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It is approaching midnight on December 18, 2019, and Manchester City are halfway through the flight home after successfully navigating a Carabao Cup quarter-final against Oxford United.

The flat atmosphere aboard suggests otherwise. It is like they had lost.

Yes, the reigning English league champions and that competition’s cup holders had made tougher work of the tie than expected, the League One side had equalised a minute after half-time, but they had come through as comfortable 3-1 winners in the end. The sombre mood does not align with their status as a club then holding all four domestic trophies, including the Community Shield — and who had just negotiated a tricky away cup tie to reach the semi-finals.

The problem? They know it really is job done for someone sitting near the front of the plane.

At one moment during that journey back to Manchester, Mikel Arteta stood up and went to speak to manager Pep Guardiola. There was a realisation among the players and backroom staff that this was him confirming his time was up after three-and-a-half years as an assistant at City.

The chatter about Arteta replacing the sacked Unai Emery at his former club Arsenal — who visitors City had swept aside 3-0 in the Premier League three days earlier — had become so loud that it seemed inevitable by this stage.

A coach, who had been viewed by City’s squad almost as a team-mate in his first season because his footwork and speed of thought were still so immaculate when he joined in the rondo passing drill, had steadily grown to become such an integral member of staff that the players could not enjoy their victory for thinking about the significance of his departure.

Two days later, Arteta’s exit was rubber-stamped.

This weekend, four years and four months later, having rebuilt Arsenal and turned them into the current Premier League leaders and Champions League quarter-finalists this season, Arteta returns to the Etihad Stadium, where he could face several of the players who were in the squad that night in Oxford and Guardiola, the man who gave him his first coaching job in 2016.

After helping his countryman build the City dynasty, Arteta now wants to be the one to tear it down.

Guardiola’s 2016-17 debut season at City ended with a third-place Premier League finish, a Champions League last-16 exit and no silverware. It remains his only trophyless season since entering first-team management in 2008 and one of the few vulnerable points in a glittering touchline career.

Doubts were cast over his ability to adapt to English football after success with Barcelona and Bayern Munich and there was an impending need for a squad overhaul: City had a team littered with men who had won Premier League titles in 2012 and 2014, but many of them were now past their primes, on long contracts, and not tailor-made for Guardiola’s way of playing.

Guardiola brought a large backroom staff with him in summer 2016, but in that opening season, some inside the club found this Spanish cohort could be a little insular, not breaking out of their first-team bubble to exchange ideas and learnings with other departments.

One person opened the club up: Arteta. He had retired as an Arsenal player, aged 34, at the end of the 2015-16 season to go into coaching and did so not on Arsene Wenger’s staff at the Emirates Stadium but hundreds of miles away under fellow City newcomer Guardiola.

“He was the one willing to break down the door in both directions,” says one source connected to the City first team at the time, who like others in this article was speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect relationships. The same source described Arteta’s thirst for learning as like military reconnaissance — the way he circled through the various offices inside the club’s Etihad Campus to understand how every department worked and how he could plug gaps in his knowledge.

“From day one, it was like he was at university,” says another source, who observed Arteta’s evolution during his three-and-a-half seasons in Manchester. “He’s a f**king animal. An attention to detail second to none.”

It was at the end of that first season when Arteta learned about research that had been done around the type of squad blends which tend to establish periods of sustained dominance. He validated the work, championed it and personally convinced Guardiola to let it inform the club’s transfer policy. It was a cornerstone that became a key unifying moment at City and coincided with the start of their run of five titles in the past six completed seasons.

Arteta had shown impressive political acumen, which is what was required during his first two years with City as he looked to move up the chain of command. Cognisant of the experience of Domenec Torrent, who had been Guardiola’s closest confidant from the very start when he got the Barcelona job in 2008, and Rodolfo Borrell, another coach the manager knew from the Catalan club’s La Masia academy, the challenge was to do so without stepping on toes.

