“From now on you’re going to be studying Arsenal,” Pep Guardiola yelled across the dinner table, gesticulating like the manager the Premier League has come to know on the touchline rather than the man that was eating, towards his assistant-manager Mikel Arteta: this was far from a normal meal. Guardiola had assembled his coaching staff – and their families – at his favourite tapas bar in central Manchester for one reason: to watch the Carabao Cup semi-final between Arsenal and Chelsea.
City had booked their ticket the previous evening, and the Wembley bound side was now waiting for the events in London to unfold, to find out who would be their opponents. Guardiola continued: “I want you to write me a report on their attack and defence… and their state of mind.” He was placing an extreme amount of trust in the rookie Arteta – who had only been in the job for six months. Arteta simply smiled and continued to eat.
It was no surprise that Guardiola had chosen Arteta for the role of scouting Arsenal: Arteta is a man who knows Arsenal intimately. In his playing days, Arteta had been the metronome that made Arsenal’s consortium of expensively priced players under Wenger tick. Like Guardiola once had at Barcelona, the slender Spaniard once sat between the lines of the defence and midfield; it was here Arteta received a footballing education unlike those you learn in textbooks and from analytical viewpoints. To craft a true understanding of the game you have to experience it in real-time, and from the defensive-midfield position, you can see the game unfold in front of you. In the modern era, more and more emphasis is placed on that position to become the fulcrum of the side: as Wenger did for Arteta.
Fast forward six-months and Arteta was now sat next to Guardiola as one of his most trusted lieutenants. For Guardiola, the surroundings are unfamiliar, however, for Arteta, he was home: the Emirates Stadium. When Bernardo Silva doubled City’s lead in Unai Emery’s first game, Guardiola jumped out of his seat – quickly joined by his coaching staff – and immediately hugged Arteta. It was later revealed that Arteta was the mastermind behind City’s second. When Mendy walked off the pitch at half-time, Arteta pulled him aside and told him to cut the ball back because Matteo Guendouzi wouldn’t track Bernardo’s run and Hector Bellerin was overcommitting to a ball going across the box every time. 19 minutes into the second-half, this exact scenario came into fruition and Arteta’s vision became reality.
The pair hugged on the touchline in a moment that had been in the making for over two decades. Like Guardiola, Arteta had risen through the ranks of Barcelona’s historic La Masia academy with the blueprints of Johan Cruyff’s idealistic playing-style plastered all over Arteta’s every touch.
In 1999, Arteta jogged onto the pitch making his Barca B debut; as he came on, Guardiola walked off for the starlet 11-years-younger than himself. When Bayern Munich dismantled Arsenal in the Champions League sixteen years later – Guardiola now a manager – the Spaniards shared a warm embrace on the pitch again. The pair that shared the same position, also shared the same vision – they both graduated from La Masia and subscribed to the same vision of football: Total Football, the beautiful game.
To say Arteta’s influence at City is limited to Arsenal would be a crude understatement. Arteta was City’s man-manager and, often, Guardiola’s challenger. Following watching a documentary about New Zealand’s All-Blacks, Guardiola realised the importance of surrounding himself with people who would question his decisions rather than yes-men; Guardiola encouraged his coaches to speak up and Arteta was the loudest voice of all.
Arteta had his own office in the Etihad Campus which was littered with tactical sketches and it wasn’t uncommon to see other coaches in their discussing tactical theories with the manager-in-waiting; furthermore, when his wife lived in LA with his kids, Arteta turned his apartment into a second office with more drawings hung on the wall in the place of paintings and the TV constantly showing football. Like all the great coaches that had come before him, Arteta is a perfectionist, he strives to play football the way that he believes, the way it should be played: the style that was played out by Rinus Michels and the Netherlands in the 1970s.
When Guardiola was announced as City manager in 2016, internally it was only expected the Catalan would stick around for three years – as he had done at his previous job in Bavaria, and he’d only lasted one year longer at Barcelona. A list was comprised of four names: Mauricio Pochettino, Thomas Tuchel, Roger Schmidt, and Eddie Howe were all looked at as potential managers to replace Guardiola in 2019. However, as the City Football Group expanded across the globe – it seemed that the successor to Guardiola would come from within.
The appointment of Guardiola did seem like City’s proverbial endgame, and as Thanos said: “I am inevitable.” As Marvel are finding out now, and as City will when Guardiola departs, where do you go after the end – years of planning had lead both to where their current scenarios. Particularly, in the case of City, there is no manager in the world that can compare to Guardiola’s methods – his sheer relentlessness, his drive to win. The only logical scenario would be to have him groom his successor to carry on the Guardiola legacy, all the while carving out one for themselves. This is how Guardiola got his start under Frank Rijkaard, and why he chose his assistant, Tito Vilanova, to succeed him at Barcelona.
If you look back at incredible successful sides under one manager, the following replacement could barely muster a win; David Moyes at Manchester United and Brian Clough at Leeds United are two examples, although the latter did tell his side to forget everything they had learnt under Don Revie and throw away their medals as they’d cheated to win them.
Arteta fit the bill perfectly, City had a man that was ready to be crafted into the mould of Guardiola, and ready to take the reins once he left. However, it’s simply not just about creating a second Guardiola for City. That would cause a period of stagnation, as to stay on top for a prolonged time, City would have to be constantly evolving, and what Arteta would bring is a plethora of new ideas that would keep City ahead of the curve. Football is evolving constantly, look back at the Spanish squad that won the World Cup in 2010 – a side full of slender players who’s technical ability was unlike anything football had seen before, and would see again – and compare them to current European champions, Liverpool, who don’t possess the same technical quality, but have a squad of players willing to make 80-yard recovery runs and have fitness levels that compare to Tour de France cyclists.
Perhaps City were hoping Arteta would stay as the number two, enticed by the allure of becoming the man in charge once Guardiola departs for pastures new. However, Arteta couldn’t resist the call of Arsenal, the club he’d called home for so long, the club he captained to an FA Cup triumph from two goals down. But, at the same time, this isn’t it for Arteta at City either – the City project is one Arteta knows inside and out. City eyes will be closely following his trial by fire at Arsenal, ready to welcome him back at any time with open arms and a warm embrace.
Guardiola finally stopped yelling and focused on the game once more – it was now 2-1 Arsenal, and with ten minutes to go, the Gunners had all but booked their place to Wembley. Arteta zoned out of the conversation, his mind already whirring, thinking of ways to beat his former side, the next morning he would present his ideas to Guardiola.
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