Mikel Arteta’s hands-on approach with Arsenal can’t bridge talent gap vs. Manchester City

LONDON — No one, least of all Mikel Arteta, needs to be reminded of the gulf between the club he left and the Arsenal side he inherited. But as he urged his players on in their doomed battle against Manchester City on Sunday he must have bemoaned how easy it seemed for Pep Guardiola.

“Allez Auba, allez”, “Nico, Nico”, “forward KT”, Arteta cried from the sidelines. Scarcely 10 seconds would pass in the first half at the Emirates Stadium without another call from the manager to one of his players. In the most intense moments of City pressure there was a pleading tone to the Arsenal manager, as though he was not just asking his players to get better but was hoping that someone might come to his aid.

“Every movement, every detail, every position is key,” Arteta told CBS Sports. “The moment you don’t get it like we didn’t in the first 10 minutes they’re going to explode straight away and make you look a poor team. 

“Probably I do it too much I don’t know but I think it’s very necessary to give them guidance because I can see from the outside what they’re going to do and when you’re there 100 miles per hour sometimes you miss a second or two and with them that’s a huge amount of time.”

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Arteta has used the behind-closed-doors fixtures of the last year to make sure his instructions were heard by his players but this was micromanagement to the extreme. Scarcely a goal kick went by without Arteta ordering Tierney upfield: “KT high, Aubameyang push infield.” To his credit, it did prove to be an effective immediate outball for Arsenal, you just wondered why the manager needed to continually remind his players of that.

As Nicolas Pepe darted down the right flank, Raheem Sterling joined Oleksandr Zinchenko in trying to close down the Ivorian’s avenue to the byline or the goal. Arteta called the pass to Hector Bellerin before telling his No. 2 where he wanted the ball to go to next. The attack frittered away eventually, perhaps the Arsenal coaching staff just could not spot the next pass.

All too often this was typical of an underwhelming if not irredeemable Arsenal performance. They could advance up the pitch and Guardiola was effusive on their almost man-to-man pressing that forced City back to Ederson. But give them field position in the final third and they lacked the subtle interplay and swift movement to carve a way through the excellent John Stones and Ruben Dias.

Arteta insisted that his hands-on approach was not hindering his team — “the moment I think that’s the case I will stop it” — however it was apparent from looking at the bench that he had sat on when a member of Manchester City’s coaching staff that he would probably rather leave his players to get on with it.

A few feet away Guardiola sat motionless. It is not remotely easy to establish the identity, the patterns of play and the ceaseless energy that typifies City at their best, which they indisputably are now. But you suspect that in recent weeks as this team have motored to 18 straight wins in all competitions the in game aspects of management have been relatively undemanding, pick a good team and trust them to get on with it.

Even though they were not at their very best today there was much to admire in the grace and ease with which City built their attacks. In recent weeks without a natural striker it has become common to hand the “false nine” title to one of the quintet of midfielders, wide attackers and playmakers that instead populate Guardiola’s side. Even terms like that feel overly simplistic for this approach, today City were using the space that would usually be occupied by a No. 9 as an attacking weapon.

On occasion they would overload it, Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva charging forward to form the front four that have overwhelmed Liverpool earlier in the winning run. In other moments there would be such a chasm in what ought to be the most dangerous area of the pitch that Pablo Mari would feel compelled to chase a midfielder into the City half.

Meanwhile whatever role Joao Cancelo was playing it seemed peculiar to put a label like “right-back” on it. As many of his touches came in the sort of inside right channel that Riyad Mahrez might occupy.

Silva was no more consistent in his role, at times filling the spaces Cancelo had left behind before popping up as the center forward on others. City’s pass map as a whole seems to suggest that their formation is possession was something akin to a 2-3-5 or even a 3-2-3-2. Whatever it was it was an almighty challenge for Arsenal to keep on top of.

If City’s approach is what Arteta aspires for (and his past comments have indicated that that is the case) then the temptation is to suggest that given time and repetitions on the training ground they will build up these patterns that Guardiola’s side can deploy. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will be able to play as the hybrid left winger/central striker because his teammates will know to fill the spaces he leaves behind. Hector Bellerin could function as the inverted full-back who slots into midfield that he tried to be late last season.

City are four years into building their patterns, Arsenal’s rookie head coach is just over a year into his approach — several months of which saw him unable to work on the training ground — without a real pre-season in which to drill his system into place. Guardiola does not stop short in his praise of his protege but he always insists that Arteta will need time if he is to make his tenure a success.

Time alone might not be enough. Simply put, there is a level you can train Ilkay Gundogan to and there is a level you can train Mohamed Elneny to. Across the pitch you could see the same battle playing out. There is a talent gap that just can’t be bridged.

Arteta had drilled his side to nullify City across the pitch and there were occasions where, as Guardiola noted, they did so quite effectively. “It’s really difficult to find the right players to attack [them]. The last 20-25 minutes [of the first half] they were better than us.”

The problem for Arsenal is that all the hands-on coaching cannot completely mitigate this team’s tendency for the sort of basic errors that allow Raheem Sterling an unmarked header in the box. They are the sort of mistakes that the best talent in the world make rarely if at all. With the class of player in red on Sunday there is a decent chance something like the goal will happen at least once.

Soon after that goal went in Arteta allowed himself a brief moment to turn away from the action, to put his hand to his temple and reflect on another gameplan to be thrown out of the window because of sloppy mistakes. He was going to have to take the reins again. For the time being that may be something he has to do rather more often than he’d like.

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