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Guendouzi back on track and in line for France debut after Arsenal nightmare

09:00 BST 07/10/2021
Matteo Guendouzi Marseille 2021-22
Mercurial midfielder recently captained Marseille for the first time and is in line to play for France tonight in the Nations League semi-final

It’s been a big few weeks for Matteo Guendouzi, whose departure from Arsenal threatened to derail his career but has instead provided a springboard to heights that he has never previously attained.

Now the on-loan Marseille star faces the equally daunting prospect of maintaining his new status.

Guendouzi had effectively been exiled from the Emirates Stadium due to behaviour problems that manager Mikel Arteta had simply had enough of handling. He previously spent the 2020-21 season with Hertha Berlin in the Bundesliga, but his switch to OM was designed to be permanent with a purchase option included in the deal.

For the feisty young midfielder, the move to Stade Velodrome represented something of a gamble due to his previous association with the academy of Paris Saint-Germain.

His combative spirit, however, quickly won over the fans in France’s south. Of course, some excellent form has also helped, with the 22-year-old having posted an assist and a goal in just eight Ligue 1 encounters.

He has already won the faith of head coach Jorge Sampaoli, who has allowed him the freedom to cover the length of the pitch with the energy and hunger that he exudes, and captained the side for the first time in a fixture against Lille.

Guendouzi’s strong form has quickly been recognised by France boss Didier Deschamps, who called him to the national team ahead of the Nations League semi-final against Belgium in Turin on Thursday. A further match will take place on Sunday, either a third-place playoff against Italy or the final versus Spain.

Among the players he has been selected ahead of is Real Madrid’s in-form teenager Eduardo Camavinga, who has been winning critical acclaim at the Santiago Bernabeu.

“He’s been getting a lot of playing time and he’s got confidence in himself,” Deschamps said, justifying his decision to pick Guendouzi. “Beyond the volume of play he gets through and his aggressiveness, he has great technical qualities. He’ll bring freshness, life, and that’s important.”

But despite this sunny start to life at Stade Velodrome, there is a nagging suspicion that Guendouzi has the possibility to self-destruct. Indeed, this has been a running theme throughout his career.

His move to Arsenal from Ligue 2 side Lorient was conducted under a cloud, with the player having been frozen out of matters back home in France over his refusal to sign a new contract with the club.

After a bright beginning at the Emirates Stadium, he then struggled to win over Arteta following the departure of previous boss Unai Emery.

A former Barcelona youth who was known for his grace in the Premier League with Everton and Arsenal, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Gunners boss might favour more cerebral midfielders to the in-your-face Guendouzi, who managed 12 appearances and just eight starts under the Spaniard.

When he grabbed Brighton attacker Neal Maupay by the throat following a June 2020 Premier League defeat, it doubtless confirmed the manager’s fears, effectively ending his Gunners career.

A burning will to win that Guendouzi possesses is both a superpower and a fatal flaw, as his former coaches point out.

“Matteo is very passionate, very invested in his profession, very enthusiastic and very generous in his efforts,” former Lorient boss Sylvain Ripoll told Le Quotidien du Sport. “He experiences events intensely and always gives 200 percent to everything, whatever the context.

“If he has one area to work on, this is it: using his passion, without turning it off, in the right place at the right time, not being overwhelmed by his emotions or his temperament.”

Being highly competitive is a default state for Guendouzi, who has already experienced controversy at Marseille following an on-field altercation with fellow midfielder Gerson. During a 3-2 loss to Lens, he charged towards the Brazilian before exchanging a few angry words, compelling his team-mate to run more.

While the term ‘clash’ was used unfairly in the English-speaking media, it was at least an incident that highlighted the standards he expects from others around him – regardless if he is coming up to that same level.

This tendency to expect the best at all times should be of his benefit at a club such as Marseille. Supporters of the club value technical qualities, sure, but they also welcome players who wear their heart on their sleeve and can forgive misplaced passes if they are sufficiently repaid in passion for the club.

“It takes a hell of a personality to play for OM, given the stakes, the pressure and the criticism. Matteo Guendouzi is not lacking there,” former Lorient youth coach Regis Le Bris explained to La Provence.

“I have no doubts about his footballing talent. I do wonder about his way of managing the pressure.”

Guendouzi might not be the complete package yet, as his Arsenal exile is testimony to, but he has already shown that if he can get things right at Marseille, he can return to the top level stronger than ever. For now, he finds himself on the correct pathway.