Arteta now his own man as Arsenal refuse to buckle in title race

Mikel Arteta and Pep Guardiola
Mikel Arteta and Pep Guardiola (PC: X)

RevSportz Comment

Three weeks before Arsenal arrived at the Etihad Stadium, Liverpool and Manchester City locked horns in what was likely to have been the last league meeting between Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. It was a game for the ages, showcasing the cut and thrust of English football at its very best. Liverpool shaded possession, thanks to a hugely impressive second half, but both teams had six shots on target. And for all of Liverpool’s swashbuckling second-half play, the moment of the match was undoubtedly the corner routine from which John Stones gave City the lead.

That was a game worthy of deciding a title, so the expectations were sky-high when Arsenal, the third team in the race for the Premier League crown, rocked up at the Etihad. But what followed over the 90 minutes was a bit of a snooze-fest, with barely any incidents of note. The equivalent of a chess stalemate saw City too slow and ponderous with their build-up play, while Arsenal showed little ambition to take the three points.

Last April, Arsenal arrived in Manchester with a five-point lead, though they had played 32 matches to City’s 30. Though the Gunners had squandered a clutch of points leading into what was effectively a title-decider, Mikel Arteta decided to go toe to toe with the champions. City annihilated them 4-1, and ended up winning the league by five points.

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Man City vs Arsenal
Man City vs Arsenal (PC: Arsenal/X)

That harsh reality check clearly influenced Arteta’s set-up on Sunday. Arsenal sat back, pressed and harried, but were content with only the sporadic counterattack. They finished with 27 per cent possession and two shots on target. “They have the best manager in the world by far,” said Arteta after Sunday’s draw. “To catch up and try to be better than them is the challenge ahead of us. You want to win the game. You prepare to win it. If you cannot win it, make sure you draw it. We did that.”

For three years, Arteta was Guardiola’s trusted assistant at City, and the master’s influence on the apprentice is unmistakable. But there are also differences aplenty. Guardiola’s coaching philosophy was shaped primarily by being part of Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona dream team. He still swears by those fundamentals, even though he has made a tweak or two along the way.

Arteta, who first met Guardiola when he was at Barcelona’s academy for two years in the late 1990s, didn’t play for any great club sides, and he isn’t averse to taking a pragmatic turn when the situation demands. His six years at Everton were largely a struggle, while he went to Arsenal when Arsene Wenger was on the downslope of his managerial career.

Guardiola has worked mostly with A-list players right through his coaching career. At Arsenal, Arteta has managed to rejuvenate careers that looked to have stalled. Martin Odegaard was a much-hyped 16-year-old prodigy when he moved to Real Madrid at the age of 16. But it never clicked for him there, and after a succession of loan spells, there was little excitement at his arrival in north London in 2021. Now, the same Odegaard is undoubtedly Arteta’s on-pitch leader, and the league’s most influential midfielder this season.

Arsenal Defenders in action
Arsenal Defenders in action (PC: Arsenal/X)

William Saliba was signed in 2019, but spent three seasons away on loan at Saint-Etienne, Nice and Marseille. Reintegrated into the squad in the summer of 2012, Saliba is now the linchpin of the best defence in the league. It could be argued that it was his injury last March which caused Arsenal’s late-season collapse.

What Sunday’s draw has done is hand Liverpool the initiative, and a two-point lead, though they still have tricky fixtures looming against Manchester United and Everton – local bragging rights – as well as against top-four chasing Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa.

“Always who is first is favourite,” said Guardiola in the latest instalment of mind games after the draw on Sunday. “The second favourite is Arsenal and we are third. It’s not in our hands.”

No one believes him. Villa, who have been so dangerous this season under Unai Emery – Arteta’s predecessor at Arsenal – are the next visitors to the Etihad on Wednesday. After the 90 minutes of frustration on Sunday, expect Erling Haaland, Phil Foden and friends to snarl and snap into that game. If City win convincingly against fourth-placed Villa, the gauntlet will have been thrown down. If they don’t, the unthinkable, a non-City title, may be upon us.

Also Read: Mohun Bagan miss chance to go top after home defeat to Chennaiyin

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