They aren’t exactly the words you’d expect as part of a rivalry that has become one of the most fractious in the Premier League, certainly for the fans:
“I love him and he loves me.”
“Like a dad.”
The latter statement was nevertheless what Mikel Arteta said about Mauricio Pochettino when a mere player at Arsenal, which led to the then Tottenham Hotspur manager declaring their mutual admiration. It was already a notable friendship when they were on different sides of north London, let alone in different dugouts this weekend, but their bond goes back much further than this time in England.
The two played together at Paris Saint-Germain when Arteta was 17 and Pochettino the senior figure in the dressing room, immediately forming a bond that has persisted to now. It will directly influence Saturday’s meeting of Chelsea and Arsenal at Stamford Bridge for far deeper reasons than the fact this is their first-ever meeting as managers.
Pochettino naturally consulted Arteta when he first made that move to England to join Southampton in 2013. There was even talk that the Basque might join Pochettino as a coach at Tottenham after leaving Arsenal as a player in 2016, but a move across that rivalry was just a non-starter. Instead, their friendship persisted despite Arteta working for Pep Guardiola, with whom Pochettino doesn’t have the warmest relationship.
The two older coaches have inevitably influenced a tactical philosophy that Arteta was already inclined towards while developing his own interpretation.
What is most relevant with Pochettino, however, is how Arteta’s Arsenal were essentially modelled on the Argentine’s Spurs team. It created a strategy race that has set the stage for this match.
When surveying the many problems the club still had on appointing Arteta in late 2019, the Arsenal hierarchy were naturally conscious of how their great north London rivals had so drastically overperformed under Pochettino throughout the previous half-decade.
That was through stripping the squad down to its core, introducing youth, and maximising that vigour by moulding the team into a supremely intensive unit. Anyone who didn’t buy in was out. Pochettino, for a time, had the most honed team in the Premier League, one that immensely overachieved in league performance.
Part of Arsenal’s rationale behind appointing a complete novice in Arteta was in order to implement their own style of that approach, albeit with the inherent knowledge that the club’s ceiling is far higher because they have a much greater commercial profile.
Hence, at key points of the team’s evolution, Arteta could sign players such as Declan Rice or sell those such as Mesut Ozil, when Pochettino was forced to go an entire year without a purchase and had to keep players he wanted to sell due to the price.
Those close to the Argentine insist he still looks back at 2017 somewhat forlornly, because he knew that was the point that he needed to make Sir Alex Ferguson-like changes to his Spurs team. He wasn’t able to and the squad instead went stale.
Arsenal are anything but stale right now. Arteta has instead specifically made signings like Kai Havertz in order to give the team more vitality and tactical variety than last season, where their otherwise impressive surge was too reliant on a primary XI.
They now have much more options and much more momentum than Chelsea. There is the possibility Arsenal assert their superiority on Saturday, in a way that has become custom in the last few years, which would also represent such a reversal of years of their rivalry. For a long time, Chelsea just found a way to beat Arsenal. No more.
The wonder is whether Chelsea are actually ready to halt it this Saturday. There are finally signs that Pochettino’s distinctive tactical approach is beginning to impress upon his own young squad. That is of course part of a much grander project, that essentially takes the Spurs model to a further extreme. If Arsenal have a higher ceiling, Chelsea are operating on a completely different scale.
They are willing to sign far more young players for much higher prices, believing they can exploit football inefficiencies in a way that both Spurs and Arsenal leant towards but didn’t go anywhere near that far. It is bold and risky, but that’s the point.
As to where the points will go this weekend, that arms race does leave Arsenal in a much better position than Chelsea right now: Arteta’s team looks close to completion, Pochettino’s is only starting out. Both nevertheless look like they need forwards as focal points above anything else and the remaining gaps allow an element of unpredictability to this.
Arsenal should win. Chelsea could be getting themselves together.
They aren’t yet close enough for this first-ever showdown to affect their close friendship.
The “love” will remain, even if it won’t be seen on the pitch.
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