Perhaps it was a sign of Manchester City’s confidence this summer in Premier League status that they were happy to sell Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko to Arsenal. There was a time when Big Six clubs were reluctant to negotiate with each other, fearful of strengthening an opponent.
In truth, there’s probably more than one reason City were pretty relaxed about doing business: the need to balance the books to pay those Erling Haaland salaries within the rules, and the collapse of any decent transfer market outside of the game. Premier League would have guided those decisions.
And yet, they were also probably quite relaxed about Arsenal’s prospects as potential title contenders. It seemed unlikely, at best. But when the teams take part in the World Cup in three weeks’ time, it will be Arsenal, led by former City assistant coach Mikel Arteta, who will likely be their closest rival.
Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko’s moves may have been signs of Man City confidence
Arteta, of course, was a Guardiola apprentice, not only at City, but also at La Masia, Barcelona’s legendary academy, back in the days when youngsters were housed in the old farmhouse next to the stadium. Camp Nou.
Arteta was 14 when he moved there from San Sebastian, only to discover that Xavi was his immediate contemporary, with Guardiola, 27, the pivot in midfield for Barca’s first team, so he understandably had to make his way. elsewhere, through Paris Saint-Germain, Rangers, Everton and Arsenal.
However, all the time he was studying. ‘I learned a lot [from Pep at City]’ he said on Friday, before Sunday’s game against Southampton. ‘The rules that are set in the club are not only to win, but to win in a certain way, every three days. It was amazing to be a part of that team and its evolution.’
Arteta now has the same task, to keep Arsenal at the top and to make sure a good start doesn’t turn into what “could have been” it turned into last season. He maintains contact with Guardiola, although he admits: ‘Obviously we are not talking about things related to our teams! Of course we can talk about football like we did in the past and that’s not going to change.”
Pep Guardiola was Mikel Arteta’s mentor at both Manchester City and Barcelona years ago.
Arteta himself uses meditation to clear his mind and prepare for the mental challenges of facing his former mentor. “First of all, I try to get a good night’s sleep,” he said, speaking of how he has adapted to managing. “I think rest is very important. I try to watch my diet. I don’t exercise as much as I should. And then I have to have a clear mind and for that, spending time with my loved ones is something that really helps me, my wife, my children. And really thinking, meditating, something like that, helps you.
It’s tempting to speculate whether games like this last season (they lost 1-0 at Southampton, a third loss in a row in April, ruining their Champions League hopes) are what prompted him to seek some reassurance. However, this Arsenal looks different. Even Troy Deeney, the man who coined the “lack of balls” cliché, admitted last week that he wouldn’t apply that insult to this team.
Jesus seems to have brought some of the City mentality with him. “It’s unbelievable,” said Kieran Tierney, after the 1-0 victory over PSV Eindhoven on Thursday. “He’s one of the best, if not the best, players I’ve ever played with. He adds a lot to us. He’s still young but he’s got a lot of experience. He’s been there and he’s done it, he’s won the league, so he knows what it takes. For someone like that to walk into your locker room, it’s unbelievable.’
Jesus seems to have brought some of the City mentality with him according to Kieran Tierney
At City, Jesus had a reputation as a poacher but, at Arsenal, the Brazilian inspires their entire game, dropping deep to link up with team-mates and providing a vital role in defence.
“I can also see the way he defends, he defends with his heart,” Tierney said. “He and Eddie Nketiah are the hardest working forwards I have ever met. Having that up the pitch helps us in midfield and defense.
‘He has this inner drive, this hunger. He wants to win everything, even head tennis in training. [When Jesus plays], is fighting for every point. That’s the mindset you need to win things.’
Tierney knows that having put an end to the line about not beating the best teams, having won against Tottenham and Liverpool, they must now show the doubters that they will not give up against the likes of Southampton. ‘It is important that we focus on ourselves and not on the past. We know it’s going to be a tough game,” he said.
When the teams take part in the World Cup in three weeks, Arsenal will likely be the closest challenger in town.
‘We want to keep winning. Build momentum. Winning becomes a habit, it is something you are addicted to, you love to feel it. We just want it to keep working. We go into every match believing we can win.’
The big difference this season is the depth of the team. “We had a great transfer window,” Tierney added. ‘Last season, if one or two were injured, we had to shuffle some things. Now, if he steps in, he knows exactly what he’s doing. We all know our job.
And Arsenal will look to strengthen in January if necessary. Arteta says his relationship with owner Stan Kroenke, his son Josh and Tim Lewis, his representative on the board in London, is such that he knows they will back him.
The true test of Arsenal’s title credentials may come if they try to buy a City player again. Perhaps the Premier League champions are not so keen to do business now.