Given how well he had played in Arsenal’s last home match, it was somewhat surprising that Dani Ceballos was left out of the starting XI for the visit of Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday. The star of the show against Burnley two weeks previously may have struggled a little at Anfield in the Gunners’ most recent Premier League encounter, but the Spanish loanee was far from alone in that respect.
With Ceballos beginning the season’s first north London derby on the bench, Emery selected Granit Xhaka, Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi in the centre of his 4-3-3 formation. The idea was to form a solid, physical line of three behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe, who were tasked with making the difference in the final third.
Xhaka struggled for much of the game, proving typically rash without the ball – as evidenced by his appalling decision to dive in on Son Heung-min in the 40th minute, a foul which gave Harry Kane the chance to double the visitors’ lead from the penalty spot. Torreira, meanwhile, was the standout performer in Arsenal’s 4-2 victory in this fixture last term, but on this occasion, he played second fiddle to the superb Guendouzi.
This felt like a coming-of-age performance from the 20-year-old, who is looking to build on a promising first season at the Emirates Stadium in 2018/19. Guendouzi provided drive and energy in the centre of the pitch, helping Arsenal win possession and then carrying the ball forward into attack.
It was the tireless Frenchman who set the tempo for the home team, ensuring that Spurs did not have time to settle in the second half. He showcased an impressive and improved passing range too – best demonstrated by his marvellous assist for Aubameyang’s equaliser.
Arsenal fans would also have been encouraged by the leadership qualities he displayed, particularly in such an important match. Not only did Guendouzi lead by example with his work ethic and never-say-die spirit, he could also be seen rousing his team-mates as Arsenal successfully came back from 2-0 down to pick up a point against their fierce rivals.
“He is very young but he is progressing,” Emery said of Guendouzi in his post-match press conference. “Last year was amazing for him, his progress here, taking confidence, taking rhythm, knowing the Premier League.
“This year he has started giving us one step more. Tactically with the ball he gives us a lot of control and the combination [play] for us is very important – he's one of the key [players] for that.
“But also he is working to take the balance defensively and working his body to progress and be stronger in the situations needed in the Premier League. Today is one step more.
“He’s very demanding of himself, when he’s playing like today I prefer to have the balance. When he is playing one match with less performance I'll help him to achieve the next step going ahead.”
Arsenal may not have won the north London derby, but they can be pleased with their performance – and Guendouzi can be delighted with his.