Mikel Arteta faces test of his credentials against Pep Guardiola

Will Arteta spring a surprise against his old mentor Guardiola? Watch Manchester City vs Arsenal live on Sky Sports Premier League from 8pm on June 17; kick-off is 8.15pm

By Nick Wright, Comment and Analysis @nicholaspwright

Image: Mikel Arteta spent more than three years with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City

In an interview with Sky Sports at Arsenal's training ground in February, Mikel Arteta happily talked through a range of topics relating to his first two months in the job. His answers were engaging, his messages unambiguous. The kind of clarity the club had been crying out for.

But there was one question which prompted an exhale and perhaps even a flash of irritation. It related to his work under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, and it was a hint that, while Arteta is in no denial about the Catalan's immense influence on him as a coach, he is eager to be viewed as his own man. To carve out a reputation in his own right.

Unfortunately for him, there is no avoiding the subject in the build-up to Wednesday night's reunion at the Etihad Stadium, the first big-six post-lockdown game of this interrupted Premier League season. It's Manchester City versus Arsenal. But it's also Guardiola versus Arteta. Master versus apprentice. Two old friends now squaring off in opposing dugouts.

It is certainly an intriguing prospect - and not just because of its behind-closed-doors setting. At Manchester City, Guardiola's trust in Arteta was such that in December 2016, just six months after appointing the former midfielder to his coaching staff, he put him in charge of City's preparations for Arsenal's visit to the Etihad Stadium in the Premier League.

Arsenal head coach Mikel Arteta told The Football Show it will feel 'strange' to return to his old side Manchester City when the teams meet on Wednesday

"I assumed he'd ask my opinion," recalled Arteta in the book Pep's City: The Making of a Superteam. "I told him how I saw it going: 'This is what they'll do, so I'd plan to play like this.' He liked my ideas and we went with my plan."


City went on to win the game 2-1, vindicating Guardiola's decision and providing an early clue as to why he held Arteta in such high regard.

Arteta was already becoming an influential figure in the City set-up by that point. He was also using the experience of working under Guardiola to soak up as much managerial knowledge and know-how as he could - and to hone tactics and techniques that he would later employ at Arsenal.

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Guardiola's influence has been apparent right from the start of his Arsenal tenure. In his very first game, against Bournemouth on Boxing Day, he even inverted the position of Ainsley Maitland-Niles at right-back, instructing the 22-year-old to tuck into central midfield - as Guardiola first did with Oleksandr Zinchenko and Kyle Walker at City several years earlier.

Arteta's use of the full-back on the opposite flank has also been reminiscent of Guardiola's approach. In possession, Bukayo Saka has essentially played as a left winger, with Granit Xhaka dropping back to cover the space behind him and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang drifting inside towards the opposition's penalty box.

Saka's presence high up the pitch means Arsenal's 4-2-3-1 formation looks more like a 2-3-5 in possession, with the wide players - Saka on the left and Nicolas Pepe on the right - hugging the flanks. The shape is designed to stretch defences and create spaces in the final third. And while it's new to Arsenal, it's further evidence of Guardiola's influence on Arteta.

Image: Arsenal's five-pronged attack was visible for Eddie Nketiah's goal against Everton
Image: Manchester City attacked with five players against Manchester United

As well as adopting a similar attacking shape to his old mentor at City, Arteta has put more emphasis on the kind of short-passing build-up play of which Guardiola's side are masters.

Arsenal's overall possession rate has not changed under Arteta, but the way they use it has. It can be seen in the statistics which show an increase in passing sequences and build-up attacks since his appointment. Mesut Ozil's goal against Newcastle in February came after 35 uninterrupted passes - the most for any goal by any side all season.

That goal, the third in a 4-0 win, encapsulated exactly what Arteta wants from his Arsenal side - his jubilant reaction on the touchline at the Emirates Stadium was a testament to that - but there have been plenty of other performances which have shown that, for all their improvement under the Spaniard, Arsenal are still a long way from where he would like them to be.

Image: Mikel Arteta was appointed Arsenal head coach in December

They have kept seven clean sheets in 15 games under Arteta compared to one in 15 before his appointment. But they are still allowing more shots than they are attempting themselves. The laboured 1-0 win over West Ham before the lockdown was not the first game under Arteta in which they have lacked penetration and struggled to create scoring opportunities.

Arteta can take heart from the fact that even Guardiola needed a transitional season to implement his ideas at Manchester City. There was a trophyless campaign before the glory that followed. And while the circumstances surrounding the coronavirus outbreak are far from ideal for anyone, they have at least given Arteta some extra time on the training field with his players.

It is there on the grass, after all, that he will have to do most of his work to shape and improve this Arsenal side. Arteta is unlikely to receive anything close to the level of financial backing Guardiola was given in his early years at City. Arsenal's spending power will be further reduced if they miss out on Champions League qualification again this season.

The likelihood of that scenario will of course increase if they are beaten at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday. A fifth-placed finish could be enough to clinch a Champions League place this season given City's impending ban from the competition, but Arsenal are already five points back in ninth. They can't afford to lose more ground.

Image: Arteta gives advice to academy product Reiss Nelson

The trip to Manchester is a daunting assignment, but it is different to the one they were expecting when the fixture was due to take place in March.

Arsenal will hope City's home advantage is lessened without fans in the stands. The increased proportion of away wins in the Bundesliga certainly gives the Pemier League's travelling sides reason to feel more confident.

Arteta will also aim to use his inside knowledge of Guardiola's approach in Arsenal's favour.

"It gives me a very clear idea of what they are trying to do and what they will be looking to do," he told reporters back in March. "But it is something different to be able to stop that and as well to create the issues that I think we can create for them."

Arteta has at least had plenty of time to figure out how and where to find the advantage Arsenal will need to get a result at the Etihad Stadium. But his old mentor will have been devising his own plans too. Will the apprentice spring a surprise against the master? There is a long road ahead for him at Arsenal, but this is an opportunity he will be determined to take as he strikes out on his own.

Sky Sports will show 64 live Premier League games when the season resumes. In addition to the 39 matches already scheduled to be broadcast exclusively live on Sky Sports before the coronavirus interruption, 25 more matches will be available on both Sky Sports Premier League and Sky's free-to-air Pick channel, allowing the whole nation to be part of the return of live sport.

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