Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta: Master vs. apprentice in Man City and Arsenal's battle for glory

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A friendship forged a quarter of a century ago on La Masia’s training pitches is set to play out its next chapters at the summit of English football.

Mikel Arteta and Pep Guardiola go way back and the Arsenal manager conceded he would rather be going up against someone other than his Manchester City counterpart as the Gunners attempt to drive home their advantage at the top of the Premier League table over the second half of this season.

"It's a strange feeling," said Arteta ahead of Friday’s FA Cup fourth-round trip to City, a game that precedes a crunch February 15 showdown between the top two at Emirates Stadium. Arsenal are five points ahead of Guardiola’s reigning champions with a game in hand.

"I always hoped [challenging for titles] was going to be the case one day and it's happening this season. That's not going to change any friendship, the moments that we have, how important he is in my life, how important he is in my profession.

"We're both willing to win and defend our clubs in any way and that's always been the case since day one. I would prefer to do it with someone else to be fair."

Arteta’s fast track to one of the most desired jobs in European football would not have happened without his three-and-a-half years working as one of Guardiola’s assistants at City.

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His reputation as a formidable coach of boundless creativity and energy quickly spread through the game and he was close to being appointed by Arsenal in 2018 before they plumped for Unai Emery, who Arteta ultimately replaced 18 months later.

Such a confrontation with a staunch ally and a footballing kindred spirit was probably inevitable for Guardiola, who likes to appoint assistants with the characteristics of first-team coaches. His number two Tito Vilanova succeeded him at Barcelona in 2012. Domenec Torrent, a long-time part of the Catalan’s backroom staff left City a season-and-a-half before Arteta to take charge of New York City in MLS and has since had stints at Flamengo and Galatasaray.

Guardiola’s great mentor Juanma Lillo arrived at City six months after Arteta left and the nomadic maverick coach is now leading Qatari side Al Sadd. Enzo Maresca took the open spot among Guardiola’s assistants, having left his post as City’s U23 coach to briefly take charge of Parma. Nevertheless, rare and contrasting talents like Arteta and Lillo are very hard to replace.

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Arteta joined Barcelona’s first-team squad as a 16-year-old, where Guardiola’s mastery of the holding midfield position was the primary example for the youngster to follow. A young Xavi was also in the squad and Arteta was persuaded to take his talents elsewhere, initially to Paris Saint-Germain and Rangers. 

An unhappy homecoming at Real Sociedad led to him joining Everton on an initial loan. At Goodison Park and then at Arsenal, who he signed for in August 2011, he flourished as one of the leading midfielders of that Premier League era.

Guardiola and Arteta had remained in touch, with the latter living in the same north London neighbourhood as Guardiola’s brother Pere while at Arsenal. Before Barcelona’s 2012 Champions League semifinal against Chelsea, Guardiola phoned him to pick his brains for some tactical advice.

Arteta made a significant enough impression during that exchange and others that he joined City’s backroom team immediately after his retirement when Guardiola arrived in England in 2016.

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That closeness to his own playing career gave Arteta an instant affinity with the City squad. His capacity to relate to the players meant he served as an important bridge between a team trying to get to grips with new coaching demands and the senior staff. Not that there was much doubt over what was required.

"The very first day Pep took training, he got the whole squad out on the pitch and told them: ‘Manchester City does this when we have the ball and we do that when we don’t have it'," Arteta recalled in an interview for Pol Ballus and Lu Martin’s 2019 book Pep’s City. "The talk lasted just 15 minutes, but in those 15 minutes City was born. Everyone knew what would be asked of them from then on.

"From the start, I was absolutely fascinated by Pep’s work ethic, by his ability to transmit his ideas to the players and convince them that they’re going to work. It’s incredible to see how he simplifies even the most complicated things so that they appear straightforward and easy. It’s very difficult to reach footballers like that."

It’s easy to see the link between Guardiola’s non-negotiable edict and the "trust the process" version of Arteta, who remained unflinchingly committed to his vision amid tricky times during the first year of his Arsenal reign, while his capacity to tap into what young players need is there for all to see as his vibrant Gunners team continue their dominant trajectory this season.

Arteta made such an impression on Guardiola during their first months working side-by-side that he took the surprising yet logical step of handing over the reins to his assistant for a December 2016 game against Arsenal. Guardiola felt Arteta’s familiarity with Arsene Wenger’s side gave him scope to take a lead in preparation and tactics for that week’s game at the Etihad Stadium.

City fell behind to an early Theo Walcott goal but won 2-1 thanks to second-half goals from Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling. The two wingers were fitting goalscorers for Arteta on his unofficial managerial debut in the Premier League. 

He took a keen interest in Sane, seeing plenty of himself in a young player making his way in an unfamiliar country, and the Germany international turned initial struggles at City into the explosive form that saw him crowned PFA Young Player of the Year in 2017/18.

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City racked up a record-breaking 100 points en route to the title that season (incidentally, Arteta’s Arsenal reached 50 after 19 games this time around…) and Sterling found a prolific edge to his game, smoothing out some aspects of his erratic finishing to become a scorer of big goals.

Both the England international and Guardiola credited Arteta for his one-on-one work with Sterling and the coach’s attention to the finer details of what was required from the wide attacking players is still seen as one of his key achievements at City. 

Arteta’s intrinsic feel for this part of the game still looks to be in good order as Bukayo Saka thrives in player-of-the-year form for Arsenal, with the impressive Gabriel Martinelli helming the other flank. Some City fans have wistfully compared Arsenal’s relentless attack to their own Sane-Sterling model of 2017-2019. 

Guardiola has gone in a different direction with his wide men, with technically superb players like Riyad Mahrez and Jack Grealish briefed to bring a level of control and extra passes when they’re not launching into gambolling dribbles. Back-to-back Premier League titles mean it is unquestionably effective, but it does not quicken the pulse like the "two motorbikes" version, as Sterling memorably dubbed his alliance with Sane. Nor does it excite as Arsenal do right now.

The pros and cons of such tweaked tactical theories will undoubtedly have been part of the conversations Guardiola and Arteta continue to share. For obvious reasons, they are now much less frequent and much lighter on strategic detail. But messages of mutual encouragement remain.

This part of their friendship was never stronger than when Arteta’s suitability for the Arsenal job was being questioned in December 2020. Guardiola also went public in a staunch defence of his old colleague, although he kind of had to after a thumping 4-1 City win in north London in the quarterfinals of the Carabao Cup did little to help Arteta’s cause.

"They will do a huge, big mistake if they [sack Arteta]. I’m pretty sure they are going to trust him," Guardiola told BBC Radio 5 Live.

"I understand that the analysts analyse the results. But I was with him for many years and I know his incredible quality as a human being and especially as a manager, how he is involved in everything. It’s just a question of time and he will do well.”

That time is now.

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