Agent of Change

It’s a confusing time to be an Arsenal fan. The change most of us thirsted after is here and yet, we exist in a kind of limbo. Behind the scenes and in the playing squad, the last 12 months or so has seen a total staffing revolution. New manager, new assistant, new recruitment and retention staff, new academy and development staff, new high performance staff and, soon, a new CEO.

Meanwhile, Stan Kroenke has hoovered up the last tasty morsels of Arsenal’s shareholding. On the playing side, Wojciech Szczesny, Kieran Gibbs, Gabriel, Alexis Sanchez, Lucas Perez, Jack Wilshere, Olivier Giroud, David Ospina, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, Santi Cazorla, Calum Chambers, Joel Campbell and Francis Coquelin have all departed since last summer.

That’s quite the turnover. Yet organisational change is more slow-cooker than microwave oven. All of that churn takes a little while to become baked into cultural change. So while Arsenal is barely recognisable compared to 18 months ago, things are still a little samey. We’re ravenous for signs of revolution, but bar a little bit of playing out from the back and a pinch of high pressing, the software is still updating.

A quirk of the fixture list has seen the Gunners handed two of their toughest assignments of the season whilst in this state of semi-chrysalis. Ordinarily, Arsenal fans have become accustomed to results like these in big games and our spleens are plenty well-rehearsed at venting themselves in response.

Yet the removal of Arsene Wenger gives us nowhere to throw our rotten tomatoes. Unai Emery is still sizing up the job, like a baby impala still absorbing the concept of the food chain. So instead, we are left to swallow back the bilious lumps in our throats and shrug. Arsenal brought in some new faces this summer, but as yet most of them have failed to provide any discussion points.

Bernd Leno must bide his time on the sub’s bench, Lucas Torreira has been integrated slowly, we’ve had a fleeting glimpse of Stephan Lichtsteiner. Sokratis is 30 and there are enough Dortmund literate types to give us verse and chapter on his qualities and flaws. Aubemeyang and Lacazette have yet to score this season, Ramsey has only managed around half of the team’s 180 minutes as he manages a calf strain (plus ça change!) and Mesut Özil’s frown is starting to develop a frown of its own.

Arsenal had some bright spells against City and Chelsea which demonstrate promise, but ultimately the team were undone by careless, sloppy defending. All of which is to say precisely nothing has changed yet. Most of us suspected this would be the case as Emery seeks to redecorate the early 2000s décor of the previous resident.

The one thing that has demonstratively changed is the wiry, mop haired figure of Matteo Guendouzi. He is a very visible type of player and not simply because of Weird Al Yankovich hairdo (a reference for our millennial readers, there). After a season of Diet Wilshere and “IS GRANIT XHAKA ACTUALLY ANY GOOD?!” the puppyish stylings of Guendouzi have caught the collective eye in midfield.

Lucas Torreira was the man billed as the agent of change in Arsenal’s midfield, but Guendouzi has photobombed the promotional poster, his tongue hanging out wildly and his fingers giving the devil horn salute. Guendouzi has air guitared his way through the opening two games.

As well as looking like a tantalising prospect, Guendouzi has served another important function- he has given Arsenal fans something else to talk about while we wait for more identifiable signs of change. There is only so much conversation one can tolerate about “playing out from the back”, after all.

It’s noticeable that Matteo has been trusted quite a bit more than most of Arsenal’s summer recruits thus far. Some of this will be due to a staggered summer of preparation after this summer’s World Cup. Guendouzi was an ever present during pre-season- as was Sokratis, so it stands to reason they’ve played every minute of the opening two games.

The Frenchman was the last of Arsenal’s summer signings and, reportedly, Emery is a long-time admirer. In fact, Emery apparently personally put the finishing touches on the transfer to secure the 19-year old’s signature from Lorient.

Arsenal are still settling into their new recruitment strategy, with Sven Mislintat driving that particular vehicle. This summer was always likely to be a bumpy one in that respect, Arsenal’s recruitment team were established prior to Emery’s appointment. The club, understandably, seemed to make the call to not stand on ceremony for the new man and make their moves in the market early.

Given how efficiently Arsenal’s business was conducted, it’s fair to observe a little overlap. I don’t imagine that Emery ran the rule over Lichtsteiner, Sokratis and Leno in anything other than a cursory fashion. Guendouzi arrived a little later, having spent some time in the academy of Emery’s previous club. Again, we can only speculate, but there is reason to believe that the signing has, if not Emery’s paw prints all over it, then his authorising signature.

Guendouzi could be a very interesting addition. Arsenal’s midfield seems to be a collection of 4s and 10s. Xhaka and Torreira are most comfortable in a deeper role picking the ball up off the defence. Ramsey and Özil have operated more as part of Arsenal’s forward line than the midfield in the opening matches.

Guendouzi is interesting because he looks a bit more comfortable in the “connector” role and the Gunners haven’t had that sort of player since Santi Cazorla’s achilles died and went to heaven. He seems to have an interesting mix of attributes; tackling, passing and generally running around a bit don’t appear to present him with any issues.

 

An all-rounder is an interesting cat to place amongst a flock of specialist pigeons. The Frenchman is still rough around the edges and the fact that we still know so little about him allows us to project our hopes and dreams onto him. These crushes don’t always last- this time last year Arsenal fans took to Kolasinac because his Hulkish frame was so distinct from Wenger’s more svelte prototypes.

Emmanuel Frimpong was sent off on his Arsenal debut and received a standing ovation at the Emirates, because his careless, bull in a china shop approach was something to cling to during a summer of chaos. It remains to be seen how Guendouzi develops- especially once Lucas Torreira is fully up to speed.

By December, we might all be sick of the sight of him. His flaws might become familiar tropes that come to characterise him. His hair might even begin to annoy people in the strange way that Hector Bellerin’s does. But for now, Guendouzi is serving an important purpose, as a palate cleansing mouthwash while we await the more overpowering notes of change.

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Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available to order here.