Arteta’s coaching career was barely six months old at that point but Guardiola felt his intimate knowledge of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, who would be visiting the Etihad the following Sunday, meant he was the best member of his technical team to lead the match preparations.
Guardiola’s faith in his assistant was rewarded. City came from behind to win 2-1 at the Etihad, courtesy of goals from Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling – incidentally, two players who particularly benefitted from Arteta’s coaching during his time in Manchester.
Now, Arteta returns to the Etihad as the manager of Arsenal nearly six months since leaving Guardiola’s side and in a strange mirror image of that game three-and-a-half years ago.
“He knows secrets as much as I do,” Guardiola admitted yesterday, as he prepared to welcome his friend back. He was not just a friend, though. Arteta was Guardiola’s sounding board, particularly after Domenec Torrent’s departure for New York City FC in 2018, and his input has been missed over the past few months, whether that be his competitive training sessions or the detailed evaluation and analysis he would offer players.
Guardiola sounded slightly wistful when discussing his original backroom line-up of Arteta, Torrent and Rodolfo Borrell and a place in that inner circle comes with the privilege of a high clearance level. “[Arteta] knows absolutely everything about us,” Guardiola continued, “because we are the same as the moment he was here.”
Knowing those secrets will only get you so far, though. Using that knowledge to your advantage is another thing entirely.
Since Arteta’s arrival around Christmas, progress has been gradual at best. His 10 league games with Arsenal have returned a solid but unspectacular 17 points. That record made for poorer reading just before lockdown and two slightly fortunate home victories against Everton and West Ham. Elimination from the Europa League against Olympiakos was also a bigger setback than some were willing to admit.
The underlying statistics suggest even less has changed. According to FBRef, Unai Emery departed in late November with an average league xG difference of -0.18 per game. After 10 matches, Arteta’s is -0.16. Arsenal still concede better chances than they create.
This and the strange tendency to draw games under both Emery and Arteta would support the view that, give or take a positive result here or a negative one there, Arsenal are largely the same squad of players working through the same set problems, albeit with a different manager.
Then again, did we expect anything else? Given the scattergun, short-term recruitment policy of the last few years, this was always going to be a long rebuilding process, which is why other candidates to replace Emery had reservations about taking on the role. Managing Arsenal through the next few years will mean avoiding many potential pratfalls, a series of which could sink even the most experienced of coaches. Arteta, to his credit, was not intimidated by these risks.
And there has been a quick, clear improvement from the final days of Emery in one area: Arsenal now have a better idea of where they are headed and how they intend to get there. Arteta’s vision was his biggest selling point to the Emirates hierarchy both in the negotiations to replace Wenger in 2018 and those held in December. But if he ultimately wants Arsenal to become something akin to a Guardiola team, there is plenty of distance still to travel.
The enforced break may have helped, in that sense. It could have accelerated the process of picking Arteta’s methods while avoiding teething problems on the pitch. Once he recovered from his own bout of coronavirus, the Arsenal manager spent time picking out areas in which each of players could improve, then implementing training plans accordingly. Routine stuff, you might say, but still vital training ground work which the hectic pre-lockdown schedule did not always allow for.
All in all, Arsenal have had an extra 99 days to prepare for this fixture since its postponement in March, just before Arteta’s diagnosis was announced and the Premier League locked down. Will it have been enough? Arteta may know Guardiola’s flaws and City’s weaknesses better than any other Premier League manager, but the real question on Wednesday night will be whether Arsenal are ready to exploit them.