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
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