The student outclassed the master as Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal booked passage to the FA Cup final, leaving Pep Guardiola and Manchester City utterly exposed.
Nobody would have foreseen Arsenal’s FA Cup semi-final victory just over a month ago. There was a clear gulf in class when the two sides met in their first game back from lockdown, which Manchester City won 3-0.
On Saturday night at the Wembley Arena, however, Arsenal were a different team altogether.
Fresh from their 2-1 win over Premier League champions Liverpool three days beforehand, the Gunners staged a mammoth performance in London. They gave it everything and left a shell-shocked City in their wake.
Pep Guardiola predicted Arteta is ‘creating something special’ at Arsenal during his pre-match conference on Friday, and he was proven right. Perhaps a bit too much for his own liking, though.
Much was again made of the duo’s student and master relationship before the game. After all, Arteta had spent two-and-a-half-years as Pep’s assistant at City. It was his first coaching role, and who better than Guardiola for a mentor? The Basque had a front-row seat to arguably the best manager of the last decade at work, watching his every move and seeing how he communicated his ideas to the squad.
To be fair, Guardiola also benefitted from having Arteta by his side when he first took charge of City in 2016. The former midfielder spent over a decade playing for Everton and Arsenal; gifting him extensive knowledge of the Premier League.
But friendship aside, this was a FA Cup semi-final tie and one that neither coach could afford to let slip. And on this occasion, the rookie came out triumphant on a tactical and morale point of view.
Arteta exposed City’s defensive problems
Truthfully, Arteta and Guardiola will probably be glad to see the back of each other. Not for anything personal, just to be rid of the constant questions about their student-mentor relationship and knowledge of one another. And who can blame them? Those questions must be irritating.
Although their latest encounter may have given Guardiola more food for thought than Arteta.
Manchester City in the attack are a formidable force, with a league-best of 93 goals in the Premier League this season. Champions Liverpool may hold a 18-point lead, but they’ve only managed 77 goals in comparison. That’s quite a statistic considering the points gap.
But one problem area Pep hasn’t resolved this season is the fragility of his defence. Failing to replace captain Vincent Kompany last summer has come back to haunt him, which Arteta took advantage of.
The Arsenal boss got his tactics spot on, organising his squad perfectly to stifle City’s attackers and break out dangerously to carve Guardiola’s defence wide open at Wembley.
It led to both of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s match-winning goals. The first one, in particular, was brilliant. It comprised 18 passes on route before the Gunners captain expertly put away Nicolas Pepe’s cross into the far post.
City may have dominated possession and had most shots, but they were wasteful in the final third. In fact, the cup-holders only got three of their 13 shots on target. Arsenal, meanwhile, got all four of their attempts on target.
The London side defended like their lives depended on it at times, throwing bodies on the line to protect their lead. They were compact and nearly always closed down City in even half-spaces.
Kieran Tierney then brilliantly spotted an opening in the Citizens defence and sent Aubameyang through with a lofted pass, with the Gabonese cooly slotting the ball past Ederson’s legs.
New centre-back a top priority
It sealed a record 21st FA Cup final appearance, enabling Arteta the chance to end his first campaign with silverware.
Perhaps the Arsenal boss had an unfair advantage through his pre-hand knowledge of City’s defensive woes. But then again, it’s been no big secret either. Guardiola has acknowledged it at times this season himself.
The question now is how will he solve it?
City cannot head into their Champions League last-16 tie against Real Madrid with this hanging over them. They may hold a 2-1 aggregate lead, but home advantage is no more for the second-leg.
Aymeric Laporte, meanwhile, seems to be Guardiola’s only trusted centre-back option as Nicolas Otamendi, John Stones and young Eric Garcia haven’t really staked a claim as a Kompany successor.
Signing a new one must be a top priority for Pep this summer.