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gunners misfiring Arteta’s learns hard way he shouldn’t mimic his mentor because he doesn’t have players up to task


Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta: Under pressure to reach Europa League decider. Photo: PA Wire

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta: Under pressure to reach Europa League decider. Photo: PA Wire

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta: Under pressure to reach Europa League decider. Photo: PA Wire

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 coach, the greatest of his generation and a genius in the true sense of the word.

You would 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 City.

But Arteta, whose side next face Newcastle tomorrow, needs to be wary of merely trying to imitate his friend and mentor. When you listen to Arteta, 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 by Villarreal, Arteta simply repeated most of the things Guardiola had been saying for the past 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 team sheet and the formation Arsenal tried to play against a side seventh in La Liga. There was no centre-forward, in what was roughly a 4-3-3, with Nicolas Pepe hugging the touchline, as 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 nor Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were fit enough to start the game, but it did not work.

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 been instructed to stay up the pitch, Arsenal’s midfield were overrun repeatedly.

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, in a semi-final, making all the same mistakes 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 of Kieran Tierney’s injury.

It was clear Villarreal were targeting that side of the pitch and it is where their first goal came from.

Arsenal remain in the tie, thanks to Pepe’s second-half penalty, but they probably should not be. Villarreal were the better side, created more chances and only some wayward finishing and 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.

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It is not the first time Arteta has tried to do something clever and it has not worked. 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.

For some, pragmatism is an ugly word in football, but Arsenal are in danger of becoming a team who want to be something they cannot be.

There are things Guardiola can do with City that Arteta simply cannot with Arsenal. Yet, whatever Guardiola tries, he seems keen to mimic.

Arsenal do not have Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden, Ilkay Gundogan, Riyad Mahrez or Raheem Sterling. One of the most startling things about City’s magnificent campaign is they have played without a striker in a centre-forward’s role for most of it. The so-called false-nine system that we first saw from the Spain national team on their way to winning the European Championship in 2012 has been adapted to bring out the best in a City squad deprived of an ageing Sergio Aguero because of injury for most of the season.

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

Newcastle United v Arsenal,
Live, Sky Sports, tomorrow 2.0

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