On the crossroads facing Arsenal and their young French midfielder, and why the right choice may not be the obvious one…
Mattéo Guendouzi arrived in North London as an unknown, rose to be a promising and exciting young prospect in an Arsenal team with several exciting young talents, but just as quickly as that all happened, he may be on his way out.
For those not caught up with the situation, I will fill you in. Guendouzi was more of a regular fixture in the Arsenal team under the management of Unai Emery, but upon arrival of Mikel Arteta in December, he has seen his role dwindle. Guendouzi has always been a bit of a hothead on the pitch, prone to episodes of frustration and anger that have never completely gotten out of hand, but have came close. The most famous prior example was his rugby tackle on Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha in October, a foul equally born out of tactical necessity and sheer frustration at the situation Arsenal found themselves in. In Arsenal’s match against Brighton last Saturday, however, it seemed to elevate to a step worse than before. Following the Gunners’ frustrating 2-1 loss on the South Coast, Guendouzi was shown grabbing at the throat of Brighton forward Neal Maupay, leading to a scuffle between the two teams. This seemed to be the start and finish of the situation, but Maupay’s interesting post-match interview, seemingly targeted at Guendouzi, hinted at other issues throughout the match. It would come out later that Guendouzi was taunting the Brighton players throughout the match, insulting them and stating that he and his Arsenal teammates will earn more money than they ever will. According to some accounts, this is not the only time that the young Frenchman has engaged in this type of behavior.
Mikel Arteta has responded by dropping Guendouzi from the team. The Frenchman did not feature in the starting XI or on the bench in Arsenal’s league win over Southampton or FA Cup Quarterfinal win over Sheffield United. Arteta probably did this to send a message to the youngster, as well as his whole team, that the behavior Guendouzi displayed against Brighton is immature and unacceptable in his team, but instead of deescalating the situation, things took another turn. According to French outlet L’Équipe, Guendouzi has approached the Arsenal hierarchy and demanded to leave the club, stating that he feels his development as a player has stagnated since Arteta’s arrival. Arteta and the player held private discussions to “clear the air”, but the rumors seemingly have not subsided. In Arteta’s pre-match press conference before their FA Cup tie, he said he only wants players at the club who are fully on board, and anyone who is not is free to leave with his blessing. The fact that this could have been targeted at multiple players is not a great thing for Arsenal fans to think about, but it is likely that one of the main intended recipients of this message was Guendouzi. Arsenal next play on Wednesday, hosting bottom of the league Norwich City, so we will see if Guendouzi is brought back into the fold for that much, but for now, that is all of the developments.
Mattéo Guendouzi is quite an interesting figure. The kid is clearly talented, and he has shown this talent in brilliant flashes while wearing an Arsenal shirt, to the point where it earned him a call-up to the French national team. However, he has also been very inconsistent, at times being just a player who runs everywhere without actually contributing much to the team or, worse, getting into needless trouble with officials or other players. Inconsistency is not unusual for a young player. Development is rarely a straight line, so it is natural for a young player to experience bumps in the road and setbacks. The trouble comes in the environment he has been in. The insanity of Arsenal has probably taken its toll on his development, and Unai Emery did not do a good job at forming an environment and dressing room that is conducive to developing a young player suffering from maturity issues. In the right environment, Guendouzi will likely develop into a fine player and have a great career, but he is at a major crossroads now, with the wrong choice potentially derailing a possibly stunning career.
So what should Guendouzi do? Let us look at the options.
There are three clubs reportedly heavily interested in securing Guendouzi’s signature: Atlético Madrid, Inter Milan, and PSG. Let us weigh up the options, starting with PSG.
Guendouzi hails from Poissy, one of the outer suburbs of Paris, and he began his career with the capital club as a youth player. From age six, he played within the PSG youth system before being released, signing with Lorient in 2014. He has previously talked about the motivation that being released at PSG gave him, and he famously was on the Lorient side that beat PSG in the French u17 Cup Final in 2015. He made it in the Lorient first team before signing with Arsenal, and it appears that the Parisians want their former youth player back. For a player who says he wants to go to a club to continue his development, PSG seems to be the wrong move. There are definitely positives. A move back to his native country might be more comfortable, and the ability to work with and compete against true world-class talent on a regular basis would help Guendouzi grow in training and be mentored by quality senior players. However, there are still significant issues. The Parisians have a notedly poor recent history with developing their young talent, with Presnel Kimpembe being among the few PSG youth products to break into the first team in the last few years. Guendouzi knows this well, having been released by PSG during his youth career, so I question why he would want to return. He has also just seen two players from within or near his age group at PSG, Adil Aouchiche and Tanguy Kouassi, leave the club for developmental reasons. If he wants to develop as a young player, all of the signs seem to say PSG is the wrong choice. He would also start out fairly low in the pecking order for center midfield spots, behind Marco Verratti, Idrissa Gueye, Leandro Paredes, and Ander Herrera. At his age, being at or close to the first team should be the priority, and it is hard to see how he fits in competing with those four for two starting places.