Arteta was very respectful of the relationship between Guardiola and Torrent, but his actions and the growth of his remit meant that by the time Torrent left to become manager of City’s MLS sister club New York City in the summer of 2018, his promotion to be Guardiola’s new main assistant felt very natural.

Arteta had been able to secure mandates to lead certain projects outside of his day-to-day role. He laid out a sizeable portion of the scouting framework for the multi-club City Football Group (CFG) stable, which is now an 80-page document with detailed instructions on the different roles within Guardiola’s team structure and what scouts should look for when identifying players who fit the mould.

Guardiola’s coldness towards set pieces was in contrast to Arteta’s attitude, who felt it was an aspect of the game that was being under-trained and led to the recruitment in 2019 of a specialist coach. He was put in touch with Nicolas Jover, then with Brentford (a Championship side at the time) and now his trusted expert at Arsenal, even flying him to his villa in Spain’s Balearic islands to learn who he was and what he had to offer.

Impressed, he recommended Jover to City and Guardiola got on board with the club’s decision that this was an area they should invest in.

There was another project, in 2017, which stands out for the reason that it involved many people, showcasing how plugged into the City matrix Arteta had become.

City had produced a piece of work which proved the hypothesis that the higher the level of competition, the less time and space players have to shoot from within the zone of the penalty area where most goals are scored. They calculated the varying times and an academy coach devised a drill to work on it in training.

Through the relationships he had built, Arteta got wind of this and introduced it to the first-team environment. He adapted it so it was more game-realistic, with the forwards having to perform a high-intensity sprint at the start before executing the action inside a marked square under pressure from defenders. Fail to do all that within the allotted time and the ball was blown dead.

The finishing of Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus improved almost immediately at the start of that 2017-18 season.

The numbers show Sterling went from seven league goals in 2016-17 to 18, Sane from five to 10, and Jesus from seven to 13. Sterling’s conversion rate increase was particularly impressive, almost doubling from 10.9 per cent in the 2016-17 Premier League season to 20.7 per cent a year later.

Surely not coincidentally, having finished third and 15 points adrift of title winners Chelsea in Guardiola’s first season, City were crowned champions in that second campaign with the only 100-point haul in Premier League history.

Many conversations in Guardiola’s first two seasons saw Arteta provide his boss with intel from his 11 years as a Premier League player with Everton and Arsenal, whether it was about opposition coaches, the tightness of some grounds’ pitches, dressing-room layouts or refereeing styles. These were nuances that he understood unlike any of City’s other Spanish coaches, but Arteta did not want to constrain himself to a role as an ex-pro providing little nuggets of information from years gone by.

While a lot of former players tend to create distance between themselves and new domains as a way of ensuring their limitations aren’t exposed, Arteta was different. He was inquisitive and, unlike most coaches who would wait for others to come to them with information, Arteta would regularly go over to the adjacent City Football Group building to spend time with the club’s analysis department.

People who worked with him felt he observed, like a judge, when provided with data, deciding what was going to be valuable enough to make a difference. He had an intuitive feel for knowing what would make a difference and gravitated towards those areas.

By immersing himself in so many different roles, Arteta was able to develop a 360-degree view.

That was the evolution that people witnessed in his three years at City. Arteta’s work ethic and potential were clear early on, but when he stepped up to the role as Guardiola’s main assistant, many felt he then had the authority of someone ready to take over any Premier League team — perhaps even City themselves.

“In 2018, no one was expecting Pep to stay so long (Guardiola’s initial City contract was for three seasons). It was never explained on a PowerPoint, but you could sense that the moment he leaves, this guy is ready to take it on. You could sense that was part of the plan,” says one source.

Sources describe three elements coalescing to create the Arteta we know now: the tactical learnings from Guardiola; the path he has trodden in British football, giving him a rare blend of style and steel; and his understanding of how all the components of a modern, elite football club should combine.

