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How Arteta is rebuilding Arsenal’s fear factor to rival Man City

“That is something I think they have right now,” Mikel Arteta tells Sky Sports with a smile. The Spaniard is describing his efforts to bring the fear factor back to Arsenal, referencing recent footage of his players staring down opponents in the tunnel before games.

The images delighted fans and evoked memories of Arsenal’s title-winning teams of the past. Former vice-chairman David Dein tells a story about how the intimidation tactics were choreographed by Patrick Vieira and team-mates. It seems Arteta has heard it.

“That body language, in my opinion, is very, very important,” Arteta adds. “It is something the players have to feel. And to be able to feel it, they have to feel that confidence, they have to feel emotionally prepared as well to make that step. They are growing.”

It helps, of course, that they are now a physically imposing side. With two natural centre-backs in the full-back positions in Ben White and Jakub Kiwior, and with Kai Havertz and Declan Rice added to the midfield and attack, there is stature throughout the team.

Arsenal defenders Jakub Kiwior, Gabriel Magalhaes, William Saliba and Ben White have been captured staring down opponents in the tunnel
Image: Arsenal defenders Jakub Kiwior, Gabriel Magalhaes, William Saliba and Ben White have been captured staring down opponents in the tunnel

The Arsenal sides Arteta played in were different; highly technical but lacking the ability to dominate physically. He is proud that the current iteration, defensively diligent, deadly from set-pieces and yet also fluid and imaginative in possession, are able to do both.

“You want to maintain all the qualities we had in the past and keep improving,” he explains. “Don’t lose them. Add, and add, and add, without losing anything. That is the aim of the club and every coach, to be better in every department.

“That is what this league requires.”

Havertz and Rice were signed, at considerable expense, for their physical prowess. But only in part. “That is a huge quality of theirs but as well their intelligence, their character, the passion they have for the game and how competitive they are,” says Arteta.

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“You have to add a lot of elements. One specific element is not enough at this level to make a huge impact on the team. But those two have brought a lot of qualities.

“To win big trophies, you need game-winners. You need world-class players who can win you the game at any moment, players who can open the door when it is closed. We are developing those players because they are necessary for the big moments.”

Matching Man City – and Liverpool

It doesn’t get much bigger than Sunday’s showdown with Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium. It is Pep Guardiola versus Arteta. Champions versus runners-up. And only a point separates them, either side of Liverpool, at the top of the Premier League table.

Arsenal go into the game having beaten City twice this season, once on penalties in the Community Shield at Wembley and once courtesy of Gabriel Martinelli’s late strike in the Premier League meeting at the Emirates Stadium. But the Etihad is a bigger test.

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Watch highlights from Arsenal’s 1-0 win over Man City in October

Guardiola’s side are unbeaten in 38 home games in all competitions. Arsenal have not won there in almost a decade. Their last visit, at a similar stage of last season, ended in a humbling 4-1 defeat which effectively killed their hopes of clinching the title.

“I think it’s a different moment,” Arteta says of that last meeting.

“We were coming through some difficult periods with quite a lot of injuries and some results that didn’t go our way. Then we had to go there and they were by far the best team on the day.

“They have raised the level to somewhere this league has never seen. We have got to get there, and then be better.

“That is what we are trying to do.”

Last season’s trip to the Etihad showed the ground Arsenal still had to make up but Arteta rejects the idea that the result significantly influenced his plans to improve the team, the suggestion being that, by then, he already knew what they needed.

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Watch some of the most iconic Premier League moments between Man City and Arsenal

“To be fair, not much on that, if you are talking about recruitment,” he says. “It was more about the ability to play those big matches at that level. That is something else. It was a painful experience but probably one we needed. Hopefully we learned a lot from it.”

Their improvement in the big games has been evident this season. In six Premier League meetings with big-six sides so far, Arsenal have not lost once. They have evolved into a more streetwise, more complete outfit. But then, City have evolved too.

“They always do,” Arteta says with a smile. And he should know given the time he spent working as Guardiola’s assistant. “They have the capacity to play in many different ways, to change personnel, change shape. That is always a big quality that they have.

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“They can do it at the start of the game and throughout the game. But we have to focus on ourselves, what we have to do, what kind of game we want, and put our energy into that.”

So, what kind of game does he want? Will Arsenal try to dominate City, as they have so many sides this season, even in their own backyard? Or does the occasion demand pragmatism?

“I think there are going to be moments where, even if you want to [dominate], they don’t allow you to do that,” he says. “We have the same capacity to do that to the opponent in the right moment. We have shown that in the previous two matches against City.

Arsenal beat Man City on penalties in the Community Shield
Image: Arsenal beat Man City on penalties in the Community Shield

“You have to be very smart and clever, and decisive when you want to change that rhythm and pace of the game, and do it effectively in order to cause them problems.”

