Football News

Guardiola mind battle is Arteta’s biggest problem after Man City vs Arsenal “demolition job” – Lee Dixon

By Harry Edwards

Published: 10:00, 28 March 2024

Mikel Arteta must avoid the trap of overthinking his upcoming battle with Pep Guardiola, says Lee Dixon, after the “demolition job” in the previous Manchester City vs Arsenal fixture.

The former Arsenal defender previewed this weekend’s clash between Man City and Arsenal, which he doesn’t feel will decide the title with 10 games still left to play. Dixon also spoke about Kai Havertz, his current form, and why he needs a “little bit of love”.

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Man City are favourites to win this Sunday, but Arsenal are in better form. What’s your prediction? And how much of a factor is Kyle Walker’s fitness?

Well, firstly, yeah it’s a big miss if he is missing. He looked like he was struggling with a hamstring, which normally means you’re going to be out a little while. Maybe he was protecting it, he just felt a little twinge. And once you feel a little twinge there, you can’t really carry on. So it would be a big miss because he’s pivotal in how they play. And certainly, the fact that they do take chances at the back, City at times, and he’s one of the defensive safety valves, if you like, to play two-vs-two at times at the back, then his pace is going to be missed.

But as far as the game is concerned, I think there’s so much going on, and so much went on last year, that it’s a real battle of the minds with the two managers. Because Pep, last year, I think did a job on Arsenal and with playing De Bruyne where he did and kind of giving him that free role, ‘go wherever you want’, and played him quite high up at times near Haaland. And I thought he did a real demolition job on Arsenal last year, and so that’ll get Mikel thinking a bit about what he’s likely to do, and I think sometimes that’s what Pep likes. He likes the opposition coach to maybe overthink things and try and work out what he’s going to do. And then sometimes he doesn’t do anything and you’re like ‘oh’. So he’s a very difficult one to work out, and I think that’s probably Arteta’s biggest problem at the weekend because his team are playing incredibly well, they’re in brilliant form. All the team seems to be ticking and not got that many injury issues, and they’re kind of in a position where it’s their best opportunity. And he’s got to work out, if he can, what his best way of dealing with one of the best teams in the world [is]. Does he just say, ‘right, we can match them, let’s just play our game. We beat them once already this season, let’s just play our game’, and that might be what he does. Having said that, he’s such a thinker of the game that he might think, ‘well, what is Pep thinking? Is he going to do that again, what he did last year? If that happens…’ So it’ll give his team various options and say, ‘well if De Bruyne goes and plays there then. we got beat last year, we need to do this, this and this’. So it’s fascinating. Forget the players, it’s the two managers for me that are going to be banging heads together.

Sticking with the players though, who do you think is the most influential across both teams? Or who will be the most influential?

Well normally it always comes out and the pundits and the experts always say that these games are won in midfield. And we saw this in the Liverpool-City game, and how well Liverpool did in the second half in midfield. And the engine room is always something that will be highlighted and there’s so much talent in there from both teams. I always go, ‘yeah I get that because with the dominant midfield, you then create chances. But ultimately if you don’t put it in the net, then that’s where the hardest thing to do is to score. So Haaland will be highlighted and quite rightly so. But he’s coming across the best defence in the league, with probably the best partnership that there is at the moment. So that’s going to be fascinating, how he works them out, because I think they play a certain way. And it’s about his interaction with them, because he loves to get really tight on his centre half and spin into the holes. And De Bruyne is on the ball, and that ball will come. I think you’ve got to be clever against him. You’ve got to back off him a little bit, let him have it to feet and then go tight, and all of that. For me, that’s the fascinating thing about Haaland and the two centre-backs.

And at the other end, I think Arsenal are, traditionally always have been but more so now, about very strong wingers and on the wide areas. And I think the way that Odegaard finds those pockets of spaces in order to create, I think he needs to have a big game at the Etihad, and enable the wingers to be fed. And then from there, Arsenal have been highlighted for not having a centre forward, and banging goals in left, right and centre and had an incredible 2024. So I don’t see that changing, they will create. City do give you a chance at the back, and Walker will be a big miss if he doesn’t play.

Kai Havertz now has four goals and two assists in his last six games for club and country. Do you think he’ll hit the world-class potential people expected of him during his 20-goal Bayer Leverkusen seasons?

I don’t know. I think his reputation at that age was, as you said, he was projected to be this wonderkid and his development certainly slowed down. And I think we’re seeing a few signs. Huge way to go, to get anywhere near world class. I think he’d settle for that, because I think already you’ve got to be touching those heights now, or if not before, to really be in that class. But he’s definitely showing why the club spent as much money on him [as they did], and I think basically what seems to be the case, that he seems like he’s at home now, he feels like he’s loved. And I think he is one of those players. I don’t know him, just from his body language on the pitch, he’s one of those that you need to give a little bit of love to. And he seems like he’s getting that from everyone, and it does help when the team’s knocking everybody over. It’s amazing how much confidence you get when you’re winning 5-0 every week.

People forget Havertz was being likened to Zidane in terms of “elegance” back in Germany just a few years ago.

Let’s stop you there. No. You can’t go Havertz-Zidane, the gap is too big. I mean, he is a good player.

Where does he rank in terms of your favourite Arsenal players to watch?

Where does he rank? He’s not near the top, I have to say. I mean he’s got a lot to do, still. And I think, certainly media and outside pressures want a player to… The world is full of content and so we have to fill it with something and, to take him from where he was and to where he is now, and then go ‘yeah, but what’s next? Where’s he going to go next?’ Just let him stay there for a little bit, because, from an ex-player’s point of view I’m looking at him going, right, we want the noise to go away from him now, not get more because people are getting excited. Just let him get on with it and I think he will then develop because he doesn’t seem like the player – I don’t know him, but again – doesn’t seem like the player who relishes that huge amount of focus on him. So it won’t go away, because that’s what we do in the media, we analyse and scrutinise and criticise, and do all of that stuff. So I thin he will grow, keep growing in an environment that is perfect for him right now.

Out of Arsenal, Liverpool and Man City, who do you see as being the least likely to win the Premier League?

No idea. Anything can happen, and that’s the beauty of where we’re at. People will be looking at the injuries that Liverpool have had, and although they’re coming back, they’re still doing really well. And they were brilliant against City in the second half. And City have obviously been there, done it, so they’ll be the favourites and quite rightly so. And Arsenal fell apart last year when the pressure really came to them when they were top. So there’s a question mark there, there’s still questions to be asked. But whoever wins at the weekend, if there is a winner, it isn’t over for the one that loses because there’s so much to go. It’s still nine games to go. It’s ridiculous that we’re even contemplating picking who’s going to win, but we do because it’s exciting and it’s fun. And then you can change your mind with five games to go. And so that’s where we’re at. And we’d like the season to be like this every year, where it’s three teams knocking holes out of each other right to the wire. And it looks like it’s going to go that way.

Lee Dixon was speaking to Squawka on behalf of BetVictor.