He learned the emotional side of managing a large squad, introducing a new rule that any player who reports for training with any issues related to football or their home life, however small, should be flagged to the coaching staff. Arteta typically wanted to know absolutely every detail so he could factor it into his thinking. He would dig down to an extra level on everything, even menial tasks that were not related to performance. It is no surprise that a daily morning meeting with the entire staff — something not in place at City — is now common at Arsenal.

This doesn’t mean that Guardiola did not interact with his assistants and support personnel. He was cooperative and aided the synergy between the first team and staff, but Arteta perhaps represents the difference between Guardiola’s generation and the new breed of all-encompassing coaches, who are comfortable not only with the softer skills of management but the modern demands of technology and data, able to prepare their own documents and manage their own files.

As a younger, multilingual coach, he was able to act as the bridge between Guardiola and both the players and the wider City staff.

In another world, Guardiola left City in 2019 or 2020 after serving a similar-length tenure as he did at Barcelona and Bayern, with Arteta stepping up as his replacement.

In this one, he has stayed, it was Arteta who moved on and is now a title-race rival, and with that comes obvious comparisons.

Many like to portray Arteta’s style as just a rehashing of what Guardiola taught him, but those who know him refute this as lazy framing which ignores his own authentic journey and say there are as many differences between them as there are similarities.

True, both came through La Masia, but Guardiola was indoctrinated at Barca for 18 years until finally transferring to Brescia in Italy at the age of 30, whereas Arteta only spent four years at the Catalan club before leaving for Paris Saint-Germain when still a teenager.

So, while Catalonia-born Guardiola achieved his dreams with his boyhood team, Arteta, who is from San Sebastian, a six-hour drive away in northern Spain, had to deal with rejection at Barcelona and so headed for Paris and then Rangers in Glasgow before spending six years on Merseyside and another five in London.

Set aside the influences of British football on his thinking and simply look at the cultural make-up of the places that have shaped him. In his home city, there is the Basque country’s independence movement; at Rangers, the clash between Unionism and Republicanism, Catholic and Protestant, defines their Old Firm derby games with Celtic; and at Everton, he will have been exposed to the strong sense of the ‘Scouse, not English’ identity.

The bravery to leave home young, move to three other countries and immerse himself in intense footballing cultures shows someone who has a shatterproof mentality.

People who worked with Arteta at City make the point that while he of course learned key elements of Guardiola’s thinking, he is simply too passionate and too hard-working to ever be a mimic of him.

City’s secrecy around Guardiola’s methods was likened to the Great Wall of China during Arteta’s period there. Not even the club’s analysts had full visibility regarding what the sessions were. It was a form of osmosis in the sense that the closer you go to the inner circle, the more you knew, but you had to be right next to Guardiola to really see the work in action.

Arteta was privy to that but CFG’s network-wide literature on coaching methodology, aimed at developing a uniform style across all clubs, already existed in some form before Guardiola even arrived. It is not a tell-all guide, rather a set of principles that CFG coaches bring to life in their own vision, as it was managed in a way that protects Guardiola’s approach.

“You can copy sessions, but that isn’t the secret. Too many are obsessed with practices and where to put the cones. The secret to success is much deeper than that. Nobody gets to know how Pep thinks and that is his genius,” says one insider.

At City, Arteta’s nature means that he never felt complete. His openness meant staff knew if they could help him win they would get his total buy-in, and that his status would make their work more likely to penetrate the first-team environment. Arteta was always looking to level up his skills and always challenged accepted norms. Intense and single-minded, his personality was viewed as being adaptable enough to get whoever he needed to do so to perform or share their knowledge.

He would be seen around the Etihad campus energising other people, but what if you were not part of that pathway? There is the feeling that Arteta’s mindset saw him leave people behind if he thought they were not evolving and bringing new ideas to the table.

That is the price you pay when you work with someone who, in his first days of coaching at City, was described as a “man on a mission”.

Beat City back at the Etihad on Sunday and Arteta will have taken a huge step towards completing the biggest mission of his career so far.

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)



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