Mikel Arteta is perhaps the perfect man to try and drag Arsenal out of Manchester City‘s shadow, given he is embarking on the same journey in his own managerial career. The Gunners face City in an FA Cup semifinal at Wembley on Saturday (stream LIVE on ESPN+ at 2:45 p.m. ET in the U.S.) having not won any of their previous seven meetings, dating back to the last time they met in the world’s oldest cup competition.
It was at the semifinal stage in April 2017 that Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal edged past a City side yet to complete a full season under Pep Guardiola, flanked in the dugout by Arteta, then his right-hand man. The Gunners booked their place in the final with a 2-1 extra-time win that still stands as an atypical Arsenal performance: they sat deep, counter-attacked with precision, physically outlasted their opponents and won the tactical battle.
Yet, just as with their subsequent win against Chelsea in the final that year, beating City was not a landmark moment heralding Arsenal’s resurgence but an unexpected flicker of light from the dying embers of Wenger’s regime. The same afflictions that cost both the Frenchman and his successor Unai Emery their jobs are now Arteta’s problems. And with neat symmetry, a similar FA Cup path stands before him with City first and then Chelsea or Manchester United in the final.
Winning the FA Cup would not make up for missing out on Champions League qualification. But it offers an insurance policy for reaching the Europa League and also a chance to validate the methodology of a head coach looking to instigate significant, permanent change during his first season in management. Doing so by defeating his coaching mentor would embolden Arteta no end for the challenges ahead.
Arteta spoke this week about the big gap between Arsenal and the top sides, something that has been borne out in results against City of late. They have been soundly beaten on each of their previous seven meetings, losing by three goals on four occasions and only scoring twice. In six of those games, City have scored at least once inside the first 20 minutes. Twice, Arsenal were breached inside the first two minutes.
The inferiority complex is palpable. City quickly look to impose themselves against any opposition, and obviously Arsenal have plenty of company in finding themselves overwhelmed on occasion, but Arteta is seeking to alter what Wenger often described as a “mental block” against the big teams. After all, the Gunners’ away record against the top sides remains appalling for a team with Champions League aspirations. Since January 2015, they have played away at the traditional ‘Big Six’ 26 times without success. Only once have they kept a clean sheet.
That January five years ago marked a 2-0 victory at City which appeared to herald a long-overdue change in mentality from Wenger. The open, expansive style which made him a revolutionary in England was replaced with a pragmatic, savvy counter-attack approach which helped Arsenal pick City off in a manner they had been on the receiving end of umpteen times before.
Their 2017 FA Cup triumph offered similar hope of regeneration but for slightly different reasons, as Wenger retained a back-three system used for the first time in 20 years earlier that week at Middlesbrough and the Gunners showed unusual resolve to ride out City’s pressure to finish the stronger in extra-time. Both proved to be false dawns as Arsenal reverted to type, a mould Wenger was unable to break.
Emery’s appointment was designed to shatter the cyclical failings and it was therefore unfortunate for him that City were his first competitive opponents. Noticeably, Emery did not compromise, insisting on playing out from the back and taking risks from the outset. They lost 2-0. By the end of his tenure, the Spaniard’s approach was incomprehensible given dramatic changes to tactics and personnel from week to week.
Arteta wants to implement his own possession-based style but it felt significant that, unlike Emery, he was prepared to compromise that longer-term vision with a specific, defensive-minded tactical approach tailored to the opposition against Liverpool on Wednesday. There were almost too many surprises to mention, but Arsenal operated at one time or another with split strikers, a back five out of possession and a cameo for Joe Willock at centre-forward. Arsenal sought to press Liverpool into errors. Surprisingly, Virgil van Dijk and Alisson obliged. A contain and counter approach which saw the Gunners camped in their own half for long periods, registering three shots to Liverpool’s 24, is clearly not a recipe for long-term success.
But Arteta firstly has to galvanise Arsenal, bring them together in a common cause and, frankly, extract a consistently high work-rate which has been absent in previous years. Arteta summed up how short-term gains can help bridge the gap.
“You only need to look at the difference between the two teams and the gap is enormous,” he said. “The gap in many areas, we cannot improve it in two months but the gap between the accountability, the energy, the commitment and the fight of the two teams is equal.
“Before it was not like this and I am very proud of that. The rest will take some time but at least we’ve got it now and my message to the players is with that, we can create something.”
Recreating that level of effort, application and discipline consistently remains Arsenal’s biggest challenge.
“I will forgive if the players cannot get it right, but not if they do not try hard,” is a quote attributed to Pep Guardiola from his time as Barcelona boss but his disciple Arteta feels precisely the same way.
Arteta continues to have nothing but praise for Guardiola, even retaining a sufficient depth of feeling to be one of the few managers to defend Manchester City when their two-year ban from European football was overturned on Monday.
The 38-year-old was one of Guardiola’s first signings upon taking charge at City in 2016, realising a plan the pair hatched a few years earlier. Guardiola was so impressed when contacting Arteta for advice ahead of his Barcelona side facing Premier League clubs that he wanted him to form part of his coaching staff if he ever managed in England.
Sources at Manchester City describe Arteta as an excellent communicator who helped improve several players by working with them individually in impromptu sessions. Arteta was also Guardiola’s sounding board and in that role he will have heard and absorbed the full gamut of ideas from one of football’s brightest minds. They remain close and speak often. But he is his own man and will want to shed the ‘Guardiola-lite’ tag used by those doubting his credentials.
If there is a criticism of Guardiola, it is perhaps that while there are few occasions his ‘Plan A’ is unstoppable, the alternatives are less effective. Arteta’s ‘Plan A’ is yet to take shape but if he can find a way past his old friend this weekend, belief in his vision for Arsenal will grow.