Oct 19, 2022
The joke doing the rounds on social media is that after making the Premier League look easy with four titles in five years, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has built himself a challenger by sending Mikel Arteta, Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko to Arsenal.
With the former Man City assistant in charge, and two former City title winners in the team, Arsenal are top of the table, and what began as a positive start to the new season is looking more and more like a title charge with each passing week. There is a long way to go, particularly for a team that haven’t been considered contenders for the best part of a decade, but it’s now 12 wins from 13 games in all competitions.
Arsenal and City would have met at the Emirates this week had it not been for Arsenal’s rearranged Europa League tie with PSV Eindhoven, but Guardiola doesn’t need to meet face-to-face to know that Arteta, Jesus and Zinchenko are a threat. He has already seen enough.
“Arsenal is back,” he said last month. “I think Arsenal are already there, after many years [they] were not there. With the patience with Mikel [who] changed not just the team but the club. This is already a factor and they are already contenders.”
Arsenal’s decision to stick with Arteta — Guardiola’s No. 2 at City for 3½ years — during occasional periods of fan unrest since his appointment in December 2019, and also spend nearly £80 million on Jesus and Zinchenko in particular, has already been vindicated with their best start to a season since 1904-05. A team which was aiming to finish in the top four for the first time since 2016 has now set their sights much higher, and there are supporters dreaming of a first title since Arsene Wenger’s last in 2004.
It’s a club that, as Guardiola has pointed out, have not been that used to winning and although Zinchenko and Jesus weren’t the only summer signings — their total spend was close to £120 million — it was important for Arteta to bring in players with experience of lifting trophies. In Premier League terms, there’s no better place to look than Man City.
Former Man City teammates Jesus and Zinchenko have both hit the ground running at Arsenal. (Photo by Xinhua via Getty Images)
“We now have a new confidence, a spark, and that winning mentality that he has,” the Spaniard said of Jesus, who won eight domestic trophies at the Etihad Stadium including four Premier League titles. Zinchenko has a similar record. For City, however, the reasoning behind the decision to let two players join a top-six rival — even if they finished 24 points behind last season — is less obvious.
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Sources have told ESPN that Guardiola was keen to keep both Jesus and Zinchenko, but that they were handed moves because they wanted to play bigger roles at a different club — a position the City boss understood. It would have been easy for Guardiola and director of football Txiki Begiristain to decide right away that if they were determined to leave, it would have to be abroad — a safe distance from having any influence on whether or not City continued to dominate the Premier League. But they didn’t, and as well as allowing Jesus and Zinchenko to join Arsenal, they also sanctioned Raheem Sterling’s move to Chelsea.
At one point Liverpool, City’s nearest challengers for the last five years, registered an interest in re-signing Sterling, but rather than immediately ruling out the prospect of strengthening Jurgen Klopp’s squad, City let it play out. In the end, Sterling chose to join Chelsea after positive conversations with new owner Todd Boehly and then manager Thomas Tuchel, but Guardiola and Begiristain weren’t phased by the possibility of the England winger lining up this season for their closest rivals.
The feeling was that City’s squad needed to be refreshed and, to do that, players had to leave as well as arrive. On top of that, in purely financial terms, when you’re looking to get the largest fee possible for a player, the money is usually in England.
In the cases of Jesus, Zinchenko and Sterling, they were granted moves because of Guardiola’s insistence that he never wants unhappy players in his squad. Each player gave a preference about where they wanted to go and were told that if the clubs came up with an acceptable fee, they would be allowed to move.
Sources have told ESPN that despite Guardiola’s close relationship with Arteta, Arsenal were not done any favours in their pursuit of Jesus and Zinchenko. There was other interest — from the Premier League and abroad — in both players but Arsenal came up with the right offers and from that point on, the deals were relatively smooth. Arsenal have been happy with their signings and City were pleased to get the money they did, particularly for Jesus, who was nearing the end of his contract.
Now, an Arsenal team with a heavy City influence are positioning themselves to go toe-to-toe with City for the title. It’s Arteta who deserves the credit for building a challenger, but Guardiola’s fingerprints are on them, too.