Arsenal versus Manchester City on Wednesday will not be your regular first versus second in the league match.
Arsenal’s hopes of a first league title since 2004 rely heavily on this match. But its significance stems from the fact that it is the first staging of a rivalry that could possibly dominate the English Premier League (EPL) for the next few years.
Liverpool versus Manchester City has been the league’s flagship fixture for the past few years and while it is still early days, the Arsenal-City rivalry appears to have the makings to take over that mantle.
In the heydays of Highbury under Arsene Wenger, Manchester City meandered mid-table, struggling to establish themselves in their own city. Wenger’s first title on English soil in 1998 coincided with Manchester City’s relegation from the first division for the second time in three years.
The tables turned after City’s takeover by Sheikh Mansour in 2008. They clinched the title for the first time in 2012 and have won the league in four of the last five seasons under Pep Guardiola.
Arsenal’s fall between the late Wenger and early Mikel Arteta years was quite spectacular: In the last five years, Arsenal have, on average, finished 28.8 points behind City each season.
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In their 18 meetings between 2000 and 2010, City won just thrice and never away from home. In the last 12 years, Arsenal have won just four times in 25 games and only once at the Etihad.
This year, the Gunners have shown the quality to make up the gulf. With 51 points from 21 games, it has been Arsenal’s best start to a Premier League season. At the same stage last year, it had 38 points and sat in fifth position.
But, this is not a flash-in-the-pan season for Arsenal, who, under manager Arteta, have a squad that is built to challenge for top honours in the long run.
“They’ve got such a young team. Even though they are at the top of the league right now, in theory, we’re yet to see the best of them,” Jay Harris of The Athletic told Al Jazeera.
“This is a side led by Bukayo Saka, Martin Odegaard and Gabriel Martinelli. These guys are still in their early 20s, so you’d expect that in three to four years, if this group stays together, it will be even better. That’s why there is excitement seeing Arteta’s Arsenal progress, Guardiola’s City coming up against them and who’s going to win.”
The best rivalries are built on animosity but the lack of high-stakes meetings between the two has largely kept relations cordial. Barring Emmanuel Adebayor’s incendiary celebration in front of Arsenal fans in 2009, you would be hard-pressed to recall any standout moments from this fixture.
That may change soon and City’s decision to sell Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko to Arsenal in the summer is where the fault lines may be drawn.
After years spent waiting in the wings at the Etihad, the two have flourished under the spotlight at the Emirates. If Zinchenko is in the starting 11 on Wednesday, he would equal the number of starts he made all of last season for City.
With the benefit of hindsight, the decision to sell them to the Gunners feels like a strange one and hints at Guardiola having underestimated the progress made under Arteta.
Ultimately, that is the most fascinating subplot of this budding rivalry: Guardiola versus Arteta.
“Given their previous work together [at Manchester City], it feels a far cry from the rivalries of Sir Alex Ferguson, Wenger and Jose Mourinho, as two top coaches battle at the top of the table with similar footballing principles, and both remaining on good terms has certainly contributed to the rivalry being ‘friendlier’ than in other title races,” added Harris.
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In their three years together, City won the league twice. The influence Arteta’s “idol” had on his managerial philosophy is evidenced in the way he sets up his Arsenal team.
Positional fluidity, nimble-footed technicians, left backs being deployed in the half-spaces and goalkeepers with playmaking capabilities are all Guardiolan tenets.
Arteta taking on his ‘idol’
The mutual appreciation society between the two in the media is an interesting one. Last month, Guardiola spoke of the “immense satisfaction” he feels at his protege’s success. In December last year, Arteta spoke at length about the relationship he shared with his “idol”.
The two have always been quick to sing each other’s praises. To the cynic, Guardiola’s repeated fawning over Arsenal this season may seem patronising. In the aftermath of Jesus’s injury, Guardiola said he “would prefer that he could play immediately with Arsenal”.
Manchester City’s manager is not truculent in the way some others are but he is a bitter competitor and it is hard to imagine him saying the same about Mohammed Salah during the run-in last year.
The ingredients for a proper rivalry are all there, and the outside context going into the game on Wednesday has brought things to a simmer.
City have lacked the fluency and flair of previous seasons and have already lost more games this season than they did all of last year. But the real problems lie off the field.
The sudden departure of last season’s player of the year Joao Cancelo to Bayern Munich in the January window has left the squad sparse.
Additionally, last week, they were charged by the Premier League for having broken financial rules a staggering 101 times over the past decade. While City have disputed the claims, the severity of the charges has rocked the league.
If found guilty, they could be relegated and have their titles stripped away.
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“It’s been a confusing season in all honesty,” City Xtra writer Vayam Lahoti told Al Jazeera. “Erling Haaland has been a signing unlike any other, and Guardiola signing a new deal also shows the club is working to build on its success under him. However, the way the past few months have unravelled shows that some key issues in the squad remain.
Will Guardiola use the allegations to build a siege mentality in the squad?
Harris believes the Spaniard has already begun doing that, pointing to Guardiola’s comments in his news conference last week where he spoke of being condemned by everyone and said “we are lucky we live in a society where everybody is innocent until proven guilty”.
Arsenal themselves have hit a stumbling block in recent weeks, having taken just one point from their previous two league games and were held to a 1-1 draw by Brentford in their last outing.
“The atmosphere in the stadium was one of the poorest it’s been all season, and I think nerves played a huge part in that. Until Leandrop Trossard scored, there was real concern about the performance, and how the team would react against City, and the final result did our confidence no favours,” said Arsenal fan and season-ticket holder Rahul Lakhani.
“The City game was always huge but the nerves have been ramped up. When the team was thriving, that game was looked at with a lot more confidence than it is now, following three winless games,” he added.
The clash on Wednesday is arguably the biggest league game to be staged at the Emirates in its 17-year history.
Arteta’s tyros will meet Guardiola’s titans in the first act of an opera that is primed to captivate.