When Pep Guardiola said he had a feeling Mikel Arteta was building something special at Arsenal, he might not have banked on being proved right so quickly and so emphatically.
Arsenal reached half-time in Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City deservedly 1-0 ahead. It should have been more. The eventual 2-0 outcome did not flatter them in the slightest.
Arteta’s three and a half years as Guardiola’s assistant at City saw his reputation blossom rapidly. He had already been offered the top job at Emirates Stadium in 2018 before accepting his first senior coaching position last December.
It was easy to see almost everything Arsenal did in an accomplished showing as being informed and inspired by the Guardiola playbook.
Take Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s beautifully constructed 19th-minute opener, for example. The move featured 18 passes, the bulk of them knocked about inside their own area in a daring high-wire act.
By the time Nicolas Pepe floated a teasing cross from the right flank for Aubameyang to dispatch a deft, sliding finish, they were the ninth and 10th Arsenal men to touch the ball in the sequence.
18 – There were 18 passes made in the build-up to Arsenal’s opener in this game, with 10 of their 11 players being involved in the move for Aubameyang’s goal. Protégé. #EmiratesFACup pic.twitter.com/AarEt1LzqP
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 18, 2020
City’s most presentable openings before the break came when Arsenal’s bold commitment to building play from deep went awry. Arteta picked out all the perfect points to jam and clog up Guardiola’s whirring machine.
Granit Xhaka has looked like a spanner for the Gunners before, but it’s never been such a compliment. Master playmakers David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne were tracked, smothered and starved of service in their favoured areas of the field.
At the back, City goalkeeper Ederson and centre-backs Eric Garcia and Aymeric Laporte – a trio usually so slick and assured with the ball at their feet – hesitated time and again. The passing lanes Guardiola’s side love to speed along were closed off into dank alleyways offering nothing.
A mantra Guardiola repeated before the match was that mentality, not tactics, win through on occasions like this.
Thankfully for Arsenal, they had that in spades too as City pressure mounted. Given how frequently this group of players have appeared temperamentally ill-suited to the demands of elite matches, Arteta’s achievement in fostering such resolve, which was also the key component in a 2-1 midweek win over Liverpool, cannot be understated.
His players were nevertheless grateful for the second-half drinks break. Raheem Sterling slotted wide from a fine De Bruyne pass, the Belgium star grazed the side-netting with a free-kick, while Riyad Mahrez forced an excellent near-post stop from Emiliano Martinez in between those chances. That was City’s only shot on target.
Shkodran Mustafi survived a trial by VAR after bringing down Sterling in the box, but he and David Luiz were colossi where they have so often been comedians.
4 – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is the fourth Arsenal player to score a competitive brace at Wembley Stadium, after Reg Lewis (1950 FA Cup final), Charlie Nicholas (1987 League Cup final) and Alexis Sánchez (2015 FA Cup semi-final). Stage. #EmiratesFACup pic.twitter.com/YN0mB5WdZt
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 18, 2020
Then there was a break in the blue wave and Aubameyang sauntered beyond a flimsy City backline to finish coolly.
From that point it was instructive how little City threatened. Laporte thrashing his weaker right foot at a long-range effort was the closest they came.
Last season’s treble winners scythe through opponents when all the components of their team operate in frictionless synchronicity. Every action has a reaction. But the same is true when they malfunction. The more blunted a Sergio Aguero-less forward line, the shakier a post-Vincent Kompany defence. It is all so self-perpetuating that their defeats have started to feel inevitable.
And there have been plenty of those. Most of their nine losses in a failed Premier League title defence have come while hogging possession and failing to break down massed defensive ranks. Guardiola’s players wore a look of men who had read this script many times and lacked the imagination or direction to supply an alternative ending.
A week of victory off the field ended with defeat on it. English football’s dominant team over the past two years have also lost to Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham, Wolves (twice) and Manchester United (three times) this term.
Even allowing for a 2-1 first-leg advantage over Real Madrid – freshly crowned LaLiga champions after 10 wins from 10 since lockdown – a Champions League-winning conclusion to salvage the campaign feels far-fetched, given that fairly wretched return against high-class opponents.
Arteta, the star pupil, put his knowledge of Guardiola’s teachings to devastating good use at Wembley. The problem for a City team who finish games out of ideas far too often nowadays is their former training ground confidant is far from the only coach in possession of an open secret.
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