It was the biggest decision of Matteo Guendouzi’s life. It was the start of this summer and the 19-year-old needed to choose what type of environment would help him to grow, at which football club would his future take place.
It had been a difficult season for him, playing in patches for FC Lorient in Ligue 2 but falling out with manager Mickael Landreau and often being left out of the team. He could have played for France at the European Under-19 Championship in June, but he wanted his future finalised instead.
Not many teenagers from that position would have their pick of Europe’s top clubs, but Guendouzi is different. Borussia Dortmund, the great talent nurturers, had followed him for some time. So had Paris Saint-Germain, who wanted to buy back the player they released four years ago.
But Guendouzi only wanted Arsenal. Sven Mislintat and Unai Emery had both sought after him with their former employers, and when Arsenal first approached Lorient, the French side knew they were serious.
“Arsenal contacted us and it was very clear immediately he was a player they wanted to sign,” Lorient president Loic Fery remembers. “Once we had those clubs starting to be interested, we asked him where he wanted to go. He told me that Arsenal was his preference. He wanted to play in the Premier League and Arsenal would be great for him.”
Lorient were happy to sell him there. “One thing we don’t do at Lorient is let players who have such big potential go to clubs that are not top notch,” Fery says. “We definitely felt Arsenal would be a very good match for him.”
£7.5m later he was an Arsenal player and on Sunday Guendouzi made his Premier League debut at the Emirates against Manchester City. Up against the Premier League champions he looked out of place one moment then comfortably at home the next. He was brushed aside by Raheem Sterling for City’s first goal, but provided more midfield creativity than any of his team-mates. Assured and incisive in possession, he already looks like a more gifted deep-lying passer than Granit Xhaka.
It was a performance that underlined Guendouzi’s promise but also his lack of experience. He had only started four top flight games in his life before this one, and had never truly established himself in French senior football. And yet to speak to anyone who has worked with Guendouzi at Lorient is to hear of his unusual talent, and a temperament to match.
Guendouzi is not from Brittany but from Paris, from the suburb of Poissy, and he was in the PSG academy as a boy. But they released him at 14 and Lorient, who had just set up their own academy, picked him up. He quickly impressed with his natural ability on the ball, as well as his enthusiasm for the game. His gifted younger brother Milan soon followed. Like any very talented youngster, Matteo was the best player in every team he played in. “Each time he is tested at the upper level, at U16, U17, U19, each time it took him only a few times to become the boss of the team,” Fery remembers. Guendouzi inspired Lorient to win France’s under-17 tournament in 2015, a first for the club, and a vindication for signing him.
“We were all very impressed by how he plays with his head up,” remembers Fery. “Very much in the style of what Lorient had been historically playing, our passing game. That is what characterises him. I know he plays in front of the defence, but he is more of an offensive midfielder than a defensive midfielder. He is always looking for the impossible pass, the pass to make the difference.”
So Lorient did what they had never done before, fast-tracked Guendouzi from the academy towards a professional deal, which was agreed at the start of the 2016/17 season, to kick in on his 18th birthday. That season started awfully – seven defeats from the first nine games – and so coach Sylvain Ripoll decided to call on the precocious gangly 17-year-old, who was already nicknamed ‘David Luiz’. What most stood out for Ripoll was not the hair or even the technique but the personality. “He loves football, he eats football, drinks football, sleeps football,” he says. “He would be frustrated when training ended, even after two hours. If he has one more hour, he will be practicing with the ball, right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot.” Even more striking to Ripoll was Guendouzi’s bravery, always wanting to compete and challenge himself in difficult circumstances, especially on the pitch. “He has a big personality, and that is a rare personality for a young player.”
Guendouzi impressed in his league debut against Dijon but Lorient lost in the last minute and Ripoll was sacked. Guendouzi started the next two Ligue 1 games under a caretaker but that remains his best run in the top flight. Because things did not go so well with his replacement Bernard Casoni. During the winter break Lorient staff decided that Guendouzi should feature more in the second half of the season. “During the Christmas break we had a meeting with Casoni and decided that no matter what, we should use Guendouzi,” says former vice-president Alex Hayes.
So Casoni brought Guendouzi back in to start a cup game against Nice on 8 January. He was booked after just 12 minutes but kept flying into tackles and the referee told Casoni that if he did it again he would be sent off. After one more lunge, Casoni had to take Guendouzi off on 55 minutes, and the 17-year-old stormed off refusing to shake his manager’s hand. He only made one more appearance that season, as Lorient were relegated.
“He believes so much in himself that he is outraged with anyone who doesn’t place him on the same pedestal that he believes he should be placed on,” Hayes says. “He has real issues with that side of his temperament. He is not a bad kid, he’s not nasty, he’s just got an innate, deep belief in himself.”
Last season Lorient were in Ligue 2, with new manager Mickael Landreau, and 18-year-old Guendouzi had a fresh start. He started out of the team but forced his way into it and was enjoying a good run when a row with Landreau at half-time during a game against Valenciennes in November saw him dropped from the team. He did not return to a match-day squad for three months. By this point it was clear enough that he was leaving, having decided not to sign a new contract and with Juventus among his first suitors.
But Fery believes that the firm treatment Landreau showed him was the best possible thing for Guendouzi’s career. “Last season the coach made him feel that he needed to show consistency, and his attitude needed to be perfect, so he was put on the backseat for a few games,” Fery says. “It helped him a lot when he came back. Because he is so talented, he just needs to make sure his work ethic and attitude is what is expected at the top, top level.”
Not every manager who has coached Guendouzi has had a problem with his attitude. He has shone for France at U-18, U-19 and U-20 level after turning down the chance to play for Morocco. Ripoll, who is now coach of the France U-21s, says that he never would have picked Guendouzi for Lorient if his attitude was wrong, and was very complimentary about his “passion” for football. He just has to feel loved and trusted by managers, Ripoll says, and to channel his emotion the right way.
So while Arsenal is a huge technical leap from Ligue 2, and the Premier League an even bigger physical one, it could be the perfect place. He will have to strengthen up so he does not get skipped past like Sterling did to him on Sunday, he will have to sharpen up to cope with the ferocious pressing. But at 19 years old he has plenty of time left to learn that.
The challenge of playing for Arsenal, the pressure, the expectations, the global fanbase, the talented team-mates, the start of the new project, could be exactly what this 19-year-old needs. If he does not “channel his passion” then he will be back in Ligue 1 before he knows it. But if he rises to it, this could be the environment he always needed.
“Maybe at a big club, with big players in the dressing room, where he could see he would have to compete with people who had achieved things, then he would keep developing,” Hayes says. “If he can do that, stay focused, and bring humility to the way he does things, he can keep that determination and nastiness you need to be a top player.”
Fery agrees that the size of the step up, and the sharp culture shock, could be the key to unlock Guendouzi’s talents. “I am not worried about his ability to adapt, because he needs that, he needs a challenge,” says Fery. “He can lack a bit of a challenge, that’s what he found last year. Coaches are very strict with him, they think that is the way to keep him improving his game and his attitude.”
For years at Arsenal talented youngsters were backed but not always taught, picked but then left to figure out the finer points of the game themselves. Unai Emery is not like that, he is a meticulous teacher and details man, and that strict edge might make this surprising gamble pay off.
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