Where has it gone wrong for William Saliba and Matteo Guendouzi at Arsenal?

Ligue 1 powerhouses Marseille are thought to be closing in on a double swoop for Arsenal duo Matteo Guendouzi and William Saliba. The latter is set for a season-long loan, while Guendouzi has supposedly agreed to a four-year deal for a fee in the region of £10m.

The two French starlets have been tipped for big things at a club renowned for their development of young players in Arsenal, as Gooners welcomed both arrivals with plenty of optimism while they bid to compete with Europe’s finest in the Champions League once again.

However, both men have simply not lived up to expectation at the Emirates – which seems harsh to say about Saliba given he is yet to make a first-team appearance – and the big question on every Arsenal fan’s lips is whether Mikel Arteta will live to regret his decisions in the years to come?

Here, Sports Mole takes a look at where things have gone wrong for the compatriots during their short-lived Arsenal spells.

Matteo Guendouzi – A talent troubled by disciplinary issues

Arsenal's Matteo Guendouzi on June 20, 2020

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Then-Arsenal manager Unai Emery had so much faith in Guendouzi that he threw him straight into the starting lineup for the opening day of the 2018-19 Premier League season – against Manchester City no less. The Gunners lost the game 2-0, but all that any Gooner could talk about was the new 19-year-old kid on the block.

Arriving from Lorient for approximately £7m, Guendouzi took no time at all to settle into life in the unforgiving English top flight and racked up 33 Premier League appearances – 23 of them from the first whistle – in his debut season, while he notched up one goal in Arsenal’s unsuccessful bid to claim the Europa League crown.

The Frenchman’s dynamic midfield performances and willingness to drive forward with the ball was a fresh air for Arsenal supporters – who have been forced to watch a passive engine room far too many times in recent memory – and finishing the 2018-19 campaign with 48 appearances was a real indication of Guendouzi’s potential.

Matteo Guendouzi squares up to Brighton players on June 20, 2020

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The less said about Emery’s 2019-20 season the better, but Guendouzi’s hot-headed and somewhat immature nature became evident against Watford in September 2019. After being taken off with the Gunners in the lead, the midfielder taunted the Vicarage Road faithful by holding up a “2-1” sign with his hands, but he was left with egg on his face as Roberto Pereyra equalised to rescue a point for the Hornets.

The arrival of Arteta brought with it a no-nonsense approach to such antics, and Guendouzi soon felt the full force of the Spaniard’s discipline after reportedly getting up to no good during their 2020 Dubai training camp. After the turn of the year, Guendouzi only completed the 90 minutes in two Premier League games, one of which would leave his Arsenal career in tatters.

Upon the resumption of football amid the coronavirus pandemic, Arsenal travelled to Brighton & Hove Albion only to lose goalkeeper Bernd Leno to a long-term injury and witness Neal Maupay – who had collided with the German – score a last-minute winner.

Matteo Guendouzi in action for Hertha Berlin on December 12, 2020

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Guendouzi’s frustrations boiled over after the final whistle as he raised his hand towards Maupay’s neck and allegedly taunted the Seagulls over his wages – an episode which would prove fatal for his Arsenal career as Arteta froze him out of the squad for the remainder of the season.

The ex-Lorient man was immediately handed the opportunity to reignite his career with Hertha Berlin – and took his chance with two goals and three assists from 24 Bundesliga appearances – while he also affirmed that he would “give everything” to Arsenal for the duration of his contract.

However, even with Dani Ceballos‘s return to Real Madrid and Granit Xhaka‘s expected departure, it was always going to be an uphill battle for Guendouzi to regain Arteta’s trust, as the Spaniard is a coach who demands professionalism and discipline at all times from his young guns.

At 22, Guendouzi has plenty of time ahead of him to forget his mischievous ways and forge a successful career in the engine room. An exit is the best move for everyone given his set-tos in North London, but not even garnering £10m for someone of his calibre may be another self-inflicted wound for Arsenal chiefs.

William Saliba – The ‘locked-up’ centre-back

Nice defender William Saliba pictured on January 17, 2021

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Even in today’s market of extortionate transfer fees and nine-figure sums being splashed around like nobody’s business, shelling out £27m for then-18-year-old William Saliba in 2019 was a huge risk, and it is one that is yet to bear fruit for the Gunners.

Immediately after securing the Frenchman’s signature, Saliba returned to Saint-Etienne on loan for a 2019-20 season which would end up being curtailed, but his campaign would be plagued by injuries even before the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the footballing landscape.

A hamstring injury saw him miss the first seven games of that season, while a metatarsal fracture bedevilled his winter, but he was an undisputed starter when fit and would have been a serious contender to start the 2019-20 Coupe de France final against Paris Saint-Germain, but an agreement could not be reached between Arsenal and Saint-Etienne over the rescheduled game.

Having proved his credentials in the top flight of French football, Saliba was expected to be handed opportunities in the Gunners’ first team, but the closest he got was warming the bench during their EFL Cup third-round win over Leicester City in September 2020.

Saint-Etienne defender William Saliba, on loan from Arsenal, pictured in February 2020

© Reuters

After featuring eight times for the Under-23s and joking that he was “locked up” in North London, Saliba returned to his homeland with Nice for the remainder of the 2020-21 season, and Adrien Ursea did not hesitate to make him a regular starter alongside fellow loanee Jean-Clair Todibo.

Saliba would go on to enjoy 20 more appearances in Ligue 1 with Les Aiglons – playing his part in three clean sheets and even scoring in the final week of the season against Lyon – and Arteta was expected to let the defender prove himself in the upcoming pre-season.

However, as a third loan move to France edges ever closer, one has to wonder what more Saliba has to do to prove himself ready to Arteta. Having got rid of the ageing trio of David Luiz, Sokratis and Shkodran Mustafi, Arsenal fans were licking their lips at the prospect of Saliba linking up with Gabriel Magalhaes in the Emirates defence.

The news of Ben White‘s expected arrival would have been a bitter blow for the Frenchman, who has not been given one opportunity to justify his £27m price tag. With Marseille able to offer Saliba European football and – hopefully – a consistent run in the first team, it would not be surprising to see the 20-year-old decide that his long-term future lies away from the Emirates.

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