Matteo Guendouzi fails Mikel Arteta’s audition in pivotal new Arsenal role

Throughout Arsenal’s meeting with Brighton at the weekend, Mikel Arteta patrolled his touchline.

Often, he could be heard shouting at the same player repeatedly during the clash at the Amex Stadium: Matteo Guendouzi.

“Matteo!” was the word on Arteta’s lips more than any other on the south coast, as he encouraged and cajoled the young Frenchman in what was a new role at the base of midfield.

Since replacing Unai Emery as manager, Arteta has preferred to utilise a 4-2-3-1 formation designed to get the best out of Mesut Ozil in his preferred No.10 position, with a double-pivot in front of the back four.

But he is increasingly moving more to a 4-3-3 – similar to that utilised by Manchester City – with twin No.8s either side of a single defensive pivot shielding.

On Saturday, Guendouzi was handed that No.6 position as the deepest lying of Arsenal's midfield trio, with Dani Ceballos slightly advanced to his right and Bukayo Saka on his left.

It is a specific role in which Guendouzi hasn’t played for the Gunners competitively before, but which Arteta appears to have earmarked for him moving forwards; he has been working with Guendouzi on body position and when and where to support on the training ground.

Interestingly, Ceballos and Guendouzi both played in the role in the friendly against Brentford earlier this month – with the latter losing possession deep in his own half for one of the Championship side’s goals.

But with Granit Xhaka absent, Guendouzi was handed the deep role on Saturday, something of a pointer towards the long-term, given Ceballos is expected to return to Real Madrid when his loan expires and with questions over whether Xhaka has the mobility to do what the likes of Fernandinho and Fabinho do.

Arteta kept a clear eye on the France Under-21 international, frequently adjusting his position during brief breaks in play or when Brighton had it in harmless areas, coaching him one-to-one.

Duly, for much of the opening 65 minutes, Guendouzi stuck gamely to his task. He passed the ball forwards, diligently protected Rob Holding and Shkodran Mustafi and was always available to receive a pass from a teammate.

Over the course of the 90 minutes he completed 43 of 45 passes – including 10 from 10 into the final third – made six interceptions – albeit five were in the first half – and six recoveries, according to Wyscout.

So far, so good.

But after Nicolas Pepe fired Arsenal into the lead, Guendouzi lost his way.

To that point Arsenal had been the more assured side. Not quite commanding, but comfortable.

Then, they let the game get away from them.

And none more so than the young Frenchman, whose focus seemingly switched from leading his side to victory to engaging with Neal Maupay during the period between Arsenal taking the lead and falling to a 2-1 defeat.

“Some of Arsenal’s players need to learn humility,” said Maupay post-game. “They have been talking a lot first half, second half when they were 1-0 up. They got what they deserved.

“Especially one of them. I mean he was talking the whole game but was saying really bad things, I don’t want to say what he said because I could be in trouble. It was in French because he is French.

“So when I scored I just needed to say ‘that’s what happens when you talk too much on the pitch.’”

It was a pointed comment, and it didn't need Inspector Clouseau to figure out he was talking about Guendouzi.

At numerous times in the second period he and Maupay – who himself, ask anyone at Brentford or Brighton, is no on-pitch saint – could be spotted making remarks to one another, all likely stemming from the Brighton striker having been involved in the game’s most contentious moment, with his token gesture of a challenge leading to Bernd Leno being replaced on a stretcher due to injury.

But while focusing on their own diegesis clearly worked for Maupay – after all, he was the match winner – it took Guendouzi off his game.

Had Guendouzi been fully focused at 1-0, perhaps he wouldn’t have let Lewis Dunk escape his clutches at a shoddily defended corner, allowing Brighton to equalise; it was Guendouzi who had been tasked with blocking Dunk’s runs, but who let him go in the six-yard box where a kind ricochet allowed the Brighton skipper to level.

Perhaps if he hadn’t been riled up and spent much of the last 15 minutes aimlessly wandering out to either flank, trying to put out fires that weren’t there, then Brighton wouldn’t have been able to take a grasp of midfield, ultimately leading to their injury-time winner.

Guendouzi’s impetuousness got the better of him, just as it did at the final whistle as he grabbed Maupay around the throat; he could now face an FA ban.

Ian Wright on Match of the Day said he was pleased to see an Arsenal player show some “fight”. But it was his colleague, Alan Shearer, who had it right. That from Guendouzi was nothing more than a token gesture after a battle already lost. It was “too little, too late”.

What was needed was more calculating coldness, less temper. Someone who knew the job at hand was about winning the game and that you can then sort out any ill-feeling later. Guendouzi lacked that level of maturity.

Arteta offered little publicly post-game with regards the events at the final whistle.

But he made clear his anger at how his side let the lead slip, in what was a clear reminder to Guendouzi and co.

“We haven't competed and you have to do that in the Premier league,” said Arteta. “We lost important duels so it's all our fault.

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“I don't have concerns about their character, it's about how you compete in every Premier League match. It's for a 100 minutes in this case, it's for every ball and for every action.

“When you lose attention the opponent will punish you and it's not the first time it has happened. If you want to win football games consistently at this level that's a must and it's non negotiable.

“I think the players competed for large part of game but in crucial moments when you don't you pay attention you pay the price.”

Ultimately Arsenal lost their grip on three much-needed points.

Guendouzi lost sight of what Arsenal had set out to achieve at the Amex.

And having placed his trust in the 21 year-old, it may well be that which most enrages the Gunners boss as he continues to plot his side's future.

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