Pep Guardiola believes Arsenal will be missing their “most important player” on Saturday in the forced absence of head coach Mikel Arteta, who he believes has the Gunners in the best shape since even before Arsene Wenger retired.
Club great Wenger left Arsenal in 2018 after 22 years in charge, during which time he presided over some glorious times but then also saw the club fall behind the Premier League’s leading lights towards the end.
Unai Emery replaced Wenger but only lasted 18 months before eventually seeing fellow Basque coach Arteta succeed him, the former Arsenal captain leaving his role as Guardiola’s assistant at City in order to take up the job.
Arteta’s win percentage (55.1 per cent) may be no better than Emery’s (55.1 per cent) but he recently celebrated his two-year anniversary in charge and the club appear on course for a largely positive season after an early wobble.
Saturday’s visit of Premier League leaders City comes three days after Arteta tested positive for coronavirus, however.
Guardiola believes it could be a massive blow for the Gunners.
“I would say Mikel maybe is the most important player they have,” the City boss told reporters. “I know his charisma, his ideas and especially the personality to do what he believes to do for the best, for the team or for the best for the club.
“So, no doubt about that. The most important thing we want is for him to stay well, that the symptoms are low as everything is under control and recovering after the protocols, and come back soon.
“And then the place that you love is on the touchline, in the training sessions, but I know exactly which Arsenal is going to play, with Mikel or without Mikel.”
Arsenal are averaging exactly two goals per game this season, the best they have recorded since Wenger left, while their 1.6 expected goals (xG) is also a high over that period.
It was initially thought Arteta would attempt to implement a Guardiola-inspired possession-based system at the club, though their average passing figures have decreased from 523.7 each game in Emery’s only full campaign to 476.3 this season, with Arsenal more willing to relinquish the ball and spring fast breaks.
While their 15 fast breaks may only rank as the eighth-highest in the Premier League this season, their frequency has more than doubled to 0.65 such occasions per game from 0.32 in each of the past two campaigns under Arteta, highlighting a shift in mentality.
Arsenal’s record against City is dreadful as they have lost each of their past nine league meetings with them – including the 5-0 hammering suffered in August – making it the club’s longest ever losing run against a single opponent.
Yet Arteta has overseen a five-match winning streak as well as a run of five successive home league victories, keeping a clean sheet in last four – not since 1999 have they won five in a row at home without conceding in the top flight.
As such, Arsenal are up to fourth with a four-point cushion over West Ham and Manchester United, leaving Guardiola under no illusion as to the level Arsenal are currently playing at.
Asked if Arsenal are at their best since Arteta took over, Guardiola replied: “Absolutely, but not just since Mikel took over as manager. I think it is the best Arsenal for the last four or five years.
“So, it’s no secret they are now top four. The energy they are playing with the good ideas that Mikel has, and the end result is that this is an example that to sell something, you need time.
“I had the feeling, not just the club, or the team, it is obvious that he has changed the club. I’m pretty sure he felt for many things that when he started at Arsenal, maybe it wasn’t good and he took it step by step.
“Maybe right now we are going to face one of the one or two best teams in the Premier League right now, in the best form with incredible young players that are dynamic.
“They are playing with the same back four which is stable and the physicality they have, the pace they have, the quality means there are more spaces. So it will be a real, real tough game.
“So, as I said, since I arrived here this is the best Arsenal I’ve ever seen, and it is already six seasons [since he moved to England].”