It is fair to say that Matteo Guendouzi is a young man who divides opinion. He arrived at the club two years ago as a relatively unknown quantity, with most of the fanfare around his signing focusing on his hairstyle rather than his reputation. Nevertheless, the Frenchman has already made a significant impact on the pitch as an Arsenal player. Making 82 appearances in his first two seasons at the club demonstrates the speed of Guendouzi’s development. On the surface it appears that the midfielder is on an upward trajectory and is someone this young Arsenal team can be built around for the years ahead.
However, controversy seems to follow Guendouzi, and he has been the subject of all to frequent speculation about his attitude and off-the-pitch conduct. It has been suggested that, with Arteta attempting to institute cultural change at the club, Guendouzi is a problematic personality that does not fit the mould. And following his exclusion from the squad for the recent wins over Southampton and Sheffield United, speculation has been rife that Arsenal are now ready to cash in on the young Frenchman. But what should Arsenal do?
Arsenal’s signing of Matteo Guendouzi in the summer of 2018 flew relatively under the radar. Signed for £7 million from Ligue 2 side FC Lorient, he was seen as one for the future, especially considering the club also acquired a more high profile central midfielder in Lucas Torreira that summer. But when Unai Emery started the then 19 year-old in his first game in charge against reigning Premier League champions Manchester City, Arsenal fans quickly became aware that Guendouzi was a young man in a hurry.
In his first season in England, the Frenchman would play a significant role under Unai Emery, in what would be a failed quest to return Arsenal to the Champions League. Guendouzi made 48 appearances in 2018/19, and to the surprise of most observers he was the 5th most used player in the entire Arsenal squad. Quite the impact for a 19 year-old who had less than 30 senior games under his belt prior to making the move from the French second tier. And while the speed of his impact was surprising, Matteo certainly appeared unfazed by the step up, with his talent evident for all to see. His all-action style and boundless energy saw him favoured by Unai Emery, with his midfielders often asked to cover huge amounts of ground.
An unpolished gem:
Back in September, Arsenal found themselves a goal and a man down at home to Aston Villa. Arsenal’s form was in sharp decline and this period would see the clubs worst run of results in some 30 years. Guendouzi, however, displayed all of his potential in this game by dragging his team to a 3-2 victory. He plays the game with no fear, always willing to receive the ball in tight areas and in this game he was the spark that a beleaguered 10-man Arsenal side needed. He constantly drove the ball forward from midfield either through decisive passing, or by travelling with it at pace, as he did when he won the penalty for Arsenal’s first goal. This was a demonstration of Guendouzi’s fearlessness, determination and a sign of what can become of his precocious talent.
In a number of key metrics, for someone still so young, Guendouzi stacks up really well when compared to fellow Premier League midfielders as this graphic shows:
In a clear recognition of this talent, Guendouzi received his first full international call up in September. Despite being just 20, Didier Deschamps felt his performances in north London warranted a call-up to an elite France squad littered with World Champions. Coaches within the French set-up where said to be impressed by how Guendouzi handled the call-up, particularly given his professional attitude after dropping back down to the under 21s again in October.
However, there are still significant holes in the young Frenchman’s game that must be corrected if he is to develop into a top central midfielder. His boundless energy is a positive, but only if it can be channeled correctly. Too often Guendouzi can be seen vacating his position to career around the pitch, and while this was favoured under Emery’s tutelage, Arteta is clearly trying to develop an Arsenal side with more positional discipline. On top of this Guendouzi’s spacial awareness must significantly improve, with him often losing track of his runner and thus exposing Arsenal’s already vulnerable back line. Granit Xhaka’s importance to this Arsenal side is telling, and under Arteta, Arsenal have not lost a game that Xhaka has completed the full 90 minutes. Xhaka too has flaws in his game, but the structure he gives Arsenal’s midfield is invaluable and as of yet that is something that Guendouzi simply does not offer.
In many ways, Matteo Guendouzi’s attitude is his biggest strength. Sylvain Ripoll, the coach who gave Matteo his debut at Lorient, and later for the French under 21s spoke glowingly about this attitude in an interview with newspaper Ouest-France:
“He certainly has a lively, competitive side, which does not want to sit back and suffer things. Given that, it must be channelled, oriented towards the collective. But these are positive personality traits He also has an atypical personality. He exudes a lot of enthusiasm, energy. These are things that must have seduced Didier and his staff.”
It was this ego and self-confidence that allowed Guendouzi to make such a big impact so early in his Arsenal career. His exuberant character allowed him to make himself at home in a dressing room with the likes of Aubameyang, Lacazette and Ozil. However, there is a side to his character that can cause friction, and so far his relationship with Arteta has been mixed. Guendouzi was left out of the win over Newcastle in February after a disciplinary infraction during the warm weather training camp in Dubai, and the 21-year-old has not been a regular in Arteta’s starting lineup.
