Over the past few days, Mikel Arteta has been scrutinising Manchester City, attempting to figure out new ways to get at them. The plan from July’s FA Cup semi-final win won’t work in the same manner, since Pep Guardiola has drastically altered his own system since. It doesn’t leave anywhere near as much space, and City are that bit more reactive. Arteta is still the manager that has to adapt more, since City have much more quality, and are in such dangerous form.
A rising question around the Arsenal manager, that this Sunday’s fixture puts into focus more than any other, is how much he has had to adapt his coaching philosophy in general. How close really is it to Guardiola’s?
This was only amplified by Arteta’s mission statement on getting the job. He explained he wanted his football “to be expressive, entertaining”.
“I cannot have a concept of football where everything is based on the opposition,” he said. “We have to dictate the game, we have to be the ones taking the initiative, and we have to entertain the people coming to watch us. I’m 100 per cent convinced of those things, and I think I could do it.”
This is the Guardiola ideal. It has not quite been the reality.
For one, pretty much all of Arteta’s best wins – like that FA Cup victory over City – have come when he has adapted to the opposition, and they have had less than 50 per cent possession. These matches admittedly influence those wider issues of “dictating the game” and being “the ones to take the initiative”.
The comparisons with Guardiola’s approach here are mixed.
City are naturally way out in front for successful passes this season, at 14,611, but Arsenal are fifth on 10,491. That inevitably puts Guardiola’s side top of the Premier League for possession, at 64.4 per cent, with Arsenal seventh on 52.6 per cent.
So far, so much passing. It is taking the initiative where the differences are really revealed though.
City are second in the Premier League for winning the ball in the final third, on 121, Arsenal 16th, on 79.
The question of entertainment is a more subjective one, of course. There have been times – such as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goals in that semi-final – when Arsenal’s countering has been exhilarating. They have also been much more exciting closer to the goal since Bukayo Saka claimed a dominant place in the team, and Arteta has finally had a playmaker he will actually use again in Emile Smith-Rowe.
That recent upsurge, however, perhaps points to the real question in this issue. It is not how devoted a Guardiola disciple that Arteta is. They fundamentally have the same principles. It is how Guardiola’s approach might have to be compromised if it was ever taken out of the absolute top tier. Other than one season at Barcelona B, after all, he has never had to lower himself. And even Barcelona B had some of the best players relative to their division.
This shouldn’t be taken as a criticism of Guardiola, of course. It is essentially his reward for getting to the top and being able to stay there. But it has meant he has never had to work with squads who aren’t the best at their level.
“As good a coach as Pep is – as good a coach as anybody is – you’re only as good as your own players,” former Arsenal right-back Lee Dixon argues. “There’s a lot of Pep feeling about the way Mikel goes about all sorts of things, from press conferences to even the way he dresses, but he’ll be compromised with his coaching style until he gets all the players he’s allowing bring in.
“You can start to see the emergence of more of an Arteta team, but there’s still a lot of work to be done, and I don’t think we’ll see the full Arteta make-up for a while yet.
“The interesting experience would be if you swapped them over, let Pep have Arsenal and Arteta have City, I think you’ll find Man City would probably still win the league.”
One coach who works at a Premier League club confided to The Independent the following: “It’s an unpopular view but I think Guardiola’s approach, in its truest form, only works with elite players. There are too many technical breakdowns otherwise.”
There are some managers who have enjoyed spectacular play with lesser teams, such as Quique Setien and Gian Piero Gasperini, who would disagree with this. They insist it is possible.
The Independent put this very argument to Setien in 2018, after he made Real Betis one of the most watchable teams in Europe.
“That’s not true,” Setien countered, with notable stridency. “That is a falsity. Nobody can say you can’t play a particularly way.”
It just requires some patience, persistence and faith.
“When you went out to play football as a kid, no matter how good or bad you were, what you loved was having the ball, touching the ball.
“That’s the key. And when you tell the players your ideas mean they will have the ball for 70 minutes of the 90, their faces change; their outlook changes. Above all the players that have a certain technical quality, as they immediately connect to this idea and start offering more of themselves. If you emphasise this, everything is easier.”
There are some in coaching who believe this idea of connection goes even deeper.
Whatever the differences in application on the pitch, after all, Guardiola and Arteta do have the same principles in theory.
They both play ‘juego de posicion’ – positional play where every player has a zone – and they both lean towards what is termed “prescriptive coaching”. That is when a coach specifically details how players do something, and repeat it until it is drilled.
Both Arteta and Guardiola allow much more expression within that than, say, Louis van Gaal, but there is a lot of structure.
The effects could be seen in some of Arsenal’s flatter and more predictable displays this season, particularly between October and December.
One well-placed source believes this hasn’t been the case at City because of who Guardiola is almost as much as who the players are.
“The Arsenal players clearly look up to and respect Arteta. They are buying into what he wants on a conscious level. But coaching – or any education process – also works on a subconscious level, that takes time. We are getting into deeper theories of coaching here, but the bottom line is that Guardiola’s career success has a multiplying effect. Players buy into it more, which leads to greater results, and it becomes self-fulfilling.
“Arteta doesn’t yet have that profile, and neither do his players. It means there has to be a lot more compromise to what he does. It’s also something that works much better with defence than attack, since it’s much easier to coach teams to close spaces than to open them. This is one reason Arteta has initially leant on his defence, and why they have generally looked quite solid.
“It’d be fascinating to see Guardiola coach a team that aren’t the best – like a Roma.”
It is possible that’s what Arteta at Arsenal represents. It will likely mean another compromise this Sunday. Right now, for Arteta, it’s too difficult to completely implement Guardiola’s own game – let alone beat him at it.