Arsenal’s £175m front-three were starting for the first time. Tottenham were looking to bounce back after a dismal defeat to Newcastle. Eriksen and Mkhitaryan were potentially playing their last games for their respective clubs. And Xhaka was starting.
Anything could’ve happened. But in what was a symbolic derby between the North London clubs, it was a 20-year old French midfielder from Ligue 2 that stole the show.
Last season, as Arsenal went into the half 2-1 down at home to their bitter rivals, it was Aaron Ramsey’s never say die attitude that fired them to overcome the doubters and win the game 4-2.
But with the Welshman earning a fortune in Serie A, who could Arsenal call on? Not many people would’ve said Matteo Guendouzi at 4pm on Sunday.
It’s no secret that Arsenal haven’t had much luck with centre mids in the last decade. Long gone are the days of Viera and Fabregas. And any dreams they had of a prospective world-class pairing in Ramsey and Wilshere were hampered by injury.
But yesterday, Matteo Guendouzi put in a performance that was reminiscent of the glory days.
Arsenal certainly have never lacked playmakers, but as an inconsistent Mesut Ozil has proven, being able to drop a ball 40 yards on to your striker’s foot isn’t always enough. Yesterday, Matteo Guendouzi showed he had this and plenty more in his locker.
As Arsenal went 2-0 down, after a reckless tackle in the box by, you guessed it, Xhaka, it would’ve been easy for heads to drop, especially for the less experienced members of the team. But of all 11 players on the pitch, it was the young Frenchman in the middle that grabbed the game by the balls and decided “we’re not losing this”.
Whether he was winning the ball back from a Spurs counter-attack like a dog whose ball you just stole, moving up the pitch as graceful as a gazelle, or releasing his forwards with the confidence of a year 6 student sitting on a chair in assembly. Matteo Guendouzi showed that he is Arsenal’s warrior, enforcer, and playmaker.
If not for his involvement in both goals, he still would’ve deserved the Man of the Match award. And there’s plenty of reasons for Arsenal to be excited by his display. No player regained possession more than Guendouzi, and although Xhaka made more fouls, the Frenchman won more tackles. And no Arsenal player came close to covering as much ground, with the 20-year old running 11.2 kilometres in 90 minutes.
Arsenal fans will be the first to tell you not to get too excited just yet. They’ve seen some outstanding displays in the past from youngsters who’ve not gone on to reach their potential. But in a team that contains just 4 players from their FA cup winning squad in 2017, a new dawn is on the horizon.
And with a display like that, it would be no exaggeration to say the curly-haired engine could cement his place as the linchpin to the new glory years.