The most recent difference of opinion has seen Guendouzi left out of the last two match day squads, despite the increased squad sized permitted since the restart. The latest issue seemingly stemmed from Guendouzi getting involved in an incident with Brighton’s Neal Maupay after he had scored the winner against Arsenal. I’m not going to discuss what Guendouzi was allegedly saying on the pitch, because in my opinion it’s typical tabloid newspaper speculation. Also is it really so shocking? I’ve played football for many years, albeit at a vastly lower level, and I’m sure many of you can relate to having heard much worse on the pitch.
I was more interested to hear Arteta’s reasoning behind the decision to leave him out of the squad. Questioned on whether Guendouzi would definitely remain at the club beyond this summer, Arteta remained tight-lipped but took pains to say every member of his team must buy into his way of operating.
“Whatever internal issues we have, we will deal with them privately and I am never going to make any of that public. All the players that are here, I am counting on them. If they want to jump on the boat they are more than welcome and that’s always my mindset. I am here to help all of them to improve individually and collectively. That is my job.”
David Ornstein, who broke the news in February about Guendouzi’s indiscretions during the Dubai training camp, spoke about the latest situation on the Ornstein & Chapman Podcast.
“I have heard a number of other stories about his discipline. I know there are some at Arsenal who are fed up with him, and who think he should be sold. It doesn’t mean he will be sold, there could be people who still believe he can fulfil his potential and there may not be the market that Arsenal would expect for him.”
Much like his talent and energy on the pitch, Guendouzi’s attitude is only a strength if it can be correctly channeled for the benefit of the team. This Arsenal side is often accused of lacking fight, and that is something that cannot be levelled at Guendouzi. However, showing this fight after conceding a late winner is not helpful, neither is it beneficial to be causing problems during a training camp. Guendouzi’s combative personality must be channelled correctly by the coaching staff, and he himself must ensure that it does not boil over into unprofessionalism.
Why Arsenal may consider selling:
So why might Arsenal consider selling Matteo Guendouzi? Well firstly, Arteta has been very outspoken about needing his players to “jump on the boat” with regards to the elite culture he is trying to develop at the club. On a number of occasions Guendouzi’s personality has been at odds with Arteta’s vision. If this problem becomes a persistent one, Arteta must be willing to make the unpopular decision. To enact a new culture at a club everyone must be pulling in the same direction, for Matteo the question is simply: are you in, or are you out?
Another interesting element of this situation is Guendouzi’s contract. He signed a 4-year deal upon arriving at Arsenal, meaning this summer he will enter the final 2 years. Therefore, Arsenal have a decision to make; offer him a new contract or sell him. Guendouzi is one of our most valuable assets and the Arsenal executives cannot allow this to get to the situation where he has one year left on his deal, because as we are seeing with Saka and Aubameyang, it complicates negotiations. Before Covid-19, Guendouzi was valued at upwards of £50 million, and recent speculation has linked the likes of Real Madrid, Athletico Madrid, and PSG. He is one of the few valuable assets Arsenal have as they attempt a rebuild, so a decision must be made this summer. Is he part of the plans or not?
By writing this piece, I hoped to come to my own conclusions about whether Arsenal should sell Matteo Guendouzi. But I’ll admit I’m very on the fence with this one. On one hand I think Guendouzi is a real talent who is going to develop into a well-rounded midfield player. If he leaves I am convinced he will have an excellent career elsewhere, and it would be very painful to watch another Serge Gnabry situation unfold. On the other hand, I look at this Liverpool side who have just be crowned champions. A team who have been put together in their managers image, and in which every member of the squad has bought whole-heartedly into the Klopp project. If Arteta does not see Guendouzi as a good fit for his vision, he may be better off cashing in on one of the few valuable assets at his disposal, and using the money to help shape the squad to his liking. Arteta recently spoke about how Liverpool built their squad:
“They’ve come so far as a club and as a team in the last few seasons. I think they set a very clear club culture that they have been able to transmit to the supporters and generate belief. I think they have a very clear philosophy with the way they want to play, the way they approach every game, and then they’ve got some really good recruitment. Starting from the staff and the coach and all the players they signed, they are specifically for the way they want to play so congratulations to them.”
In the end this will come down to how Mikel Arteta views Guendouzi. Does he see a precocious young talent who must channel his energy and self-confidence for the benefit of the team? Or does he see an unpredictable player who can’t be trusted as he attempts to instil a new culture, and who also happens to have value in a crippled market? Only time will tell what will become of Matteo Guendouzi’s Arsenal career.