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Mattéo Guendouzi is the midfield embodiment of marmite – you either love him or hate him. However, his time last year, the 23-year-old had shown brief glimpses of the maturity that many assumed would evade him throughout his career. Four months into his move to the Stade Velodrome from Arsenal, by way of Berlin, he was far closer to captain material than the petulant young adult who revelled in taunting opposition players. Could it last?
Last season, Guendouzi quickly installed himself as a favourite of Marseille coach Jorge Sampaoli with his impressive possession play and tenacious attitude. The sight of his famous locks flying in the wind as he embarked on a trademark dash deep into enemy territory had also quickly captivated the Marseille faithful. The boisterous bunch channelled their inner Guendouzi by taunting their Arsenal counterparts after Marseille activated an incredibly low €11m option to make the Frenchman’s move permanent. Guendouzi had quickly stated his loyalty to his new club by shuttering any chance of a return to England early on.
A first appearance in the national team at the end of 2021 set things in motion for what many hoped would be the best year of his career. The first few months of 2022 showed a continuation of that form. Marseille had entered the year with the aims of finishing on Ligue 1’s podium and to go deep in Europe. Keeping a core spine of players fit and performing, such as Guendouzi William Saliba, Boubacar Kamara and Dimitri Payet, would be crucial.
A well-taken goal in the rearranged meeting with Lyon was followed by a neat assist in the demolition of Angers which continued a fine run extending well into March. Long derided as the weak link of Marseille teams in years gone by, the triumvirate of Guendouzi and Kamara plus Valentin Rongier or Gerson underlined the strength of Sampaoli’s side in the middle of the park. Cool and calm, underpinned by Sampaoli’s desire to see OM quietly build rather than go all out, the team’s midfield dominated games.
While quietly proficient in Olympien colours, the high point unexpectedly came during the March international break. Called up by Didier Deschamps for just the third time, the former Arsenal man could be forgiven for thinking he would just be warming the bench. However, in the Velodrome no less, Guendouzi was brought on with 15 minutes to go in a finely poised friendly with the Ivory Coast where he notched an assist for Aurélien Tchouaméni’s late winner. Four days later, he scored his first international goal in a 5-0 win over South Africa. After less than eight months in Marseille, he had gone from the fringes of the national team to suddenly be in the conversation for a World Cup spot.
His return to club matters, although clearly buoyed by his Bleus breakthrough, had started to see his form slide as Marseille battled on domestic and European fronts. Nonetheless, he continued to start every game, bar a 0-3 defeat to Lyon. While the club were in an unusual period of stability, tempers were fraying at the sheer number of games in the fight to reclaim second place and qualify for the Champions League for only a second time in 10 years while picking up a Europa Conference League final appearance.
Nonetheless, both Guendouzi and OM limped over the finishing line domestically. The image of a battered and bruised Guendouzi lifting Sampaoli into the air after Champions League football was secured on the final minute of the final day of the season captivated audiences in France. A haul of five goals and 14 assists in 56 games ensured that €11m looked even cheaper. Good times at Marseille don’t usually last long but Guendouzi’s first season had been a major success. He loved Sampaoli and Sampaoli loved him back, meaning Guendouzi would have been shocked more than most on July 1st when Sampaoli quit. Many had wondered whether the midfielder would follow his coach out of the door and whether Marseille would cash in, potentially doubling their investment.
However, new coach Igor Tudor – who has a combative style of his own – quickly moved to maintain Guendouzi. Further outings as captain followed, including in the Champions League where he scored in two key games against Sporting Lisbon and Eintracht Frankfurt. A dour end to their European campaign, via a chastening last-minute defeat to Tottenham, upset the player but he spoke with eloquence and like a leader, reflecting his status within this Marseille squad. There weren’t any cheap digs at teammates or taunting of opponents. Instead, there was logic, a healthy dose of realism and optimism for the future. Guendouzi’s consistent form meant he continued to appear for France and made the World Cup squad, featuring in the 1-0 defeat to Tunisia. He ends the year as a World Cup finalist, having challenged fans’ perceptions of him both on and off the field.
Mohammed Ali | GFFN