They will take confidence from their outstanding defensive record this season. Arsenal have conceded two fewer goals than Liverpool and four fewer than City. In 28 games, they have given up only 19.73 expected goals against, a total far lower than either of their rivals.

The key is that everybody goes 100 miles per hour for every ball. Our strikers, our wingers, our attacking midfielders, they have a love for defending

Mikel Arteta on Arsenal’s defending

William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes continue to blossom as a centre-back pairing. Rice’s arrival in midfield has proved transformative. But Arteta puts the team’s defensive improvement down to the contributions of their attacking players.

For Arteta interview

“The key is that everybody goes 100 miles per hour for every ball,” he explains. “Our strikers, our wingers, our attacking midfielders, they have a love for defending.

“Installing that within the players is something really important. Applauding and paying compliments to that as well, so when those defensive actions happen, they are valued as much as the attacking ones. If you want to win consistently, that door has to be shut.”

Havertz’s impact explained

Meanwhile, at the other end, Arsenal have made a habit of battering down the doors of their opponents, winning their last eight Premier League games by an aggregate score of 33-4, thanks in part to the goalscoring form of Havertz in the false nine position.

The 24-year-old, a £65m signing from Chelsea, has primarily been used as a left-sided midfielder this season. But what is it Arteta most likes about him as a central striker?

Kai Havertz celebrates after putting Arsenal 2-0 up at the Emirates
Image: Kai Havertz has scored four goals in his last four Premier League games for Arsenal

“In both roles, it is his intelligence and his capacity to read situations,” he says.

“He is a constant threat. He can threaten you in behind, he can come to some good spaces and provoke a lot of issues positionally for the opponent. And yeah, he has become a real threat in the opponent’s box as well because now he is scoring goals.”

City were able to destroy Arsenal at the Etihad last year by going direct to Erling Haaland. The 6ft 3ins Havertz, scorer of Chelsea’s Champions League final winner against City in 2021, gives Arsenal a similar option, albeit without the same outrageous scoring potential.

“When you have the ball, you want to make the pitch as big as possible,” says Arteta. “When your opponent is worried about someone who is stretching the space, it is easier to play.”

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Highlights from Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Brentford in their last Premier League game

Even more so when the player in question is performing with so much confidence.

“For me, the most important thing is that players feel like we trust them, that we protect them, that we love them,” says Arteta.

“Also that they are allowed to make mistakes, and that our opinion is not going to change because of that, especially when you have someone like him, with the way he trains and tries every day.”

Kai Havertz

His admiration for Havertz does not end there. He also cherishes the unpredictability his versatility has given them. “Now, everybody knows what you do. You have analysts, you have all the data in the world, you have magnificent coaches and coaching staffs.

“We all know very well what the opponent wants to do, so sometimes you have to be able to do things differently to try and catch them out and surprise them.”

Embracing the pressure of the run-in

It remains to be seen whether Arsenal will be able to do that to City at the Etihad. But Arteta is projecting calm in the face of the momentous challenge ahead. So, he says, are his players.

“I saw the players walking into the building yesterday after the international break and they were excited, the energy was so positive and that is exactly what I want to see.

David Raya saved twice in the shoot-out
Image: Mikel Arteta celebrates the Champions League win over Porto with David Raya

“It means they’ve been missing spending time with each other and I know that for a fact. They were happy to be back and that is a huge compliment to everybody who works at Arsenal, the staff as well. Now they know what is coming and they are ready for it.

“The most beautiful part of the season is still to play for.”

The hope for Arteta is that they will head into it emboldened by the lessons of last season’s run-in. “I think what we realised was the difficulty of it and the level that we are facing,” he says.

To win big trophies, you need world-class players who can win you the game at any moment. We are developing those players

Mikel Arteta

“It is not only City, it is Liverpool who have managed to do that for seven years. With the numbers they produce, yours have to be incredibly high to give yourself a chance to win it.”

How, then, is he preparing his players for the psychological challenges that lie ahead, not just on Sunday, but in the weeks after that, as they compete against Guardiola and Klopp’s juggernauts and the pressure mounts with every passing game?

“That should serve as motivation,” he says. “I think, when you have somebody who is pushing you and who has set different limits, you see them and you want to be better than them. That is a big driving factor and I think I have seen that in the team.”

Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Mikel Arteta

He now hopes it will manifest again at the Etihad.

“What I want to see from my players, inside, is that they have full belief, that they go out there to win the match, and that they play with desire, determination and aggression to achieve it.”

His message, in other words, is to play without fear.

And perhaps even to bring a fear factor of their own.

Watch Man City vs Arsenal live on Sky Sports Premier League from 4pm on Sunday; kick-off 4.30pm

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