Mikel Arteta wants Arsenal to play like a Pep Guardiola team - but they just do not have the players

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·4-min read
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Mikel Arteta is trying to be Pep Guardiola - but Arsenal just do not have the players - Shutterstock
Mikel Arteta is trying to be Pep Guardiola - but Arsenal just do not have the players - Shutterstock

Mikel Arteta is bound to have been shaped as a manager by Pep Guardiola and there are few better to learn from than the Manchester City manager, the greatest coach of his generation and a genius in the true sense of the word.

You do not spend as much time as Arteta has with Guardiola - he was his assistant for almost four years - without absorbing, not just his methods and philosophies, but also some of his personality traits.

It is one of the reasons Arteta was an appealing option when Arsenal decided to replace Unai Emery. Not only was he a former player and captain, Arteta had been given arguably the best education available to a young manager during his time at Manchester City.

But Arteta needs to be wary of merely trying to imitate his friend and mentor. When you listen to Arteta speak you hear his voice, but the words that tend to come out are as if Guardiola were speaking.

Before the first leg of Arsenal’s Europa League semi-final defeat to Villarreal, Arteta simply repeated most of the things Guardiola had been saying for the last few weeks.

Answering a question about the pressure of needing to reach the final to save an otherwise poor season, he talked about excitement, opportunity and this being the moment footballers want more than any other.

And then you saw the teamsheet and the formation Arsenal tried to play against a side seventh in La Liga. There was no centre forward, and in what was roughly a 4-3-3, with Pepe hugging the touchline, Arteta asked the 20-year-old Emile Smith Rowe to play as a 'false nine'.

To be fair, that strange call was caused by the fact neither Alexandre Lacazette or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were fit enough to start the game, but it did not work.

Emile Smith Rowe struggled as a false nine against Villarreal - Europa Press 
Emile Smith Rowe struggled as a false nine against Villarreal - Europa Press

Smith Rowe is an excellent prospect, but he was being asked to do something he had not done before in Arsenal’s biggest game of the season. Unsurprisingly, it did not go well for him or the team.

To make matters worse, Villarreal, coached by Emery, who has rebuilt his reputation in Spain, exposed Arsenal’s system repeatedly. With Juan Foyth bursting forward in the space behind Pepe, who had clearly been instructed to stay up the pitch, Arsenal’s midfield was repeatedly overrun.

Most observers have recognised that Dani Ceballos is too reckless, too ill-disciplined in his positional sense to hold central midfield together, yet here he was making all the same mistakes in a semi-final he has made all season.

And then there was poor Granit Xhaka tasked with playing at left-back, arguably Arsenal’s best defensive midfielder pushed out of position because Kieran Tierney had been ruled out.

Injuries are the bane of every manager, but in doing this, Arteta weakened two positions, his central midfield and out wide as Xhaka was given a torrid evening. It was clear Villarreal were targeting that side of the pitch and it is where their first goal came from.

Villarreal were not doing anything new. In fact, Emery had put them out in a 4-4-2, but he had got the better of the man who replaced him in North London.

Arsenal remain in the tie, thanks to Pepe’s second-half penalty, but they probably should not be. Villarreal were the better side, created far more chances and only some wayward finishing and some breathtaking saves from Bernd Leno kept them in it.

If Arteta deploys the same system in the return leg, it is safe to assume Arsenal will be knocked out and he will be facing serious questions about whether he is the right man to take the club forward.

The worry is, he is still looking a little too closely at what his former boss is doing in Manchester and is trying to do the same. One of the oldest rules of football management is you find a system that fits the players you have.

Arteta seems to want to play a certain way despite the fact it does not make the most of the players at his disposal - he seems to wish he had the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden, Ilkay Gundogan, Riyad Mahrez or Raheem Sterling to call upon.

For some, pragmatism is an ugly word, but under Arteta, Arsenal are in danger of becoming a team that wants to be something it cannot be - at this stage, at least.

Arteta is not another Guardiola but that does not have to be a bad thing. But he needs to find himself as a manager and he needs to stop looking at what is happening at Manchester City and assume it will work at Arsenal too. It almost certainly will not.