All-ac­tion Guen­douzi shows spirit that puts se­nior men to shame

Mid­field leader, just 20, be­came un­likely hero as many of his Arse­nal team-mates looked lost

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Total Football - Sam Dean

As the play­ers dropped to the turf at the end of an ex­haust­ing north London derby, the sense among the home fans at the Emi­rates would have been a fa­mil­iar one. They have seen this all be­fore here, watch­ing in an­guish as their de­fence melted un­der the slight­est heat and then roaring in joy as their at­tack­ers made up for it at the other end.

This time around, though, there were dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters in the story. Alexan­dre La­cazette and Pierre-em­er­ick Aubameyang are two of the usual pro­tag­o­nists, yes, but they were joined by two oth­ers.

Ni­co­las Pepe’s in­volve­ment was to be ex­pected, given Arse­nal’s £72mil­lion out­lay on the winger this sum­mer, but the same can­not be said for Mat­teo Guen­douzi, per­haps the least likely hero of the day, but the hero all the same.

Unai Emery, the Arse­nal head coach who looked to have aged a decade dur­ing the most fraught of 90 min­utes, likes to speak about “men­tal­ity”. He wants char­ac­ters on the pitch and strong per­son­al­i­ties on the ball. In Guen­douzi, he had a mid­field leader who drove Arse­nal for­ward when so many of his team-mates looked lost.

Big hair, big­ger heart. Guen­douzi ran, tack­led, in­ter­cepted, passed and ul­ti­mately cre­ated the key mo­ment for Arse­nal, curl­ing in a de­light­ful cross for Aubameyang’s sec­ond-half equaliser. He was

in­volved in La­cazette’s goal, too, win­ning the ball high up the field to start the move that reignited Arse­nal’s be­lief.

At 20, and in only his sec­ond sea­son in Eng­land, Guen­douzi showed a spirit that was miss­ing among more se­nior mem­bers of the team, par­tic­u­larly in the first half. Arse­nal’s mid­field was not func­tion­ing and two of their more ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers, Granit Xhaka and Sokratis, had dam­ag­ing roles to play as Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur took a two-goal lead.

Arse­nal needed drive and in­spi­ra­tion. They found it in the usual sus­pects up front, but also in Guen­douzi, who ar­rived from Lori­ent for just £7mil­lion last sum­mer.

“He is very young, but he is pro­gress­ing,” Emery said. “Last year was amaz­ing for him. This year he has started giv­ing us one step more. Tac­ti­cally, with the ball, he gives us a lot of con­trol.”

Emery in­sists that his side must be able to adopt dif­fer­ent shapes and sys­tems from week to week. In many ways, it is a strength of the mod­ern Arse­nal.

There are oc­ca­sions, though, when the play­ers sim­ply look un­com­fort­able with what they have been asked to do. Rarely has it been more ev­i­dent than in the first 45 min­utes here, when Arse­nal’s mid­field was stretched and mis­shapen against a Tot­ten­ham at­tack who could not be­lieve the space they had been given. Lu­cas Tor­reira kept charg­ing out to the right wing. On the other flank, Guen­douzi drifted left.

It all meant that Xhaka was left man­ning the fort in the cen­tre. As any­one who has seen Arse­nal in re­cent years would at­test, this is a sit­u­a­tion of con­sid­er­able peril. He soon charged in on Son He­ung­min, slid­ing into a tackle with all the grace of a truck on an ice rink. Harry Kane, in­evitably, scored the penalty.

Xhaka re­mains a strange and in­fu­ri­at­ing player for Arse­nal. He is both an es­sen­tial mem­ber of the squad, the cap­tain this sea­son, and a per­ma­nent li­a­bil­ity in de­fen­sive mo­ments.

His foul on Son was al­most as brain­less as the penalty he con­ceded in a dam­ag­ing draw at home to Brighton last sea­son. With ev­ery year he be­comes a more se­nior part of the team, grow­ing into a gen­uine leader and tak­ing the arm­band, but still the same old mis­takes blight his game.

In these early ex­changes, Arse­nal looked be­wil­dered by the move­ment and an­gles in the Spurs mid­field. Harry Winks was dom­i­nant, all swerv­ing hips and del­i­cate touches, while Son was a per­ma­nent threat on the counter-at­tack.

Arse­nal reeled, on the verge of a col­lapse sim­i­lar to their melt­down at An­field last week­end, but they stead­ied them­selves be­fore Tot­ten­ham could swing an­other fist. Cru­cial to that, as ever, were Aubameyang and La­cazette, who were aided by Pepe, the lat­est ad­di­tion to their free­wheel­ing clique.

The ex­cite­ment around Pepe man­i­fested it­self in a growl­ing hum that rolled around the Emi­rates when­ever he re­ceived the ball. With La­cazette drop­ping in and Pepe and Aubameyang push­ing on, there were echoes of Liver­pool’s front three, where Sa­dio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mo­hamed Salah in­cite so much fear in op­po­si­tion de­fences.

This was the first time that Pepe, Aubameyang and La­cazette had started a match to­gether. To say they had been un­leashed would per­haps be an over­state­ment, given Tot­ten­ham’s con­trol in the first half, but there can be no ques­tion­ing the role they each played in the come­back.

There was Pepe, flick­ing a cross to La­cazette at the end of the first half. There was La­cazette, drift­ing past Jan Ver­tonghen and crash­ing his fin­ish into the roof of the net.

There was Aubameyang, deep in the sec­ond half, dart­ing in be­hind and nudg­ing the slight­est of fin­ishes be­yond Hugo Lloris.

And there, be­hind, strain­ing to his lim­its and push­ing his team for­ward, was Guen­douzi.

‘Last year was amaz­ing for him. This year he has started giv­ing us one step more’

Driv­ing force: Mat­teo Guen­douzi gave Arse­nal con­trol and be­lief

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