Mikel Arteta's Arsenal are no Man City copycat – there is also a dash of Liverpool
For much of his life, Mikel Arteta has been compared to Pep Guardiola. Firstly, as a youngster at Barcelona, where he played in the same position as his compatriot, and now as a manager at the highest level of the English game.
Arteta has grown used to it, and has never tried to hide how much of an influence Guardiola has had on his career. As a teenage player, he has said, Guardiola was his “idol”. And as a coach, he learned so much during his time as Guardiola’s assistant at Manchester City.
“I would not be sitting here, with that willingness and love for coaching, if he had not trusted me and given me the opportunity,” Arteta said of Guardiola this week.
But this is not to say that the Arsenal manager has ever tried to imitate his friend. There is a difference between learning from someone and attempting to copy them, and a large reason for Arteta’s success this season is that he has put his own twist on the beliefs and principles shared with Guardiola.
The easy assumption is that Arteta is simply a younger version of the City manager. Pep 2.0, you might call it. Both Arteta and Guardiola, though, strongly reject that.
“We are really different as people and we are very different as managers,” said Arteta ahead of Arsenal’s meeting with City in the FA Cup on Friday. “That is why we understand each other so well and have the relationship that we have.
“I had this [the comparisons] when I was a player as well. I cannot control that. I have never tried to copy and paste anything. This club deserves much better than that, and it would not work that way.”
Guardiola, evidently, agrees. “What I have seen from Arsenal belongs exclusively to Mikel and his people,” he said. “I would like to say yeah, what they do is because I taught him, but it is b------t.”
There are, of course, many similarities between Arteta’s Arsenal and Guardiola’s City. Both men were shaped by their experiences at Barcelona and they both want their teams to dominate possession, move their opponent around with quick passing and attack with width.
City often operate with a full-back coming into midfield, and Arsenal are now doing the same with Oleksandr Zinchenko (signed, lest we forget, from City this summer). Both teams play with high defensive lines, squeezing up the pitch. City’s usual starting formation is 4-3-3, and so is Arsenal’s.
The fundamental principles are the same, then, but many of the details are different. “If you say having full-backs inside with Oleks, that we started to do it together here, then yes,” said Guardiola. “They play with wingers higher than the midfield players like us, yeah. But all the methodology, the process, the character, mentality, set pieces, a thousand million things, that belongs to them and not to me.”
Earlier in his career, Guardiola once said: “Ideas belong to everyone and I have stolen as many as I could.” It is increasingly clear that Arteta is taking the same approach, and one of the more curious aspects of Arsenal’s impressive season is how many similarities there are now between their current side and another leading team of recent seasons: Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
This might sound a little strange, given Guardiola’s long-running rivalry with Klopp and Arteta’s close personal relationship with the City manager.
But there are days when it seems as if Arsenal are trying to recreate the wild intensity of Klopp’s Liverpool as much as the patient precision of Guardiola’s City.
At their best this season, Arsenal’s players have been the footballing equivalents of attack dogs unleashed. With Arteta furiously windmilling his arms on the touchline, Arsenal have often started matches with a relentless speed and intensity, roared on by a raucous Emirates Stadium.
No Premier League team have scored more goals in the opening 30 minutes of matches this season, and no team have scored more goals in the first 15 minutes of the second half, either – after Arteta has fired up his players during the break. Not only that: Arsenal are the only team not to have conceded in the opening 15 minutes of a Premier League match.
Away from the pitch, the weaponisation of the Emirates Stadium also has similarities with the way that Klopp was able to restore Anfield’s status as one of the European game’s most intimidating fortresses. Arsenal remain a long way from that point, but they are certainly heading in the right direction. The recent introduction of a pre-match anthem – Louis Dunford’s The Angel, North London Forever – is an unmistakable nod to Liverpool’s You’ll Never Walk Alone.
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There are other, less obvious, influences. Arteta’s assistant Albert Stuivenberg has closely studied the dynamics of Leicester City’s title-winning side of 2015-16, who played with a totally different style to Guardiola’s City. There are lessons to be learned and snippets to be taken from across the footballing world.
And for all of Arsenal’s philosophical similarities with City, it should not be forgotten that Arteta was willing to be pragmatic at the start of his managerial career.
Arsenal won the FA Cup in 2020 not by employing a Guardiola-esque possession-based system, but by defending deep and striking on the counter-attack.
Arsenal defeated City on that run, despite having only 29 per cent of the ball in their semi-final. This time, as the teams clash in the Cup and at the top of the league, it will be a markedly different sort of contest.
Arsenal are looking more and more like City, in terms of their dominance of the ball and of their opponents, but it would be a mistake to conclude that Arteta is simply trying to copy his mentor. He has learned from Guardiola, yes, but this is unmistakably his team and his way of playing.
Analysis: Where Arsenal and Man City are similar - and the subtle differences
By Daniel Zeqiri
What are the shared principles?
City and Arsenal's philosophy is categorised under the umbrella term 'positional football'. The pitch is divided up into horizontal and vertical zones, with no more than three players allowed on the same horizontal section and no more than two in the same vertical lane. Players are expected to hold their position and trust the ball will arrive, rather than straying in search of touches. Players can move between zones, providing their team-mates understand to fill the space they have just vacated. The idea is to optimally exploit the full width and depth of the pitch, unbalance opponents and ensure good angles to progress the ball via triangles and diamonds.
A key goal of positional football is to gain 'superiority'. Numerical superiority is outnumbering the opposition with an overload in a certain area of the pitch. Positional superiority comes from players standing between opposition lines. Qualitative superiority comes from pitting a stronger player directly against a weaker one (a fast winger being isolated against a slow full-back).
How are the teams similar?
Whether it's Riyad Mahrez and Jack Grealish, or Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli, the wingers are high and wide. This is to stretch defences and create gaps for runners between full-backs and centre-backs. Both teams typically attack with a line of five, with two of their three midfielders pushed high in the pockets of space either side of the striker.
The use of full-backs in central areas is one of the most distinctive features of City and Arsenal's set-up. The idea is to offer another passing option in midfield, act as a barrier against counter-attacks and also open up passing lanes to the winger. Rather than receiving straight passes from the full-back with their back to goal, wingers receive diagonal passes with their body open and options to go in all directions.
Manchester City's average positions vs Wolves: Aymeric Laporte (14) makes it a back three with Rico Lewis (82) pushed into midfield from right-back
With one full-back inside and one attached to their centre-backs, City and Arsenal have an asymmetrical set-up. However, there is a notable difference. In previous seasons, City's left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko or Joao Cancelo would typically invert with right-back Kyle Walker hanging back in a 3-2-5, much like Arsenal are doing now with Zinchenko and Ben White. With Zinchenko gone and Cancelo out of form, Guardiola has flipped things around with young Rico Lewis inverted from the right and Nathan Ake sitting in on the left. Arsenal and City effectively mirror each other.
Goal kicks, crosses and Haaland: The subtle differences
Arteta and Guardiola put particular focus on building play from the back. Here again though, City and Arsenal have diverged this season to a surprising extent. City have the third-shortest average goal kick length in the league, while Arsenal's is the second longest. Aaron Ramsdale is far more willing to go long than Ederson, especially towards Martinelli. Ramsdale is willing to play short from open play.
When required, Arsenal are willing to be direct and play for territory, keeping opponents penned in with aggressive counter-pressing from the front. This is the benefit of having a young, energetic side. No team has created more shots from high turnovers in the league this season. Midfielders Granit Xhaka and Thomas Partey are second-ball magnets, and are stronger, more natural defenders than their City counterparts.
Erling Haaland is also a point of contrast. City lead the league for crosses this season, while Arsenal are 16th. Haaland has scored 25 league goals at the halfway mark. Arsenal are top of the league with a collegiate approach to goalscoring, a trick City have pulled themselves. Four Arsenal attackers have five league goals or more, but their top scorer is Martin Odegaard on eight.
With Partey, Xhaka, Gabriel, White and William Saliba, there is an imposing, athletic edge to Arteta's Arsenal. We have even seen them launch long throws into the penalty area. City, with technicians such as Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva in midfield, are more ball dominant and of the classical Guardiola mould.