Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The non-negotiables

Matteo Guendouzi was supposed to signal a new era for Arsenal, on the pitch and in the transfer market. In many ways, he absolutely does symbolise a new era with Mikel Arteta’s new broom shooing him towards the exit door. Guendouzi arrived in the summer of 2018, just a few months after the club had committed a large chunk of its resource to 29-year olds Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mesut Özil.

Sokratis and Stephan Lichsteiner joined in the same summer as Guendouzi with the word on the grapevine that Arsenal had a recruitment brief to sign “men.” Guendouzi was the boy with the self-assurance of someone far more seasoned. Aubameyang, Mkhitaryan and Özil were about a club throwing its house keys onto the poker table in an attempt to regain admission to the Champions League.

Sokratis and Lichtsteiner were short-term sticking plasters in areas where Arsenal were light. Bernd Leno also signed for Arsenal during the summer of 2018 and one could argue there was an element of expedience to this purchase. Leno was available at a good price and from a market Head of Recruitment Sven Mislintat knew well.

Guendouzi, alongside Uruguayan Lucas Torreira, was supposed to be the future of Arsenal’s midfield and the future of Arsenal’s Sven Mislintat led recruitment. Both showed up favourably on Mislintat’s databases and both had flown under the radar of other European clubs. This was Arsenal boxing clever.

Privately, Arsenal might have expected for both to excel and to be sold onto one of Europe’s behemoths for a generous profit and re-establish the club’s reputation as a finishing school. (Arsene Wenger’s greatest team was built on the sales of Anelka, Petit and Overmars). Two years later, it looks as though Guendouzi will be ‘flipped’ and the profits re-invested, but not in the circumstances Arsenal would have expected.

By the end of the summer, the club might reasonably claim to have fattened Guendouzi up for sale but he will leave as a thorn in the side rather than a jewel in the crown. In fairness, the Frenchman has plenty of previous and the realisation that he is a pain in the arse can’t be a total surprise- it’s probably why Arsenal were able to attract him in the first place.

Arsenal are just not front of the queue for Europe’s most precocious talents, they have to buy the products with some superficial damage to the packaging. It’s how the club previously attracted talent like Anelka, Vieira, Henry, Wiltord, van Persie and even Dennis Bergkamp. Guendouzi has always been a brat on the pitch and that’s not really an issue.

Many, me very much included, have been arguing passionately for Arsenal to up their bastard quota and Guendouzi might as well take the pitch sporting a black hat and twirly moustache. As the likes of David Luiz and Marouane Fellaini have found, having a noticeable mop of hair makes your misdemeanours stand out- rightly or wrongly.

The problem, we are told with believable authority, is his attitude on the training ground. Since the day he stepped back into London Colney, Arteta has been an evangelist for increased professionalism, preaching from his tablet of “non-negotiables.” Some players have already fallen foul of Arteta’s culture war.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Dani Ceballos and Nicolas Pepe have been recipients of the manager’s tough love. Arteta’s former teammate Mesut Özil has also been consigned to the naughty step. The profiles of the aforementioned vary significantly. The academy graduate, the loan signing, the recent record signing, and the club’s most senior and highly paid player and former teammate of the coach.

Maitland-Niles, Ceballos and Pepe were welcomed back into the fold by increasing their level of commitment in training. Guendouzi cannot claim to have been victimised, we can safely assume that there is an equally applied democracy at play. In a sense, Guendouzi is a useful fall-guy for Arteta’s cultural deep clean.

The club needs money to rebuild the squad and Guendouzi is one of the few players of good value. He is 21-years old and has two years remaining on his contract. His disciplinary issues multiplied by his contractual situation make conditions ripe for a sale. In terms of Arteta’s authority, Guendouzi could be a useful victim.

Özil had issues with Unai Emery and Freddie Ljungberg and everybody knows that the club would really like to lose his salary from their books. He is no longer an impressive fall-guy, his inclusion in a match day squad draws as much discussion as his exclusion nowadays. He is not Arsenal’s future.

Likewise, were it, I don’t know, Sokratis, or Sead Kolasinac (two men I wouldn’t like to fall out with, in fairness) a fallout could be viewed conveniently. Guendouzi walks the line between a player of potential and one whose contribution is not so crucial that it would be missed at this stage. In more respects than one, Guendouzi is a legitimate scalp for Arteta as he seeks to impose himself.

Matteo’s talent is debated keenly by Arsenal fans. Some view him as a rare talent with a high ceiling, whose cocksureness in possession makes him the epitome of the modern midfielder. Others aren’t really sure what he does. He doesn’t have an obvious superpower, he doesn’t crash into tackles, he doesn’t dribble and pass with a Cazorla-like craft and he doesn’t score or create goals.

In many ways, he calls to mind arguments that have raged over creative attackers like the Alexes Iwobi and Hleb. To some he does “the bit before the stuff everyone notices” to a high-level (which is why he is valued by his coaches), others see him as someone that does everything and nothing.

Guendouzi is a divisive player because his qualities are difficult to pin down and it depends how much you value them. Much also depends on whether you value his “competitive spirit” or whether you just think he’s a dick. His potential, or his “ceiling” is a mystery and it will be interesting to see which clubs regard him as a worthwhile gamble. He remains a mass of intangibles.

What is contradictory about Guendouzi is that he has almost no social media profile to smooth out the rough edges of his character. Wojciech Szczesny, for instance, found forgiveness for his mistakes because many Arsenal fans connected with his character. To some of us, those errors were all part of his “brand.” Guendouzi’s rebellious streak is unrefined in our minds.

Midfield is the part of the team that requires the most obvious surgery and one could argue that Arsenal cannot spare talented young midfielders at the moment. The urgency to sell Guendouzi might now rescue the Arsenal careers of Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Dani Ceballos for another year.

The purchase of Matteo Guendouzi was meant to signal a new era for Arsenal but it will be his departure that sounds the starting gun of the revolution. His Gunners tenure will not necessarily symbolise an era of smart, data driven recruitment or youth development, but as the first refusenik to walk the plank- the first victim of the “non-negotiables.”

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