Football Features

Big Hair, Don’t Care: Matteo Guendouzi is becoming Arsenal’s most important midfielder

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 13:25, 24 September 2019

Arsenal have an amazing midfielder who is looking like the maestro they’ve needed for ages.

No, it’s not on loan star Dani Ceballos. Nor is it the pitbull Lucas Torreira. It isn’t even Granit Xhaka, a player who is equal parts regal and ridiculous. It’s Matteo Guendouzi, the 20-year-old curly haired kid from France that they signed for about £7m a year ago.

The Frenchman (Frenchboy?) began last season playing well but tailed off as one could have reasonably expected from a teenager making their Premier League debut. He was the talk of the town until Lucas Torreira found his footing. This season, however, the only reason he was being spoken of was in relation to seeing him and David Luiz in the same side, big hair everywhere.

It’s almost like Guendouzi noticed and took this as a challenge, because the young man has been absolutely dominant for the Gunners this season. His recent performances demand he is taken seriously. Ceballos is taking his time settling in, Torreira isn’t finding his rhythm and Xhaka is being Xhaka. It’s Guendouzi who has most absorbed Unai Emery’s tactical instructions and looks like becoming Arsenal’s most important midfielder.

Emery’s style of play isn’t all about dominating possession. But it does call for a midfield that can pass with assurance and confidence. They need to be able to rotate possession and get it forward to the dangermen in the attack. In his great Sevilla sides, he had Steven N’Zonzi to do this, and to a lesser degree, Ever Banega (the way he most often used Banega is more consistent with how he’s positioning Dani Ceballos and/or Joe Willock, often ahead of a double pivot).

Obviously Guendouzi isn’t anywhere near as big and strong as NZonzi, so won’t offer the same defensive strength as his compatriot, but when it comes to dominating the ball? Guendouzi has more successful passes than any Arsenal player with 323, an impressive 163 of which come in the opponent’s half. So we can see that he is constantly keeping Arsenal on the front foot when in possession.

Perhaps most crucially for Emeryball, Guendouzi has 85 passes ending in the final third. That’s more than any of his teammates. He’s created six chances, a number only Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Nicolas Pépé can top. And he’s no defensive dilettante either; he’s made 10 tackles and 11 interceptions, and only Maitland-Niles can better those numbers.

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What should be taken into account here is that Guendouzi has played more minutes than all but three players (Bernd Leno, Sokratis and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang). So obviously that will afford him the opportunity to produce greater numbers in terms of passes, etc. (in terms of per-90 numbers Dani Ceballos is crushing it) but what’s so reassuring is the ease with which Guendouzi is doing exactly that. He’s started every single game and only been subbed off twice.

More than just being a midfield metronome, Guendouzi showed in the North London derby that he’s even capable of the truly spectacular. With Arsenal 1-2 down at home to their eternal rivals, Guendouzi pushed up and curved an utterly ridiculous pass from the left half-space behind the Spurs defence and into the path of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. It needed only the simplest of touches to guide it into the back of the net, a huge equaliser for the no. 14 but it owed it all to Guendouzi’s miracle pass. As good as he has been, there is so much untapped potential lying just beneath the surface.

Of course, while Guendouzi can tackle and intercept quite well he doesn’t offer the same kind of defensive protection that a Steven N’Zonzi would, nor is he protecting a defence as reasonably solid as Sevilla’s used to be. So Arsenal concede loads of goals, 10 so far in the Premier League which is the joint-highest in the top half of the table. For reference, they are level with Bournemouth. Bournemouth.

But still, Arsenal are an attack-first side that will always bet on their ability to outscore their opponents. And in half their games so far that’s been true. Guendouzi’s ability to manipulate the ball and keep the Gunners on the front foot is crucial to their success; this was apparent when he didn’t play at all in their Europa League tie against Eintracht Frankfurt. He was being rested for the Premier League and that’s just as well because he was very much needed to ensure a 3-2 win over Aston Villa.

Arsenal were 0-1 down after 20 and got reduced to 10 men just before half-time. They looked lost until a brilliant driving run from Guendouzi all the way into the Villa box earned a penalty from which Arsenal equalised. But literally a minute later Villa retook the lead, so again Guendouzi took it upon himself to save the day. His diagonal pass into the box put Calum Chambers into the position from which he would eventually score Arsenal’s second equaliser.

Aubameyang secured the winner from a free-kick but without Guendouzi’s persistence, Arsenal surely would have fallen at home to the promoted side. It wasn’t even just the two moments where he forced the goals. He was generally Arsenal’s guiding light, driving them forward to their comeback and refusing to be cowed.

According to one Arsenal fan, Guenzoui was verbally sparring with Villa assistant John Terry all game and after the winner went over to taunt him. That’s a move sure to grant him instant hero status with Arsenal fans, but it’s also one that genuinely shows his mental resilience; Terry’s attention only drove him to play better and get his team back into the game, twice.

Ultimately, Guendouzi offers such forward momentum and control as a midfield maestro that once Emery figures out how to properly balance his team’s attacking nature with some solid defending, then Arsenal will really start to put some solid results together and make a relentless assault on that third spot in the Premier League.

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