Ask any Arsenal supporter who follows the Gunners’ midfield especially closely and they will probably tell you that their preferred middle-of-the-park pairing is the terrier-like Lucas Torreira alongside Granit Xhaka. So, where does Mattéo Guendouzi fit in? There is no doubt that the French schemer is a star in the making and many critics say he can be the bedrock of coach Mikel Arteta’s plans for the future. Xhaka, who is 27, may or may not be around when the new campaign kicks off next season having endured a torrid time during the spell of coach Unai Emery.
Yes, he is back in the good books now and if fit, start games for the Gunners — but he isn’t Arteta’s man and his chequered past at the Emirates Stadium (the Switzerland star was booed off in the draw at home to Crystal Palace and tore his shirt off and appeared to swear at home fans) may see him seek pastures new in the summer. That would allow Guendouzi, aged just 20, to cement his place in the team, pairing up with the industrious Uruguayan Torreira, aged 24. With flair players in front of the duo and also on the wings, the two would act as anchors as Arsenal advance, mopping up as they go — grabbing possession before the opponents get through to the back line and with the vision they enjoy, soon able to slot in the attacking players through short, sharp and crucially, forward passing.
Like, Torreira France under-21 ace Guendouzi is every inch the workhorse but his lung-busting energy levels aren’t his only asset — his willingness to get forward has been tempered by his stay-at-home role but Arteta may well develop this should he choose to promote him to a first-pick player. Given his tender years, he is player who can be moulded more easily into the role.
Where he falls down
One area crying out for development is his end product. The statistic that shouts this the loudest is the fact that he has just one assist and no goals from the 26 games that he has played in the Premier League and the Europa League so far this term. Of course, sitting in the holding midfield role means he is unlikely to venture forward as much as he might, and his coaches, chief among them Arteta, will be constantly reminding him that he must maintain his mental strength to sit in, and not maraud forward on a whim, changing the shape and methodology asked for by the man in charge. The notion is that with such skilled operatives ahead of him, they can be charged with doing the damage in front of goal and when and if play breaks down it will be the first job of the defensive midfield duo to break things up and go again once in possession.
Arsenal under Arteta next season are highly likely to go with a fluid shape that ostensibly relies on either a five at the back with two wing-backs — soon-to-be-fit Kieran Tierney, aged, 22, and Hector Bellerin, aged 24, on the right. If you have a floating number 10 (currently Mesut Ozil but this may change in the summer) behind a main striker, such as Alex Lacazette, you would then see players such as Nic Pepe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang fighting for the remaining two berths.
That would change, though, if Arteta went with a flat back four and allow another player to come in to make an attacking triumvirate. The personnel could change since Arteta gets to choose his men and others, who came in under Emery and Arsene Wenger, may be shipped out. But the basic principles of the two systems won’t change. One thing in Guendouzi’s favour is Arteta’s absolute insistence on work ethic, pressing hard to gain back possession as soon as possible. He is young enough, willing enough and determined enough to fulfil that role perfectly.
But it is felt he must cut out the dramatics — we see too often that he throws himself to the floor with the merest hint off a challenge and although he gets away with it sometimes, most officials — and certainly opponents — see through it. Moreover, when he hits the deck in possession it stifles the rhythm of an Arsenal attack. If he retains possession, stays on his feet and takes advantage of the space with a cunning through ball, the Gunners will soon be in the final third and enjoy the element of surprise, rather than stopping the game for a free-kick and lose the power of momentum.
A worthy custodian in shape of Leno
Although Arteta will bring in new faces and may be forced to tinkle with his formation — switching from a five to a four depending on the opponents and their tactics — one member of the team who is unlikely to change is, of course Bernd Leno. The German keeper, who signed on in north London in 2018 from Bayer Leverkusen, will be determined to keep more clean sheets as his career with the Gunners progresses.
To date, his top-flight record stands at 11 in 57 outings but in his defence, he has had various combinations of rear-guard formations and personal in front of him and it is certainly an area of concern for Arteta. The Spanish coach, a former Arsenal midfielder who joined as head coach after leaving Manchester City as Pep Guardiola’s No.2, wants to play out from the back where possible with the idea to commit opposing players and thus force them to change their shape and, subsequently, their tactics.
While fans wince as Leno passes back and forth to the likes of David Luiz, Sokratis Papastathopoulos or Shkodran Mustafi to commit players, Arteta is insistent that this be the case, knowing that when they can then break it is between the lines given the advancing opponents — and the space they have left behind them. Thus far, it is fair to say, it is a work in progress. Again, though, with players who are perhaps more comfortable on the ball in tight situations, it could well flourish.
This season it is all about perhaps a cup, and pushing for Europa League qualification. But it is next season when the real Arsenal under Arteta will emerge.