A move to Atlético Madrid or Inter would pose similar issues. Unless some notable departures happen, both sides have set midfields. For Atléti, the trio of Koke, Saúl, and Thomas Partey seem immovable, and the emergence of Marcos Llorente would be another obstacle to the pitch for Guendouzi. At Inter, the trio of Christian Eriksen, Nicolò Barella, and Marcelo Brozović seem to be the set starters, and with the club actively courting Brescia wonderkid Sandro Tonali, very few spaces in the team are left. Inter does have one slight positive, in that outside of those main three, there are very few quality midfield options. Stefano Sensi was very solid prior to dealing with injuries, but Inter could definitely do better than Borja Valero, Roberto Gagliardini, and Mathias Vecino. There is an opportunity there for Guendouzi to be a trusted substitute or rotational piece, but if he is not happy with a similar role at Arsenal, then he will not be happy with the same in Italy.
There have been some reports linking Guendouzi with a move to Manchester United, which I do not completely buy. United’s needs lie elsewhere, and I do not imagine they would pay a high price for Guendouzi when they already have an excessive amount of midfielders. Nothing would surprise me with Ed Woodward’s transfer policy, however, and Guendouzi definitely is not the first Arsenal player with temper issues to move to a Premier League rival. I am more skeptical of the United link than the others and do not think it would be a good move for either party, but hey let us keep it in.
Now, all of these are just rumors, but if there is concrete contact between these clubs and Arsenal, and especially if there is concrete contact between these clubs and Guendouzi’s agent, then it shows evidence of something that I fear with young players. Guendouzi, either through poor advice or immaturity on his part, has decided to leave the most ideal current situation for him and is courting interest from clubs where his development will actually stagnate. Yes, Guendouzi should stay at Arsenal. It seems that the obvious choice is to hop off the sinking ship, but that would probably be the worst thing Guendouzi could do. Although he may not be featuring at the moment, he will likely find significantly more time in the first team next season, considering the questions that still surround the future of Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos in North London. At the end of the day, a player at Guendouzi’s stage of his career needs to play. It at least seems that Arsenal have reached a point of tranquility with Arteta as manager, and with a likely rebuild coming, Guendouzi has the chance to be one of the center pieces of this new look Arsenal team, rather than just be a forgettable extra at a bigger club. Arsenal will likely not sell, as they will probably not get that much in return in this COVID-impacted transfer market, but Guendouzi needs to realize that staying in North London is an opportunity, rather than a punishment. Arteta is a great man manager, and as a former Premier League veteran player in a position similar to Guendouzi, he is an ideal mentor for the young Frenchman. Ceballos will likely return to Spain at the end of the season, which allows Guendouzi to step into his preferred midfield position. Yes, Arsenal are not on the same level as those other three clubs, but to be honest, Guendouzi is not yet at that level either. He is not at the level or have the consistency as a player necessary to be a difference maker for a major Champions League side, and while Arsenal are definitely not in a good state, Guendouzi has more opportunities as a player, now working with a competent manager that can build him into a great professional.
This is a major turning point, and a major growing up moment, in Guendouzi’s career. In a team where many key players may have their minds set on moves elsewhere, it is easy for him to begin speculating about a move away from North London. However, there is a very harsh lesson to learn about the grass not always being greener on the other side, and while Arsenal may be on the verge of losing several players, Guendouzi cannot think of himself as one of them. His actions may have caused problems between himself and Arteta, but that relationship is not beyond repair, and there is still time for the youngster to realize that the best place for him to be is exactly where he already is. Guendouzi’s immaturity has cost him on the pitch before, but he cannot let it cost him off the pitch as well.
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