For Mikel Arteta, a reunion had carried the promise of revenge. He reached arguably his lowest ebb as Arsenal manager against the club where he began his coaching career. August’s 5-0 thrashing at Manchester City left Arsenal goalless, pointless and bottom of the table.
That Arsenal enter 2022 in fourth is a sign of an impressive revival. Arsenal’s record has gone from the wretched to the admirable, with one notable exception: they are yet to procure a point against the Premier League’s representatives in the Champions League and have conceded 14 goals in four games. A meeting with his mentor Pep Guardiola seemed a chance to remedy that.
And then, for the second time, Arteta tested positive for coronavirus. There was an unfortunate sense of symmetry: he first contracted Covid in March 2020, when City were due to play Arsenal. This time, at least, Arteta’s absence should not prevent the game from going ahead. There will be a different look to their dugout with Albert Stuivenberg, formerly assistant to Louis van Gaal at Manchester United, in charge. Per Mertesacker, now Arsenal’s academy manager, could also be involved.
Presumably the deposed captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s exile will continue, but the ranks of the missing have swelled. Covid initially struck Arsenal’s right-backs, with Takehiro Tomiyasu, Calum Chambers and Cedric Soares sidelined, before spreading to the coaching staff.
It has nonetheless been a successful spell for them. While City have reeled off 10 straight Premier League victories, Arteta’s team have five victories in a row in all competitions, scoring 19 and conceding just one. The narrowest of those triumphs may be the most significant: West Ham were defeated 2-0 and, along with the autumn wins over Tottenham and Leicester, it ranks as Arsenal’s finest result of the season.
But Arteta’s golden summer of 2020 came from an ability to beat the best, and not merely the best of the rest. His start to 2022 will indicate if he has recaptured it. Arsenal’s January features City, a Carabao Cup double header with Liverpool and a derby with Antonio Conte’s Spurs.
Brentford vs Manchester City player ratings
The encouragement comes from Arsenal’s capacity to win the more winnable games, from the way that potential is being converted into performance. Rather than rushing a fit-again Emile Smith Rowe back into the team, Arteta has been able to use him as an impact replacement. And he has been potent in cameos, becoming just the third Arsenal player to score in three successive substitute appearances in the Premier League.
Arsenal appear to have copied City’s model, with goals and assists coming from a raft of attacking midfielders and wingers. Martin Odegaard has three assists in his last two league games, Bukayo Saka three goals in his last two. Some 21 of Arsenal’s last 23 league goals have come from players aged 24 or under. The youngsters have kept on delivering.
And yet Arsenal’s record against City is awful. While Arteta masterminded, and Aubameyang delivered, an FA Cup win in July 2020, Guardiola has only ever dropped two points against Arsenal. He has nine straight league wins against them and the last five have come with clean sheets. In August, City’s 5-0 rout was still easier than the scoreline suggests: they did not bother adding to their lead in the final 37 minutes, even though Arsenal were down to 10 men.
The gulf between the teams had rarely looked bigger. But since August, only City have taken more points than Arsenal. While December began with defeats to Manchester United and Everton that showcased a self-destructive streak, their response has been terrific. But as Arteta watches on from afar, City will provide the ultimate test again on Saturday.