Of the five currently playing Spanish midfielders who idealise Pep Guardiola's style of play from when he was the midfield maestro of Barcelona, only two really play like him. Sure, Xavi has his football brain, but Xavi plays a far more attacking role than Guardiola did. Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta are hardly like him, leaving only two who really emulate Guardiola's play; the first is Sergio Busquets, but the second may be a bit of a surprise. It is, in fact, Arsenal's Mikel Arteta. Throughout last season, this site discussed Arteta's importance to this side, and the similarities to Guardiola's role when he played at Barcelona, though, crucially, Arteta played in a double pivot when attacking, which Guardiola never did; furthermore, Guardiola was almost always the sole holder.
If Arteta continues to play like he did against Sunderland, he will further move closer to completely emulating Busquets, and, thusly, Guardiola. There was a crucial difference though; when Arsenal retreated from the initial pressing stage, Abou Diaby dropped deep alongside Arteta, instead of alongside Cazorla, allowing Arsenal to better cover runs from midfield.
That, though, was the only difference. Arteta dropped deep between the centre backs, almost as a third centre back. This allows the other two centre backs to spread out, and the fullbacks to get forward more, though that didn't happen enough on Saturday. Arteta also expertly slipped in when Arsenal's centre backs went forward, covering both Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker when they either went to close a player down, or, went on an attacking jaunt.
His position in front of Arsenal's back four, as Arsenal's deepest midfielder, also allowed him to control the tempo of play, as he did last season. On Saturday, he used this role to kickstart Arsenal's attack, either through passing wide to the fullbacks or wide players, or playing combinations with Santi Cazorla to put him into good positions. He also pushed Arsenal forward by his positioning; because of his understanding with Mertesacker and Vermaelen, and with the other midfielders, if Arteta moved forward, so did Arsenal. He never forgot that he was the deepest midfielder, which is why his heatmap shows that he rarely pushed all the way forward, lest it left too much space behind.
Last year, Arteta was involved more all around the pitch, but he could be at his best in this new role. Arteta is an extremely intelligent footballer, who has great passing vision but also excellent positional discipline. If he's to be Arsenal's new holding midfielder, he not only gives Arsenal a more technical midfield, but also a smarter one. There were times last year when Alex Song, for all of his excellent play, did not drop in for Thomas Vermaelen or one of Arsenal's other centre backs when they went forward, most notably against Norwich.
While there are some legitimate concerns about physicality, they can be alleviated by better pressing play, and better positioning, allowing Arsenal to quickly, and ably nick in and win the ball. If Arsenal are to replace Alex Song from within, Mikel Arteta will be a fine choice, and will further allow him to emulate his hero from adolescent years, Pep Guardiola.
Man of the Match is a new feature that we're doing at The Short Fuse; after every match, we'll write a short piece on who we thought was Arsenal's man of the match and why.