Now the rivalry between Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta is only one-sided in one respect. Even as the Manchester City manager took his record against his former sidekick to seven wins in eight games, he was offered evidence his old assistant is becoming a formidable adversary.
The current Premier League champions eliminated the league leaders from the FA Cup, inflicting just Arsenal’s fourth defeat of the season, but their duel is shaping up as the defining contest of the second half of the season. Nathan Ake’s goal made City the first team to reach the FA Cup fifth round but the performance of Arteta’s mix-and-match side indicated Arsenal could have staying power in the title race.
The teamsheets suggested City took this more seriously, the league table that they have a greater need to win the FA Cup to secure silverware this season. They were rewarded for an improved second-half performance after Arsenal were the more accomplished team before the break. If Arteta, whose lone triumph against Guardiola came in the FA Cup, can benefit from a little inside knowledge, the decisive gambit came when the older man turned to his bench.
Julian Alvarez came on as Guardiola marked Sean Dyche’s imminent return to management by switching to 4-4-2. The Argentinian brought the energy and incision City had been lacking. He had only been on for six minutes when he whistled a low drive against the foot of the post. The rebound fell to Jack Grealish, who took his time on a mazy dribble before teeing up Ake. His shot was measured with the air of a man curling his putt around the green as he found the far corner of Matt Turner’s net.
Ake now has goals against Liverpool and Arsenal this season. He is City’s unlikely big-game scorer. For Guardiola, the Dutch defender may be a worthy match-winner. Ake has not just been exempt from the criticism directed at some of City’s bigger names of late: he has invariably been identified for praise by Guardiola. Factor in a fine performance against Bukayo Saka and he illustrated why he seems the teacher’s pet at the Etihad Stadium.
And it was a day when City had to defend. Guardiola’s initial choices showed who remained out of favour. Yet when the in-form John Stones limped off with a hamstring injury that presents a cause for concern ahead of a February that includes a trip to Arsenal, Aymeric Laporte had to be introduced. He produced a goal-saving interception when Eddie Nketiah threatened an equaliser. Kyle Walker was another who had fallen from grace but with the precocious Rico Lewis being schooled by Leandro Trossard, Guardiola turned to his senior right-back. He helped see the game out.
City could also be grateful to Stefan Ortega, too. Second-string goalkeepers, whether Zack Steffen or Ortega, have been responsible for some of City’s recent cup exits, but the summer signing excelled. After a piece of trickery from Trossard, Takehiro Tomiyasu thumped a shot Ortega palmed away. The goalkeeper did better to tip aside a Trossard attempt which he had fashioned with his own skill. When the Belgian beat Lewis again, Nketiah volleyed his cross wide. It amounted to an auspicious first start from Trossard, who arrived from Brighton with a reputation for scoring against elite opponents.
He started as Arteta made six changes; his bench had more of his first-choice side than his team and a seventh regular, Thomas Partey, went off at half-time. There is a suspicion Arsenal lack strength in depth and it seemed Arteta was testing the theory. The performance, if not the scoreline, suggests the Gunners have more than is often acknowledged.
Only Gabriel Magalhaes of his first-choice defence started. They kept City quiet for swathes yet, when Guardiola’s side struggled to fashion opportunities, the criticism of Arsenal was they helped to provide their best chances of the first half. Erling Haaland has a wide repertoire of goals, but thus far they had not extended to 30-yard overhead kicks, But, when Rob Holding erred, Turner had left his box to block from the Norwegian, his acrobatic effort would have gone in had Tomiyasu not materialised from 20 yards behind the goalkeeper to chest away.
When Haaland later directed a lob wide, he had latched on to Kieran Tierney’s misjudged back pass. The menace came from his ability to run in behind Arsenal’s defence; the problem was they helped find him. Otherwise, however, Arsenal knocked City out of their rhythm before the break, as a series of misplaced passes showed.
But, aided by Alvarez and Ake, Guardiola found a way to win. If City are to lift the FA Cup, they will not have taken the easy route after eliminating first Chelsea and then Arsenal. The Gunners put up stiffer resistance than their capital rivals and Arteta could at least savour the difference from his previous visit to the club where he assisted Guardiola so successfully. That brought the embarrassment of a 5-0 thrashing; this time he departed with respectability, proof of progress and more time to focus on the Premier League. He and Guardiola shared a perfunctory handshake at the end. They will face off again, with two more meetings that may decide the title.