If Arsenal become champions, there is a case for branding it the fifth Premier League won by Pep Guardiola’s management. Mikel Arteta, after all, could be portrayed as the Frankenstein’s monster of the title race, created by Guardiola, serving as his nemesis.
Arteta was Guardiola’s assistant when Manchester City posted 100 points in a season. At the half-way stage now, his Arsenal have 50. Guardiola tutored him, mentored him and encouraged him, but did not keep him by his side.
“Mikel wanted to leave,” he rationalised. “What do you want me to say? Chain him here and say, ‘you don’t leave’.” That Arteta’s heart was at Arsenal, the club he captained, was apparent in his time at the Etihad Stadium when City found the net. “Always he jumps and celebrates, except against one team,” Guardiola recalled.
Now Arteta can jump for joy more freely and, given Arsenal’s excellence, with great frequency. And yet, if Guardiola’s influence may be apparent at the top of the Premier League, La Liga and the Championship, where teams coached by three of his former charges, in Arteta, Xavi and Vincent Kompany, reside, he is adamant the credit for any eventual success should not go to him.
Arsenal visit the Etihad in the FA Cup on Friday. If Guardiola has long argued Jurgen Klopp is the toughest rival of his managerial career, now the major challenge is presented by his former sidekick. He nevertheless distanced himself from the dramatic progress.
“What I see in Arsenal belongs to Mikel and his people,” said Guardiola. “I would like to say ‘Yeah, what they do is because I teach him’. Bulls**t. I am 52 years old. I’ve been in Arsenal for one day, when they allowed us to train to win the Champions League against [Manchester] United [in 2011]. That’s the only time I’ve been in the Arsenal training centre. Sorry United!”
It was a reminder of his illustrious CV. By his logic, his 10 league titles and two Champions League trophies are very much his, much as he still reveres his own hero and former Barcelona manager. “My biggest influence is Johan Cruyff but many, many things I do, I learned,” Guardiola added. “I was in Germany and I learned many things playing with [Philipp] Lahm or [David] Alaba. I learn a lot but we play with [Erling] Haaland now and before with [Lionel] Messi and it’s completely different. That’s why what Arsenal does belongs to them.”
The counter-argument is that Arteta has taken both his ideas and personnel. Oleksandr Zinchenko, converted from a midfielder to a left-back in Manchester but who has come infield in possession for both City and Arsenal in the manner of Lahm and Alaba for Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, is a case in point. Arteta seems to have borrowed heavily from his former employer. “They play with wingers higher than the midfielders like us – yeah. But all the methodology, the process, with the character, the mentality, the set pieces, a thousand million things – that belongs to them,” Guardiola said.
If Arsenal succeed City as champions, Guardiola could be punished for his success as a talent spotter. He recognised Arteta’s talent for coaching before most. Lorenzo Buenaventura, his closest friend at Barcelona, knew the younger Spaniard well and recommended him. When Guardiola was at the Nou Camp, Barcelona faced Chelsea in the Champions League. He wanted tactical advice from England and rang Arteta. When he took charge of City, he wanted the local knowledge of a man with more experience in England. Soon into his managerial bow, he knew he had made the right decision.
“I remember the first game we play against Sunderland,” he said. “We play against David Moyes. He [Arteta] said: ‘I know him well, he was at Everton, he does this and that.’ After 15 minutes, half an hour, I said, ‘Yeah, this is the guy to help me to anticipate’.”
Now perhaps not even Guardiola anticipated Arsenal would be this good this season. When the Gunners last visited the Etihad, they departed beaten 5-0 and bottom of the league. In the previous season, they had a run of seven defeats in 10 league games. Now Arteta’s long-term vision is being realised. Then he could have been sacked. Guardiola praised the director of football, Edu, and the owners, the Kroenke family, for supporting Arteta.
“I know him and how he works, how he is able to seduce the board, the hierarchy, the players,” he said. “It is the biggest compliment for Arsenal as well, for the hierarchy, the sporting director, the club, backing him in the bad moments and trusting him and keeping him and relying on him.”
He may wish they had not. Guardiola and Arteta have met before as senior and junior player at Barcelona, as kindred spirits talking tactics, as manager and assistant and as coaches of teams in different parts of the table, but never with Arsenal in the ascendancy.
Perhaps rivals are not the confidants they were before – their last message was simply to each other a happy Christmas and new year – but Guardiola is adamant their relationship will remain unaltered. “I have a huge respect [for him] as a person, as a manager,” he said. “That’s not going to change. We’re not going to fight on the touchline.”
That said, Arteta’s antics in – and sometimes out of – his technical area have attracted increasing attention. If his tactics illustrate Guardiola’s influence, it is an area where the older man is still more adamant he is not responsible for the manager his friend has become. He added: “I teach him few things but this it comes from himself, his mum and dad, his character and that was already there.”