Arsenal battled back to earn a 2-2 draw with Tottenham in an entertaining game that exposed the frailties of both teams but it was the performance of Matteo Guendouzi that should offer the most encouragement for Gunners supporters, writes Adam Bate.
Matteo Guendouzi was not the France-born star that Arsenal supporters were most excited about seeing in action against Tottenham on Sunday. There were even team-mates with his haircut seen as more likely to bring that bit of leadership to Unai Emery’s team. But neither Nicolas Pepe nor David Luiz could match Matteo Guendouzi’s efforts on the day.
The midfielder was Arsenal’s standout performer in the North London derby. It was not a perfect performance. There was too much chaos around him in this thrilling 2-2 draw for that. But he showed character and quality to help haul the Gunners back into the game and take the team into the international break with some optimism that better times are ahead.
That had been one of the themes of the build-up to the game after Manchester City and Liverpool had dished out their latest beatings to underline their superiority the previous afternoon. What exactly do the three-time Premier League champions Arsenal need to do to be able to compete at that level again? Most agree that there is no easy route back.
Much of what followed at the Emirates Stadium is unlikely to alter that view any time soon. After a positive start, a poor decision from Sokratis Papastathopoulos presented Tottenham with an opening and some miserable goalkeeping from Bernd Leno gifted the visitors the lead. When Granit Xhaka inexplicably fouled Heung-min Son in the box it was soon 2-0.
These were mistakes from the senior men, the sort of individuals who are supposed to be showing the oft-discussed character that Arsenal are routinely accused of lacking. But these big games demand more than the overt displays of machismo that Sokratis is fond of or the swagger of David Luiz, who incidentally also went walkabout again for the opening goal.
What is needed is some substance and Guendouzi provided it. Xhaka, incongruously, is the Arsenal captain but it was the junior man in midfield who led by example. Xhaka was the one who left his team with a mountain to climb. Guendouzi was the one whose efforts in the second half meant that the Gunners almost succeeded in climbing it.
While Xhaka committed more fouls, Guendouzi made more tackles. No Arsenal player regained possession more times than he did and no Arsenal player covered more ground either – 11.2 kilometres in total. He even came up with that wonderfully imaginative pass that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was able to divert in for the equaliser.
“The ball was perfect,” Aubameyang told Sky Sports. “He looks at me and he knows I’m going to run.” It was Guendouzi’s first Premier League assist and he would have registered his first Premier League goal too had his compatriot Hugo Lloris not saved brilliantly low down to his left. If the youngster is adding goals and assists too then he really will be some player.
“He is very young but he’s progressing,” said Emery. “Last year was amazing for him. This year he’s giving us one step more. Tactically with the ball he gives us a lot of control, he’s one of the keys for that. He works to give us balance defensively. He’s very demanding with himself, when he’s playing like today I prefer to have the balance with him.”
Not everybody is convinced that Arsenal are making great progress but when it comes to Guendouzi the optimism flows more easily. At 20, there is clearly much more to come from him and this was a big performance in a big game. The sort of afternoon that accelerates a player’s progress. For that reason more than any other, Guendouzi offers hope.
Gary Neville was speaking sense when he speculated on co-commentary that Xhaka could be a prime example of “an experienced player who never becomes experienced” and some would suggest there are other candidates for that tag in the back line too. The feeling that this is a club doomed to repeat its mistakes is a familiar one for Arsenal supporters.
The best antidote to that poisonous emotion is the welcome sight of a young player making huge strides in their development. Emery knows that Arsenal cannot do everything they need to do in the transfer market, it has to happen on the training ground too. If Matteo Guendouzi can continue in this vein, then he can become the symbol of that aspiration.