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Master vs Apprentice: The most intriguing of subplots as Arsenal return against Manchester City

In football there are certain individuals who become synonymous with a trait, skill, or way of playing the beautiful game. You have the Makélélé role, the Cruyff turn, the Beckham cross, and of course, the trademark Henry side-foot finish. However, one such synonym has had a much more significant impact on the game in recent years, and that is Pep Guardiola and his style of play. On Wednesday, one of the disciples of Guardiola’s managerial style, Mikel Arteta, will face off against his former mentor for the first time as head coach of Arsenal. Given that the match is one of the first back on our screens after football’s three month pandemic-induced hiatus, Manchester City v Arsenal is a game not lacking for subplots. The fixture will be played behind closed doors, there are question-marks about player fitness, City are facing a Champions League ban, and there will be the surreal option of having fake fan noise in the background of your broadcast. Regardless, the subplot in the two opposing dugouts is the most interesting aspect of this game in my opinion. This showdown between former colleagues is a classic case of the master versus the apprentice. 

Mikel Arteta’s footballing influences:

When Mikel Arteta made the decision to retire after the 2015/16 season, he was mulling over three different offers to launch his career as a coach. One was from his then manager Arsène Wenger, to remain at Arsenal and manage an academy side, one was to work under his old teammate Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham Hotspur, and the other was to become part of Pep Guardiola’s new coaching staff at Manchester City. 

It’s is a testament to his burgeoning reputation as a manager-in-waiting that he had these choices, but it was nonetheless a tough decision for Arteta. He lifted two FA Cups as captain of Arsenal, and Arsène Wenger was a manager who had taught him so much, putting immense faith in him as a player and a leader. But the lure of cutting his teeth at Guardiola’s City proved to be too much for a 34 year-old with an obsessive desire to learn from the best. 

In fact, Guardiola had been acutely aware of Arteta’s potential for some four years prior to him joining his staff, according to the book “Pep’s City: The Making of a Superteam” by Pol Ballus and Lu Martin. When Barça drew Chelsea in the Champions League in 2012, Pep decided to pick the brain of a fellow La Masia graduate about their opponent. The two had kept in contact since a time when Mikel was playing the same role for Barcelona B as Pep was for the first team. Impressed by Arteta’s critical analysis, Pep made a mental note to seek his advice more often. In the 2015-16 season Pep’s Bayern Munich played Arsenal in the Champions League and Arteta got a chance to talk to Pep in the players’ zone after the game.

“We had a good chat and at the end he told me that he wanted to work with me if he ever moved to England,” said Arteta. “So when I retired [from playing] I called him and said: ‘Is that job still available?’”

Mikel Arteta

The Guardiola way:

Arteta and Guardiola are quite literally cut from the same cloth. As players, both came through the youth ranks at Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, and as such, they share the same vision of how the game should be played. Obviously, Guardiola’s football philosophy is not new, it’s been employed religiously at Barcelona and Ajax since the days of Johann Cruyff. But for those of us too young to remember Cruyff’s teams, Pep has been the modern master of the tiki-taka, take the ball pass the ball style of play. 

I was 10 years old when Guardiola took charge at Barcelona. At this time, I had what can only be described as an irrational hatred for the Catalan club. Even as an 8 year old, I still remember how painful it was watching them beat Arsenal in the 2006 Champions League final in Paris. The following year, they broke my young heart once again by luring my favourite player, Thierry Henry, away from my club. However, over the next few years that irrational hatred I felt as a young football fan was eradicated by what I saw his team do on the pitch. Even if it was against my Arsenal team, watching that Barcelona side weaving the ball around their opposition in intricate passing triangles was a sight to behold. Even more so when they had Henry or Messi to finish off the endless supply of chances. 

That was the best footballing side I’ve ever seen, and the 14 trophies in 4 seasons was evidence of that. But Pep has successfully implemented his style in both Germany, with Bayern Munich, and England with City since departing Barcelona. And while winning the domestic trophies in Germany with Bayern might be expected, plenty doubted his ability to win using the same style in the Premier League. 

