Arsenal’s success rate when entering the transfer market over the last few years has been mediocre at best, but there is a lot to like about the £7million capture of Mattéo Guendouzi from Ligue 2’s Lorient last summer.
Just 19 years old, the French midfielder was heavily involved throughout pre-season, but few would have expected him to be such a regular presence once the competitive business began.
However, having started 14 of Arsenal’s 23 Premier League games so far this season, coming off the bench in six more, Guendouzi has impressed at the Emirates, with his market value now surely at least four times what Arsenal paid to acquire the youngster.
But for all the praise Guendouzi has received for his quick adaptation to life in the English top flight, excitement over the former Paris Saint-Germain academy player must be tempered.
Guendouzi’s energetic and enthusiastic performances have endeared him to Arsenal fans, with the teenage midfielder displaying the kind of commitment on the pitch that supporters yearn for in their club’s players.
“It’s a club I have loved since I was a kid,” Guendouzi told Sky Sports earlier this season. “I have always wanted to come here and achieve great things with Arsenal and realise my dreams. I want to do that now I am here, I want to win trophies; that is the most important thing for me.”
And Lorient president Loic Fery confirmed Guendouzi’s desire to play for Arsenal, despite attractive offers from elsewhere: “Arsenal contacted us and it was very clear immediately he was a player they wanted to sign. Once we had those clubs starting to be interested, we asked him where he wanted to go.
“He told me that Arsenal was his preference. He wanted to play in the Premier League and Arsenal would be great for him.”
With boundless energy, Guendouzi covers every blade of grass between both penalty areas, relentlessly closing down opponents and offering himself up as a passing option whenever Arsenal have the ball.
The potential the French under-21 star possesses is evident, supremely confident and undaunted by the step up in competition he has made over the last 12 months. Indeed, he’d started just four Ligue 1 games with Lorient before joining Arsenal, where he is now a regular first-teamer.
There are inefficiencies in the tactical side of Guendouzi’s game, with his positioning sometimes questionable and his willingness to press the opposition at all times making him liable to being bypassed and caught ahead of the ball. These, though, are flaws that can be ironed out through experience and astute coaching.
It is the technical flaws and the errors of decision-making in Guendouzi’s game that are slightly less easily remedied.
Although there have been example of the teenager releasing his attacking colleagues with cutting through-balls, his distribution is erratic, too often conceding possession when executing relatively simple passes.
And he has a tendency to draw pressure that he’s not always able to play out of. His willingness to take the ball in tight spaces is commendable and evidences the confidence he has in his ability, but Arsenal fans will be familiar with the sight of Guendouzi set upon by an opposition midfielder as his close control wasn’t quite close enough to protect the ball as he tried to turn.
New Arsenal manager Unai Emery faced criticism recently for fielding a midfield three of Guendouzi, Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira. All three are considered, if not defensive, then deep midfielders, with none especially creative.
Of the trio, it is Guendouzi who is most expendable at present. The younger man has been dispossessed 18 times in the Premier League this season, more than Xhaka and Torreira (15 each), despite having played fewer minutes than both.
That would be an acceptable risk to absorb were he offering more creatively than his two colleagues, but he isn’t: Guendouzi makes fewer forward passes (18.21) and open-play key passes (0.71) per 90 minutes than Xhaka (26.41 and 0.95 respectively).
And although Guendouzi has Xhaka beat when it comes to defensive actions (combined tackles and assists) per 90 (4.27 to 3.57), the same can’t be said of Torreira (4.52), with the Uruguayan matching the Frenchman’s tenacity and bite.
This isn’t to say that Guendouzi is not having a fine season for the Gunners, especially considering it is his first full campaign both at the senior level and in one of Europe’s major leagues. And he has – and will continue to – produce some stellar performance, such as his display in Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Chelsea at the Emirates in January, in which he thwarted danger man Eden Hazard on numerous occasions.
But, perhaps a result of overexposure in is maiden season with Arsenal, the rawness of Guendouzi’s unquestionable talent has also been plain to see.