order under Emery. A strong performance against West Ham on Saturday would further cement his place in the manager’s thinking.