Pep Guardiola’s early managerial duels with Mikel Arteta were often painted as master versus apprentice, but that narrative has taken a back seat since Arsenal emerged as a contender to replace Manchester City on the Premier League throne.
There is no need to manufacture a talking point given their meeting at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday, like those last season, can legitimately be billed as a clash between title challengers.
But it may also be the case that the more Arteta establishes Arsenal as a top side again, the less attainable he would become if City do decide he is the perfect candidate to succeed Guardiola as their manager.
The issue of who eventually takes over from Guardiola is not just huge for the club itself but, considering the iron grip he has established on domestic and European football since arriving in 2016, one that is likely to have a major say on how the Premier League looks in the coming years.
The Catalan’s contract does not expire until the end of next season, so there is no real pressing need to conjure up a list of possible replacements, but it remains a fascinating topic: who on earth could follow a man who has changed the landscape for City and for the competitions they play in? Would Arteta, a former member of his City coaching staff, ever be an option?
As the two go head-to-head again this weekend in north London, we dig up the subplot to examine all the considerations.
How much longer will Guardiola stay?
What we have to do in terms of Guardiola’s future is stop thinking about what we might do in his shoes, or what would ‘make sense’. The assumption was he would walk away if City won the treble last season and that makes a lot of sense for most of us. What would there be left to achieve? Would he not go out on a high? But he is not wired like that. It is tempting to think, then, that it must be all about new challenges: win another treble, win the quadruple, whatever.
But maybe it is just about comfort and passion? Do his players still want to work for him? Yes, they do, so that is a big box ticked. Do his employers still support him fully? Yes. Is his job at City as stressful as the one he had at Barcelona and even Bayern Munich, due to media pressure and internal politics? Nowhere near. And so why would he want to leave at all?
He likes to golf and he likes to drink good wine, so whenever he leaves City he will surely have a nice, relaxing time somewhere, but is there anything he would rather do with his time than manage City? Probably not.
The latest information, circulating in the days around that Champions League final in June, was that he would see out the final two years of his contract and then leave, which would mean an exit in the summer of 2025. But then we could again fall into the trap of trying to predict what he will do based on what seems sensible to us: if he is going to do nine years at City, why not stay and do a round 10, as David Silva and Sergio Aguero did as players?
There are no certainties about just when Guardiola will leave, but what the process will involve is easier to predict.
When he does go, what will the process be?
Because Guardiola can be very emotional in the high and low moments, he and the club will try to establish a proper exit plan that allows City enough time to prepare for his successor. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Guardiola either threatens to quit in a fit of pique during a season or decides to call it quits with a major trophy in his hands, but City works to ensure that decisions can be made more calmly and with more advanced warning.
The past two contract extensions Guardiola has signed were hammered out in November of the final year of his deal at the time, meaning that if he had not committed his future, the club would have, firstly, months to try to get him to change his mind and, if needed, enough time to work on hiring their next manager.
So it is unlikely, despite those high-running emotions, that Guardiola would leave at short notice. That also means he would surely play some part in picking his replacement.
What qualities will they look for?
A manager who will want to play a similar style of football to Guardiola and, therefore, have similar views on how the game should be played: a focus on possession and the intention to use it to create chances. To be able to improve a player and to come up with different solutions in games and difficult situations (like working with a small squad while trying to win every competition City is in) will also be important.
The issue any successor will have is that they will always be compared to Guardiola, which is probably an impossible standard, so they will have to be a strong character who can show the watching world that while they have a lot of similarities in their approach, they are their own man and, most importantly, have their ideas.
Exactly where City’s next manager has worked before might not be too important; if they like him, the style of football he preaches, and how he carries himself (in the media, but more importantly with the players), then knowledge of the English game may not be a prerequisite. But it might help.
Which names are admired by the City and why?
City like those who have worked in the City Football Group (CFG) before and are therefore familiar with them.
Even a couple of years ago, before either had come close to putting their stamp on respective clubs Arsenal and Crystal Palace, Arteta and Patrick Vieira would have been prominent in City’s thinking. Tottenham coach Ange Postecoglou was also very highly thought of on the CFG side of things before he had even moved to Celtic in 2021 and won two Scottish titles in his two years there, thanks to his work at Yokohama F Marinos (the group’s club in Japan) and elsewhere.
Michel, who had CFG side Girona as surprise leaders of La Liga last week, has already impressed Guardiola and those around him.
But working within their stable of clubs is not a prerequisite.
Guardiola has close ties with Brighton counterpart Roberto De Zerbi and the highest compliment the Italian could be paid is that the Catalan borrowed some of his ideas on the way to winning last season’s treble.
The way De Zerbi speaks is also reminiscent of Guardiola and his standards: after Brighton beat Everton 4-1 away last season, it was suggested he must be delighted with the result. Instead, he said: “No, I don’t agree. Because in the first half, I didn’t like the quality of play in the build-up, the quality of play in the defensive phase.”
Just a fortnight ago, he said something similar about a 3-1 win over Bournemouth — “we played one of the worst games in my time” — and following a 1-1 draw at home to newly-crowned champions City in May he said he was unhappy because Brighton did not dominate possession.
What a manager says in public is only a tiny part of their repertoire but these high standards are applied behind the scenes, too; and given Guardiola is such a big fan, it would be hard to imagine De Zerbi not being considered.
How is Arteta viewed at City? What is his relationship like with Guardiola?
Ironically, Arteta might have had more chance of succeeding Guardiola before he proved himself as a top coach with Arsenal. The more he has demonstrated his abilities there, the more he has become identified as an Arsenal man, and the harder it would surely be to leave a team challenging for the title for their biggest rivals in that race.
Had Guardiola gone a couple of years ago, before Arsenal mounted last season’s title challenge, Arteta would have been at the Emirates only briefly (he was appointed in December 2019) and the FA Cup he had won there would have been further confirmation to City of his ability, even in his first full season in charge while others were less certain.
It seems now that the further Arteta and Arsenal go down the road together, the harder it would be for him to jump ship, even if it involves returning to a club where he enjoyed his three years as Guardiola’s assistant.
The two of them are still close and Arteta ticks almost all the boxes, so it makes complete sense for him to be considered an option, but it is far from a foregone conclusion.
Is City better set up for a post-Guardiola world than Arsenal were with Arsene Wenger and Manchester United with Alex Ferguson?
A lot depends on the structure that’s in place above Guardiola when he leaves.
As much as Sir Alex Ferguson was a huge figure at Manchester United, they lost David Gill, who was their chief executive, at the same time and they have struggled to replace either of them in the past 11 years, meaning there was — and is — a sense of a lack of leadership high up at the club.
During Arsene Wenger’s final years in charge, and even after he left, seemingly everybody at Arsenal, from players to manager to ownership, came under fire from supporters. Ivan Gazidis, the chief executive, often took the brunt of the criticism and things only began to settle down once one of his replacements, Raul Sanllehi, also departed in 2020.
Since then, managing director Vinai Venkatesham has become chief exec, and technical director Edu promoted to sporting director, bringing stability above Arteta, who has brought things together on the pitch. There is a sense everything is in order now.
A large part of that is dictated by results, of course, but if City maintains a strong structure and sticks to its plans (for example its approach in the transfer market, style of play, academy recruitment, and coaching), it will at least be heading in the right direction. There would be fewer things to fix behind the scenes and, in theory, more support for the man in the dugout.
Make no mistake, though: Guardiola will be incredibly difficult to replace and while the new man can be sure of full support and access to some of the best players in the world, it will be a job filled with challenges — not least the inevitable reminders about what his predecessor used to do or would have done in a given situation.