There was an adaption period in the Premier League, with Guardiola labelling his first season in England “a disaster”. After finishing 3rd, and 15 points behind champions Chelsea, the critics were already circling like vultures, eager to confirm that the Guardiola philosophy does not translate amidst the speed and physicality of the English top flight. However, his City team would go on to justify his methods in an emphatic manner, winning the league by 19 points and becoming the first Premier League side to record 100 points in a single season. Last season, they followed up this success by winning a domestic treble. Of course the critics will always point to City’s seemingly endless transfer funds, and make no mistake Guardiola made full use of them, but there can be little doubt that Pep conquered the English game, and did so playing football in his way.

Arteta spoke on this in his first interview as Arsenal head coach on the clubs website

“First of all the person, it is an incredible pleasure to work alongside someone like him. The way he makes the staff feel, the players feel, and everyone around the club, is unique – I think it is his biggest power.
And then his vision. His vision, his desire to work, his desire to transmit the messages in a unique way, and when he wanted to implement, he had a dream that he wanted to do what we were taught at Barcelona 20 years ago, he wanted to do it in the Premier League.
He asked me to help that dream become a reality in the Premier League and everyone said it couldn’t be done, it was impossible with those players, they are small, and the physicality, but we did it, we did it. I am so proud I helped him a little bit to reach that dream.” 

Mikel Arteta to Arsenal Player

Arteta’s time as part of Pep’s coaching staff:

To get a better understand of Arteta’s time as part of the coaching staff at City, and the dynamic of his relationship with Pep, I asked The Athletic’s Manchester City correspondent, Sam Lee, for some insight. Sam has recently been covering City’s attempt to find a replacement for Mikel, so he is well versed on the coaching dynamics under Guardiola.

“Arteta was very important for Guardiola, and obviously was so impressive that helped him get the job with Arsenal. I’m sure City would have him back one day if it all goes well, he’s very well thought of still because of all he did there. 

I’m writing a lot now about Guardiola’s new assistant, and Arteta’s name comes up a lot because of the job he did. Guardiola needs a coach who has the answers to his questions, and Arteta was that man while at City, especially after he stepped up to replace Domenec Torrent as assistant. Arteta understands how the game is playing out. I’ve been told Juanma Lillo, Guardiola’s new assistant, can watch a game and after 2-3 minutes he can map it out, who’s doing what well, what can be exploited and how. Mikel was (and is) very similar in that respect. 

When Guardiola would be on the touchline he would turn around, sometimes looking for answers/solutions, and Arteta would be able to tell him what he thinks based on how he’s read the game. There were a lot of examples of Arteta coming up with a little change to help City, I think the most known example is the first day of last season at Arsenal away, when Mendy got to the byline and cut the ball back for Bernardo. Guardiola celebrated with Arteta because it was his observation, he told them to make that cutback because the space was always free. So it was things like that that made him important, but also he was very good working one-on-one with the players. 

That was the case very early on – I remember writing an article about how impressive he was back in 2018 when he was first close to the Arsenal job. A book written by two good friends explain it even better. ‘Pep’s City’ (mentioned above) has interviews with basically all the players, and Sane and Sterling in particular talk about how much they learned from Arteta. You’d have seen that quickly at Arsenal with that video of him teaching the players how to position themselves, not least when they receive the ball. That’s very important for Guardiola and obviously Arteta understands the game in the same way. His strength at City was transmitting Guardiola’s ideas to the players (not just central midfielders like him but wingers, strikers, defenders etc), and of course he had his own ideas, which he would discuss with Pep. 

It’s one thing to have those ideas, and even to transmit them to the players, but quite another to make that successful on the pitch. Lillo never managed to do that, but he is loved by so many of his players, and regarded as a fantastic thinker, somebody with great ideas and knowing how to put them across. Arteta is certainly in that bracket too, but we’ll have to see whether he can be a Lillo or a Guardiola!”

Arteta’s Arsenal so far:

When Arteta arrived at London Colney in December, he was acutely aware that the culture at the club needed significant changing if he was going to enact his footballing vision. He had been in the City dugout days earlier, as the Manchester team dismantled a flat Arsenal side, who looked bereft of ideas and inspiration.

