F365 Says: Arteta cannot simply be Pep’s poor tribute act

Seb Stafford Bloor

Mikel Arteta’s greatest strength at the moment is his lack of denomination. He’s a coach without a flag. It’s a particular virtue at Arsenal, given how fractured the fanbase has been and for how long, but it would probably be an asset at any club.

After all, what objection can anyone have to something which doesn’t really exist? Arteta has no CV and no managerial backstory. His resumé isn’t marked by troubling results which suggest specific weaknesses and so there’s really no way of pre-judging him. It’s quite a unique appointment in that sense. It doesn’t present the opportunity for a ‘for’ and ‘against’, nor draw any line between warring agendas.

There’s no terrible, second-leg reversal in the Champions League, for instance, which is the kind of catastrophe which marks a manager for life. There can be no assumptions about long, boring video sessions either, or trepidation over how he might perform in front of the media. Nobody can even have concerns about style, because – beyond some vague assumptions about ball retention – there isn’t one.

In fact, the most disparaging criticism would be to call him under-qualified. But who isn’t? The nature of coaching is changing all the time. Today’s manager is a teacher and a technocrat, a friend and a parent and, really, what badges prove that someone can do all of those things? Every coach in the world has different strengths or weaknesses, they’re all better at certain things than they are others, and Arteta is now just another one among them.

Under-qualified? We stopped caring about that a long time ago. Image – and the belief it engenders – is now everything.

Which alludes to what Arteta can’t be: Pep Guardiola. He has his job because of that association. The result of Guardiola’s patronage is also the presumption of shared DNA. Whether that’s actually a reality or not remains to be seen, but Arteta certainly shouldn’t trade off it too much. He shouldn’t copy his speech patterns and he definitely shouldn’t stride into London Colney wearing his aftershave.

Not that he necessarily will, of course. But even after just one game, his mentor’s influence is a little too apparent – in the polo neck, for instance, or the made-for-cameras lecture Reiss Nelson received on the Vitality Stadium touchline at on Boxing Day. That can’t happen, not too much, because it’s really important that Arteta is a genuine original – not least because, otherwise, even with all the success as a qualifier, he wouldn’t exactly be imitating the most likeable personality the game has ever seen.

One of football’s anomalies is that Guardiola doesn’t catch more grief for his public image. In private, he’s probably a decent man and a good father, there’s no suggestion otherwise, but the personality he presents to the world is hardly endearing. Any journalist who has ever been in one of his press conferences will tell you how prickly and smug he can be, even sarcastic at times, but that’s no secret. His three years in English football have also produced plenty of public moments which, had they been authored by someone with a lesser reputation, would still be making eyes roll now.

The Nathan Redmond incident. The Raheem Sterling moment after the cup final. The clothes, the mannerisms, that monologue a few weeks ago in which he implied that Manchester City, plucky underdog that they are, couldn’t afford to compete in the Premier League this season.

Guardiola should absolutely be respected, he’s arguably the finest coaching mind of his generation, but given that this is the LOLing generation, the era of the laugh-cry emoji, it’s amazing how infrequently he’s mocked. He can be jarringly pretentious. Like a hyper-evolved version of Brendan Rodgers.

But ultimately it doesn’t matter, because silverware creates leeway and trophies will always re-frame behaviour in a way that makes it tolerable. Think of Louis van Gaal and Johan Cruyff. Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Fabio Capello. Generally speaking, where there is a celebrated coach there is also a difficult, forthright personality which, without its medals or accomplishments, would provoke a very different reaction.

Importantly though, among the names mentioned (and the many, many which aren’t), there is little overlap. Their roots are easy to map, but they were all unique characters. Even van Gaal and Cruyff were contrasting egotists, equally difficult but in different ways.

Conversely, rip-off routines are generally given short shrift. By the press, by the fans, but most importantly by the players. In fact, trying too hard to emulate what has come before is the fast track towards derision and the easiest way not to be taken seriously. History shows that danger. In football, in music, in art. Being a successor to somebody is a delicate balance between paying appropriate tribute, but still managing to offer a new interpretation of what has come before. Reliably, nothing good comes from getting those ratios wrong.

So Arteta must be his own man. He cannot conduct himself in any way that stands comparison to Guardiola. Primarily because that’s a tough sell, but also because he doesn’t own the league titles and European Cups to be credible.

Instead, then, these early months at Arsenal must be characterised by difference – by his determination to appear as someone who has been informed, taught and refined by a generational coach, but who isn’t just imitating him or calling back to what came before.

Wear a suit, not a woolly cardigan. Be light-hearted rather than intense. Be conciliatory and warm, not aloof and self-regarding. Listen to Blur, never Oasis. Superficially, be everything that Guardiola isn’t and let history draw the straight lines, decades from now.

Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter.