The North London Derby always gives an opportunity for a player to demonstrate his importance to his club. While Granit Xhaka floundered, Matteo Guendouzi took centre stage.
Arsenal fans know how to recognise a player announcing himself, especially in the heart of midfield. Jack Wilshere’s display in Barcelona in 2011 is still considered the stuff of legend, while many will have their opinion on the moment Cesc Fàbregas truly arrived.
Matteo Guendouzi is young enough not to have a defined ceiling at this stage in his career, but his display in the 2-2 draw with Tottenham was enough to give the home support plenty to be excited about, even before he laid on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s equaliser.
One of the toughest things in a derby is to remain calm and assertive as others lose their minds.
Games between Arsenal and Spurs are generally frantic at the best of times, but it felt as though there was an extra element of chaos this time around. Perhaps it was the presence of David Luiz rubbing off on the other 21 players, like an unruly class trying to up their game to impress the ‘cool’ substitute teacher.
Guendouzi refused to take the bait, though, instead playing at his own pace. Sometimes that meant slowing things down and giving his team-mates space to recover, but on others it meant recognising no one else was going to force the situation so it was up to him to do it himself.
We saw this with the Frenchman’s low shot which drew a sharp save from Hugo Lloris, and then again with the perfect ball to put Aubameyang in for the second Arsenal goal.
Guendouzi looks like he’s playing at a different speed to everyone else. While they all give the appearance of needing to keep moving just to stay alive, his strides feel like deep breaths in contrast to the hyperventilations of his opponents.
His movements are deliberate, showing his working even before he reaches his destination, just in case someone attempts to suggest he didn’t do exactly what he had planned.
You can see him catch a glance of Aubameyang as he floats left, before changing direction to feed in a ball to perfect it only needs the slightest of touches to take it beyond Lloris, who’s damned if he comes to claim and equally helpless if he stays at home.
It’s as if Guendouzi has taken out the last free jenga block, leaving Tottenham’s tower to topple regardless of their next move. They can’t do anything to salvage the game; they just need to hope the Gunners somehow blow it down themselves.
Any doubts over Guendouzi’s intentions can also be answered by another assist of his from his maiden Arsenal season.
On that occasion, against Blackpool, it was Stephan Lichtsteiner tucking the ball away. If that isn’t enough to convince you the quality of the ball – rather than the finisher – made the goal, we’re not sure what will.
As with the goal against Tottenham, Guendouzi’s ball comes from a position where, if the ball was dead, many would consider the angle far too difficult to realistically lay on a goal.
He is not just required to create something out of nothing; he’s required to do so right at the very moment the opposing defence are expecting him to try to pull a rabbit out of a hat. That alone reduces his options, purely because it’s harder to pull off a sleight-of-hand trick when thousands of eyes are fixed on your fingers.
With anything other than a perfect execution, we’d be talking about Guendouzi’s wastefulness and lack of patience. However, there’s no need to be patient when you can be perfect.
We know Matteo Guendouzi is capable of moments of individual genius going forward, even if that isn’t the principle reason he was selected for the game against Tottenham.
Indeed, there’s a case for saying that’s the opposite of what he was picked to do: he was not intended to be a penetrating force, even in a midfield comprised of three nominally solid options, and we might have thought less of the assist had he not also done his principle job to near-perfection.
While those around him panicked or froze, Guendouzi invited attention purely because it’s what he thrives on.
The brilliance of his performance comes not in the subtlety of his assist or the intensity of his closing and harrying, but from the fact he was able to combine the two and know which was required at any given time.
And if that sounds easy, why was no one else doing the same?
By Tom Victor