It is a team from another time, a glimpse of Arsenal’s post-Wenger identity crisis and Mikel Arteta’s decidedly imperfect inheritance. There are David Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi, Dani Ceballos and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe. They assume a greater pertinence now, and not merely as signs of the transformation of a side in three years.
They remain the only Arteta side to beat Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, 2-0 in the 2020 FA Cup semi-final, courtesy of a brace from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Now, as Arteta’s current and former clubs prepare to meet at Wembley again, this time in the Community Shield, there is the probability that the Arsenal starting 11 will feature no survivors of one of the manager’s first major wins. Perhaps Kieran Tierney but Granit Xhaka, the last regular in Arteta’s strongest side, was sold in the summer.
And while Emi Martinez left Arsenal and went on to lift the World Cup, few of the others have experienced better times since Arteta’s FA Cup win.
Since that deceptively good start, the apprentice has begun to pose more of a threat to the master: in the bigger picture, anyway. Arsenal topped the Premier League for 248 days last season; their return of 50 points at the halfway stage put them on course, albeit briefly, to equal City’s record of 100. There was the danger that Guardiola had taught Arteta just too well.
And yet the season ended with Guardiola having done different kinds of hat-tricks. There was the treble of trophies. There were also three wins over Arteta: 1-0 against a weakened Arsenal side in the FA Cup and, more emphatically and more importantly, 3-1 and 4-1 in the Premier League. It extended an increasingly impressive record in their private battles: the older man now has an 88 per cent win rate and eight victories against his old assistant.
Among managers Guardiola has faced at least nine times, he only has a better record against Sean Dyche, Eddie Howe and Graham Potter, and the majority of those games came when they coached bottom-half teams, not supposed peers.
Beating Guardiola over 38 games can entail beating him in two. Thus far this year, Arteta has another kind of triumph: he beat Guardiola to Declan Rice; Arsenal’s prime target attracted City’s attention and yet preferred the capital. Rewind three decades and the most coveted young midfielder outside the title contenders was courted by the top two, rejected Kenny Dalglish and Blackburn after a volte-face and signed for Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United.
Which isn’t to say Rice is necessarily the next Roy Keane. But if Arteta spent last summer signing City’s squad players, in Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko, pipping them to one of their targets felt they were conducting transfer business at another level.
For City, Rice’s decision may have been a sign Arsenal are here to stay, that last season was not a one-off. It shapes the possibility that Arteta against Guardiola is the division’s new defining rivalry.
If so, it would be the third to involve the Catalan, though the first, and most hyped, actually proved less compelling and enduring than the second.
Guardiola against Jose Mourinho was a battle of ideas that the Catalan won and, even when the Portuguese won twice in charge of Tottenham, had lost some of its lustre. The knockout blow had already been struck as the ball was caressed around Guardiola’s midfields. Mourinho has the second most wins against Guardiola – seven – while coming off second-best in their feud.
Guardiola against Jurgen Klopp had epic status for at least four seasons, between 2017-20 and then 2021-22. Twice they were only separated by a solitary point at the top of the table. Once, Liverpool knocked City out of the Champions League. Once, they knocked them off their perch as champions of England.
The overall score stands at 8-7 to Klopp in one respect, with more victories in their meetings in this country, and 5-1 to Guardiola in another: they have shared the last six Premier League titles, but not equally.
Liverpool’s second underwhelming campaign in three, albeit for different reasons in 2022-23 to 2020-21, prompts the question if, like Ferguson against Arsene Wenger, a previously even contest will become more one-sided and if this is a rivalry whose best days are in the past.
Then there is the emerging rival in Arteta, lacking Klopp’s record of defeating Guardiola – something the German still did twice last season, including in the Community Shield – but with the more recent title challengers and the transfer business that has the stamp of ambition.
Not every manager who runs Guardiola closest proves capable of overhauling him. Mourinho did in Spain, after finishing runners-up in LaLiga with Real Madrid. When his Manchester United came second, however, he was sacked by the end of the calendar year. The same fate befell Ole Gunnar Solskjaer three years later. If Arteta seems to have more staying power, as Klopp did before him, the next challenge is to overcome Guardiola over both 90 minutes and nine months.