It began in childhood on the sands of Playa de la Concha – Shell Beach – in
San Sebastián. And for Mikel Arteta and Xabi Alonso it continues to this day, with Arteta moulding Arsenal into a daring assault on the English Premier League title, while Alonso has just begun the task of lifting a failed Bayer Leverkusen from the basement of the Bundesliga.
They are beach boys from the same Basque streets, with the same fierce obsession to play and to win, although they come from very different origins. Xabi followed his father and his older brother into the professional game and, with a passing vision beyond most contemporaries, played for Real Sociedad, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Oh, and 114 times for the Spanish national side, winning the World Cup in 2010.
He was a pass master, whose skill and application were heirlooms from his papa Periko, who played for Sociedad and Barcelona. Now aged 40, Xabi is trying to pass those gifts on in a coaching career that is predicted to end up at the Bernabéu. Or, who knows, Anfield or Munich’s Allianz Arena.
Arteta, four months younger but on a faster track to the top of the management ladder, followed no familial sporting route. He was born
with a heart condition that required open heart surgery rarely attempted
in Spain when he was two. Here is a man who can use with conviction the
Friedrich Nietzsche aphorism, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”
Alonso and Arteta went to different schools but played side by side, and in
friendly rivalry during training for the same boys’ team every Saturday. They
pushed themselves to be linguists too: Arteta is fluent in Spanish, Basque,
Catalan, eloquently so so in English, and able to converse in French, Italian and Portuguese.
Alonso took a school exchange at age 15, learning English while staying with an Irish family in County Meath, where he also became a fan of Gaelic football. It was Xabi who persuaded Mikel of the joys of living in Liverpool, albeit as a Blue, an Evertonian rather than a Red.
Think of the accomplished managers whose methods and mentality these footballing “brothers” can exchange notes on from their separate journeys. Alonso played for Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti in Madrid and Munich. Arteta was schooled at Barcelona under Guardiola (and was chosen as Pep’s right-hand man at Manchester City), and captained the teams under contrasting managers David Moyes at Everton and Arsène Wenger at Arsenal.
It is fair to say that if Alonso was the more gifted of the two midfielders, Arteta always displayed spirit and exceptional tactical nous. As players they were managers on the field, and for now at least, Arteta is ahead in instilling his competitive desire into players. Competitive to a ruthless degree.
His start at Arsenal was to dismantle quickly the complacency that had crept in towards the end of Wenger’s wonderful tenure at Highbury and the Emirates. Arteta dispensed in short order with Mesut Özil, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. The “big” players, with big salaries and commensurate egos around Arsenal.
He persuaded Stan Kroenke, Silent Stan the American man who was never
in England long enough, to go along with his plans to rebuild a modern culture after the Wenger credo ultimately faded and declined.
It’s a pity Netflix had no fly-on-the-wall cameras in those meetings in Columbia where Arteta, a novice coach, effectively a trainee, persuaded
the billionaire to cut his losses and pay off gargantuan wages to offload the big stars who were Wenger’s final fancies. Stars adored by many fans and
mistrusted by others, in Arteta’s mind were not the future.
In the last summer window alone, the Gunners spent £115 million on recruitment and recouped £90 million or so on the continued clear-out. That
involves transfer fees, but also wages. The new players include Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko, who Guardiola was willing to let go at City.
Of course, Pep had other ideas, the extraordinary goalscorer Erling Haaland, the as-yet unavailable through injury Kalvin Phillips, and the unheralded but capable defender Manuel Akanji for his defence.
Arteta says he and Guardiola speak a lot, laugh a lot, and read the game in a similar way. It is not difficult to imagine Arteta as the replacement when Pep and City decide their era is over. That is not yet.
Meanwhile, with open eyes and insider knowledge, Arteta says he has seen Jesus in good moments and “in really difficult moments”. He wants and expects Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli to make it to Brazil’s World Cup lineup this winter, and his English winger Bukayo Saka, his Danish creator Martin Ødegaard too.
Yes, it will split the season, threaten the rhythm that Arsenal have built up in a sustained way that has surprised the Premier League, despite the regular Thursday interruption of Europa League fixtures. “I love the relentlessness, the resilience, the fight, the unity and the courage the team showed,” Arteta said after the victory at Leeds last week.
He might have preferred to face his old boss Guardiola this Thursday as scheduled. It could have been the right time to catch City after their loss
at Anfield… or possibly the opposite, given that a Guardiola team seldom
loses twice in a row.
But the boys from Shell Beach are on a mission to manage at the top. Just at
different stages of development and, for now, in different leagues.