On the pitch, however, he also needed to address Arsenal’s defensive frailties, which most would agree had been the teams biggest failing in the years prior. In order to play in a way akin to Guardiola’s style at City, Arteta knew he must tighten up the leaky defence to provide a platform for more expansive play. Guardiola himself encountered this during his first season as City manager, and would spend over 100 million on fullbacks the following summer to address the defensive issues. Unfortunately for Mikel, he will not have access to such funds at Arsenal and will instead have to rely on his ability to improve individual players. The early signs have been encouraging, with Arteta clearly beginning to put in place a more solid foundation from which his team can be expansive in attack. 

Prior to the lockdown, Arsenal were on a decent run of form and are currently the only side unbeaten in the calendar year. However, this included a number of draws, and the performances have been rather inconsistent. But teething problems were inevitable given the dire state of affairs Arteta inherited, and there have undoubtedly been flashes of the future vision. One such moment was Mesut Ozil’s goal in the 4-0 win against Newcastle. It was the result of a passage of play that epitomised the Guardiola way, with every member of the team involved in a 35 pass build-up. 

Arteta’s apprenticeship in the Guardiola way is also evident in how he sets his Arsenal team up. Without the ball, he wants his team to push high up the pitch as a unit and press the ball aggressively in numbers. One of the most incredible aspects of Pep’s teams over the years has been the speed of their ball recoveries, and slowly but surely we are seeing the same methods being drilled into this Arsenal side.

While Arteta has tended to line-up in a 4-2-3-1 on paper, the team’s real shape when in possession is reminiscent of Pep’s 2-3-5 attacking formation. We have seen Granit Xhaka slide across to cover for Bukayo Saka, who has been given license to join the attack, and at various times Hector Bellerin or Ainsley Maitland-Niles have stepped into midfield to prevent counter attacks. In the recent friendly games Arteta has also been trialing a 4-3-3 formation, which raises the possibility that he may match Manchester City up like for like on Wednesday evening. 

As fans we must demonstrate patience, as Arteta’s vision for Arsenal will invariably be a lengthy process. Pep’s former assistant Domenec Torrent once spoke of this process, describing the steep learning curve even a treble winning Bayern Munich side had to overcome with Guardiola’s methods. “It’s like we’re showing them the numbers first, then the days of the week, then verbs, etc,” says Torrent in ‘Pep Confidential’. “This is a huge departure for them and we need to be flexible and cautious.”

Wednesdays game:

Arteta has this to say, when asked by Sky Sports, about Wednesday’s return against his former employers Manchester City:

“It is going to be strange, I cannot deny that. I know everybody there and I spent four magnificent years with those players and with that club. But I am really excited as well. I can’t wait to start competing and do what we love most which is to play football. It is going to be very special for me but I am looking forward to it.” 

Mikel Arteta

Against a backdrop of civil unrest and a global pandemic, traditional footballing subplots have rightfully taken a backseat in the build-up to the Premier League’s return. Big games will also have a distinctly unfamiliar feel without supporters in the stands passionately fuelling the action on the pitch. However, I hope this piece has gone some way toward whetting your appetite for what should certainly be an intriguing encounter on Wednesday evening. At the very least it will be an interesting tactical duel between coaches who share the same vision of the game. 

I think most would agree that it is too early in Arteta’s project at Arsenal to expect him to get a result against Guardiola, and Manchester City are overwhelming favourites with good reason. However, it will be nonetheless compelling to see how the young apprentice fares, just months into his first job, against his former mentor. Arteta must know City’s tactical set up as well as anyone outside of the club, he must surely have a game plan in mind to exploit any perceived weaknesses. But likewise Guardiola has been known to spring tactical surprises in big games in the past, such as playing Gabriel Jesus out wide in the Bernabéu just before lockdown. Will he have something similar waiting for his former assistant?

Whatever the case, it would be remiss of us to expect either of these coaches to depart from the style that one is trying to build at his new club, and the other has mastered. This game, as the Premier League returns in the most unusual of circumstances, will be played in a style forged on the training pitches of La Masia.

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