Manchester City vs Arsenal or Guardiola vs his shadow Mikel Arteta or Rodri vs Declan Rice | Football News

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola with Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta at full time REUTERS

Editor’s Note: This is our weekly football column from Sandip G, which is being published on Saturday evening rather than its usual Monday morning slot because of the Manchester City vs Arsenal game, to be played on Sunday.

The Manchester City-Arsenal encounter is an event; as well as an event within an event. In the broader scheme of the league, the meeting is a potential title decider, and if that be the case, a symbolic moment. That game when the power transfers from the hands of Manchester City to Arsenal, or that match City reimposes itself, or that contest Liverpool sneaks past their rivals to the title march. There is a thrilling intrigue that the league has not sustained for more than a decade.

But even in isolation, delineated from the overbearing title shadow, there are adequate narratives to make their Sunday duel an unmissable celebration of football. There is a manager in a relentless pursuit to unravel the layers and complexities of the game, a football scientist obsessed with the infinite possibilities of structure and formations. If Johan Cruyff was the Pythagorus of football, Pep Guardiola, his disciple, is Jacques Derrida, the controversial French philosopher whose theory of deconstruction gave us new insights into the meaning of language and aesthetic values.

To the complex world of passing and possession, he has interwoven a directness that has seemed antithetical in theory. He operates with a conventional number nine, Erling Haaland, has an electric-heeled winger Doku; long balls, goals from outside the box and the showy dribbles are no longer blasphemy. He is at once a revolutionary and counter-revolutionary, searching for new barriers and redefinitions, permanently moving on. All the football world is a stage for him, where the footballers are merely actors enacting his script.

Guardiola has touched football, and touched football managers like few others in the English Premier League. He is Mikel Arteta’s inspiration, his structuring of the team Guardiola-like. In a sense, Arteta, Arsenal’s manager, is closer to the classical Guardiola than Guardiola himself. While Guardiola has moved away from False 9, the role’s greatest exponent, Arteta has embraced and remoulded Kai Havertz into one. Arteta is deploying Declan Rice as Guardiola once used Ilkay Gundogan, a defensive midfielder with a vast passing spread and an attacking instinct. Arsenal’s fortunes would greatly depend on the control Rice would exert; just as City’s would hinge on Rodri’s. It would be a spectacle of individual battles, of one-upmanship? Rice or Rodri, Havertz or Haaland, Bukayako Saka or Phil Foden, William Saliba or Ruben Dias. The sheer individual quality is matchless in this game.

Festive offer

Arteta has internalised Guardiola’s management traits too. One of Arteta’s roles in his City days was to talk one-to-one with the players. “It’s crucial that they feel able to tell us what they think they need to improve. From the start I was absolutely fascinated by Pep’s work ethic, by his ability to transmit his ideas to the players and convince them that they’re going to work. It’s incredible to see how he simplifies even the most complicated things so that they appear straightforward and easy. It’s very difficult to reach footballers like that,” Arteta had once said. He has implemented the same at the Emirates too.

Guardiola has a knack of cajoling players into buying his ideas. He converted John Stones—who would miss the game due to an injury—into a deep-lying playmaker in the treble-winning season. He deputed Bernardo Silva and Foden as full-backs. Similarly, Arteta convinced Havertz to play in the midfield, though the German was repositioned a False 9 due to dearth of striking options upfront. He endured a stormy teething-in time, but thereafter has blossomed and scored and architected important goals for his club, like the winner against Brentford or the fashioning Gabriel Martinelli’s winner when the two teams met in the league last time.

In his touchline passion, Guardiola could see a younger self in Arteta. Time has mellowed the Spaniard, though the fire brims beneath. The match, thus, has an unputdownable quality that could engage the neutrals as the league enters the last and defining stretch. One has to time-travel to the 2009-10 season to enjoy a closer title race. At the start of March, with nine games remaining, Chelsea led Manchester United by a point and Arsenal by two points. But the Blues would win eight of their last nine games –including, a 2-1 at Old Trafford – to claim the title by a point. The Gunners fell apart and ended a distant third.

There have been a few two-horse races, most notably between City and Liverpool, but none as suspenseful as this current one. The league would not be mathematically decided this Sunday, but though both teams could carry the vibes of the outcome, Arsenal more so if they are to nick the game. A draw would brighten Liverpool’s faces. Provided they beat Brighton, they could go two points clear. All three could, of course, slip up in other games too. Arsenal have the trickiest road—with games at Brighton, Wolves, Tottenham and United, besides a game against the unpredictable Chelsea. City have a straightforward run on paper—Aston Villa and Tottenham being the only two teams in the top six. Liverpool have to face Manchester United and Aston Villa (away), and Tottenham (home). Effectively, the City-Arsenal face-off is not a title-decider in the strictest of sense. But it is an event, and an event within an event.

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