His first taste of Premier League management may not have gone as hoped but no-one can fault Unai Emery’s boldness.
The new Arsenal boss’ first assignment was trying to stop the team who, for much of last season, simply couldn’t be stopped. His predecessor certainly couldn’t, with the Gunners losing to Manchester City three times last year (twice in the league, once in the EFL Cup final, conceding nine times).
The convenient conclusion from Sunday; different boss, same old story. But delve a little deeper into events at the Emirates and a different narrative emerges, one that does not align with the hackneyed perception of Arsenal as perennial failures.
There were positives. Emery’s willingness to adapt and tactical versatility – Arsenal looked instantly more cohesive in attack when Alexandre Lacazette replaced Aaron Ramsey, with the Frenchman playing up top as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang shifted to the left – suggests the three-time Europa League winner may be a refreshing departure from Arsène Wenger.
But Emery didn’t wait until the second half to make his first daring move. No, the Spaniard raised a few eyebrows in starting 19-year-old central midfielder Mattéo Guendouzi alongside Granit Xhaka while leaving £26million signing Lucas Torreira on the bench.
Guendouzi impressed in the Gunners’ pre-season friendly against Chelsea but throwing him into the lion’s den against City for his Premier League debut was a courageous move on Emery’s part.
Nobody captured Guendouzi’s rapid rise more succinctly than Paris-based journalist Matt Spiro.
Matteo Guendouzi's last competitive game was French 2nd division clash between Lorient and Valenciennes, played in front of 8,000. The 19 year old starts for #Arsenal today against Manchester City in front of 60,000
— Matt Spiro (@mattspiro) August 12, 2018
In just three months, the former Paris Saint-Germain youth player has gone from losing at home with Lorient in front of a modest crowd at the Stade du Moustoir to facing Sergio Agüero, Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez, three players that cost City just shy of £150million.
That would be enough to unnerve most players but there was enough evidence in Guendouzi’s display to suggest a bright future lies ahead of him in North London.
First, the bad. Raw and unpolished, Guendouzi was caught out of position at times and was guilty of not doing enough to stop Sterling’s opener.
Having already skipped past Héctor Bellerín, Sterling draws Guendouzi in before dropping his right shoulder and firing a venomous shot past Petr Čech.
Guendouzi’s inexperience was evident as he was sucked towards the ball despite taking up a strong position on the edge of the box. Had Guendouzi shown a little more prudence, the space from which Sterling scored would not have been open to the City forward.
In an ideal world, Ramsey would have sensed the danger and covered Guendouzi, shutting down that space, but culpability ultimately falls on the young Frenchman (and the more experienced Bellerín, of course).
Admittedly, Guendouzi lived dangerously at times and his debut would have descended into farce had Agüero remembered to bring his ruthless finishing with him from the Community Shield victory over Chelsea at Wembley last week.
The teenager misjudged a high ball on the halfway line, sending Agüero scampering through the middle before failing his one-on-one with Čech.
But it will take Guendouzi time to rid himself of his more heedless tendencies. Even in defeat, there were positives from which he can draw encouragement as prepares for his next daunting proposition: a trip to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea.
Overall, Guendouzi won eight midfield duels, losing four. He succeeded in three out of his four attempted tackles and made four interceptions. These statistics outline some of Guendouzi’s strengths; his tenacity, his aggression and his reading of the game.
Refinement will come with his development but Guendouzi’s combative, enterprising style can certainly benefit this Arsenal team. On several occasions against City, he pressed and harried them, executing the proactive, high-energy style Emery is trying to instill into his new side.
The fans seemed to enjoy it, too, cheering as Guendouzi went shoulder-to-shoulder with Agüero or when he impressively held off Benjamin Mendy.
While his performance was far from flawless, it was telling that Guendouzi stayed on the pitch while Xhaka was hooked off for Torreira. Considering that he had allowed Agüero in on goal just six minutes earlier, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see Guendouzi’s number go up instead of the Switzerland international’s.
But having settled after some nervy moments, Emery trusted the France Under-20 international to see out the game. It’s a measure of the coach’s burgeoning trust in the young midfielder. Guendouzi is a work in progress and patience will be required before Arsenal fans truly see him blossom into anything near the finished article.
Crucially, though, the foundations are there and his attitude – at this point, at least – is refreshing; keen to learn and unmoved by the grittier side to being an elite-level footballer.
It’s intriguing that, having long been linked with a move for PSG midfielder and current Barcelona transfer target Adrien Rabiot (who benefitted from Emery’s coaching at PSG ), Arsenal ultimately plumped for a player who bears a striking physical resemblance to the Les Bleus World Cup rebel.
Guendouzi is a cross between Rabiot and David Luiz, possessing the long legs and slight build of the former and the wild, Sideshow Bob-esque haircut of the latter. Of course, while Luiz has sometimes attracted ridicule for playing like a cartoon character, Arsenal fans are hoping that Guendouzi can generate more positive headlines.
Thankfully, he emerged from the City game, 90 minutes that will remain one of his most taxing examinations as an Arsenal player. It will be exciting to watch where he can go from here.