Sunday, June 16, 2024

I know that was Guen but it could be again

Matteo Guendouzi left Arsenal for Marseilles this week and his heartfelt social media farewell was not entirely reciprocated by Arsenal fans who have long since warmed up to the idea of him departing the club. Like most Arsenal players from the last ten years or so, opinions on his talent were divided.

Some saw a teenager confidently swinging from vine to vine in the unforgiving jungle of Premier League midfields, others saw a competent player who didn’t really specialise in anything with an ego far in excess of his talent. As ever with these things, the truth lies somewhere between these two poles.

It is true that few teenagers play as many Premier League minutes as Guendouzi managed- especially under Unai Emery’s stewardship- and it’s also true that his attributes are difficult to pin down. My own view is that this type of midfield player is appreciated more by coaches than supporters.

Over the last 15 years midfield trios have come to dominate the European football landscape and within that structure, there are three broad categories. There is the deepest midfield player, the famed ‘DM’, whose job is either to build play from deep with probing, searching passes or else to mercilessly destroy opposition attacks at source, depending on the team.

The ball playing types tend to be more appreciated by coaches than supporters, who feel anxious and risk averse watching their teams and therefore prefer someone in the more destructive mode. But nobody is under any illusion as to the role of this player. Then there is your most advanced midfielder, whose role is to prize opposition defences open, either with powerful off the ball running or by piercing defences with decisive final third passing.

Again, this player is easy enough to appreciate. However, the ‘middle pin’ is usually the most unheralded of the trio. Think of Kovacic at Chelsea, Kroos at Madrid or even Pogba at Manchester United. The midfield ‘in-betweeners’ have a less defined, tangible role and it can make them difficult to evaluate.

Guendouzi is every inch the ‘middle pin’ because progressive passing data does not excite spectators the way a coruscating through ball or sliding tackle does. The fluctuations in Guendouzi’s reputation are both a reminder of how difficult the modern number 8 is to quantify and of our speed to judgement on players.

Many have pointed out, with some justification I think, that Guendouzi looked far better in Emery’s chaotic midfield soup, which lacked structure and impetus. In this environment, Matteo could play his brand of heroball without consequence. In Arteta’s more considered midfield construction, Guendouzi’s impetuousness was a less satisfying fit.

Even leaving aside his reputation as a ‘prickly’ character, Guendouzi failed to tear up any trees during his season at Hertha Berlin and he returns to France, once again looking to rebuild his reputation in his home country. A little over 18 months ago he was talked about as a talent that could fetch Arsenal more than £50m by his early to mid-20s.

Instead, Arsenal will roughly break even on what they paid for him, with a loan to Marseilles the best offer they could generate. Despite his demise, it does demonstrate the value of taking a risk on this profile of player. While the club will not turn a massive profit on him, he is the first player they have managed to offload to another club in this window.

22-year olds tend to generate interest in the market regardless of circumstance. I am not convinced that Guendouzi is the type of character who would know how to put his tail between his legs but even if he is returning to France as “unrealised potential” he is still out of the door. Meanwhile, more senior recruits ready themselves for another pre-season having a nice time in the Colney gym and spa.

William Saliba is another teenage talent Arsenal acquired from France, albeit at a much larger cost than Guendouzi. Marseilles also expressed an interest in taking Saliba on loan but his departure would not be greeted with the same indifference that Guendouzi’s has been. Many Arsenal fans (me included) are invested in the idea of Saliba.

I think this is less to do with people’s knowledge of the player and more to do with what his signing was supposed to represent. Signed shortly after Virgil van Dijk had proved to be the final brick in the Liverpool wall, Saliba was supposed to represent the beginning of Arsenal’s ‘outsmart the market’ era.

In hindsight, his signing really provides further proof that Raul Sanllehi was very good at spending the club’s money very badly. Arsenal fans see a series of three-star hotels in defence at the moment and are wearied and worn by the acquisition of more experienced defenders like David Luiz, Sokratis and Shkodran Mustafi.

The size of the fee paid for Saliba understandably whetted our appetites for the player who, we thought and hoped, would represent the cornerstone of the Gunners defence for years to come or else would be sold on at huge profit to a European super club. Dino Mavropanos has spent a few strong seasons on loan on the continent and hasn’t attracted nearly as much gnashing of teeth because he initially cost £1.8m.

Saliba is still only 20 and it is true that not many 20-year olds are regulars in central defence at Europe’s elite clubs. Mavropanos is 23 and has arguably only really found his feet this season in Germany. Arsenal are waving pound notes at Brighton in pursuit of 23-year old Ben White, who only managed his first season as a Premier League regular last year.

Prior to that, he enjoyed / endured loan spells at Newport County, Peterborough and Leeds United in their Championship winning season. The issue for Arsenal and Saliba, of course, is that if he isn’t going to be ready for regular minutes at Arsenal until he is 22 or 23, he will need to sign a new contract before making that step and it is difficult to see that happening.

Arsenal will likely succeed in fattening him up for another club but not a superclub like many Arsenal fans will have envisaged. Once again, in this scenario, the club would be very fortunate to even break even on their investment. Saliba is looking like a fish that Arsenal caught too early.

The truth is that signing prodigious young talent is a game of trial and error and there will be more failures than successes. Even Arsene Wenger had more failures in this market than successes, it’s just that the failures were low-key, low-risk, low cost and easily moved on. Arsenal should not be discouraged by Guendouzi’s demise.

They should not even be discouraged by the soap opera that Saliba’s situation has become. They acquired Gabriel Martinelli for £6m which is a significant coup and offers validation for fishing in this pond. Guendouzi and Saliba have not damaged Arsenal and, crucially, they will not consider Arsenal as a nice pension option with full gym and leisure centre privileges if and when they are deemed surplus to requirements. This is a road the club should continue to tread and they should just chalk the failures up to, well, experience.

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