“What? Already?! You’re taking the piss…”
Roberto Montiel watches the ball hit the back of the net. Kevin De Bruyne has scored the first goal of the game and only seven minutes have been played. Manchester City 1-0 Arsenal.
Montiel was one of Mikel Arteta’s early managers. He first coached him when he was 20 years old and Arteta was 10. Watching in the offices of Antiguoko, the San Sebastian club where they both grew up, his former pupil appears on the TV, too.
Today, Montiel is Antiguoko’s vice-president and Arteta is Arsenal’s manager. They maintain a close relationship and he describes Arteta as being exactly the same now as the boy he knew.
Alvaro Parra, Arteta’s childhood best friend who has joined us to watch the City game, agrees.
Parra and Arteta grew up together in the same neighbourhood and though they went to different schools they forged a strong bond playing at Antiguoko. They later lived in Liverpool together, when Arteta was with Everton.
Spoiler alert: Wednesday night’s first vs second Premier League game didn’t go well for Arteta and league leaders Arsenal.
But back in his hometown, two old friends watching the action still had a great time chatting with The Athletic about him.
Pep Guardiola and Arteta, his former City assistant, walk out onto the pitch at the Etihad Stadium. Montiel explains how his former charge always had the character of a leader.
“Many times, before he became a manager, Mikel came to watch Antiguoko matches and we would talk about tactics,” he says.
“You could already see that he wanted to be a coach. He was very clear that after being a player he would be a coach. It is said that players from his position, what we call the No 4, are already half a coach on the pitch, that they have to like to lead the team, to watch the players. It was the case with Guardiola, and will also be the case with Sergio Busquets…”
De Bruyne’s opening goal interrupts him.
“…Manchester City are coming along very well.”
Things are looking bad for Arteta’s team and their hopes of Premier League title glory. The camera focuses on him again now, staring out at a game that already seems to be slipping away from Arsenal. Montiel and Parra laugh when I suggest he looks like a serious guy.
They talk about Arteta being a joker and how is very open and playful with his friends. “But at work he becomes serious and very responsible,” Parra adds. “In that respect, he resembles his father Miguel.”
Parra and Montiel both say Arteta still has a close relationship with San Sebastian, that he returns whenever he can. His wife is also from the city.
He still has a house in Antiguo, the district where he was born. He came home for Christmas and for his most recent birthday last month, when he turned 41. He used to celebrate them exactly where we are sitting now — in the Antiguoko clubhouse.
But his old friends also say that he is happy in England, that they don’t think he misses Spain too much, that he has got used to it because he has been there for a long time.
“In London, it rains as much as it does here (on the north coast of Spain in the Basque region, a half-hour drive from the border with France). But the food…”
John Stones’ header for 2-0, eventually given after a VAR review for a possible offside, just before half-time provides the full stop missing from the end of Montiel’s sentence. Things are looking really bad for Arsenal now.
I ask about old times.
Many years have passed since Arteta left his home city. He was 15 when he signed for Barcelona’s academy.
“As a player, you could already see that he was the most distinctive in the team. More so even than (another local product) Xabi Alonso, who is four months older,” Montiel says.
“Then he went to Barcelona. There are kids who you know can leave when they are young and others who cannot. Mikel could, because of his character. He has always been open. And he was so competitive.
“Even though I was 10 years older, sometimes we would play against each other on the beach. We each picked a team and we would go like crazy, even when he was about to sign for Barca. Once, there was a ball that dropped in the water, and we both went for it. He came at me like an animal. I told him to calm down, that I was going gently because I didn’t want to injure him. He complained about it!
“So the next time, I went in really hard. He got up but was moaning a lot. I thought I’d broken something and screwed up his career!”
After the restart, City soon score again — De Bruyne’s second of the night. Guardiola’s side now lead 3-0, a third straight Premier League title is in their hands. Montiel and Parra seem to surrender the hopes they had.
During the half-time break, they’d pointed to Arsenal’s recent 3-3 comeback draw with Southampton. “Anything could happen with Arteta on the bench,” Montiel had said.
Now he turns to storytelling once more.
“I once went to Liverpool to see Xabi and Mikel together,” he begins. “Xabi was playing for Liverpool and Mikel for Everton, in different matches on the same day, and we all met up afterwards.
“Mikel came in and said that because they’d won, David Moyes had given them holidays until Wednesday. Xabi was amazed. He said they’d also won, but they had a video session the next day. Mikel and I went to Mallorca!”
The friends start laughing and Parra confesses he has many stories, especially some from a trip to Marbella when a 19-year-old Arteta left Barcelona for a spell on loan at Paris Saint-Germain, that he really can’t tell.
But he does explain how they came to be housemates on Merseyside.
“When Mikel went to Liverpool (in 2005) to play for Everton, I was at a time when I didn’t know what to do,” he says. “He told me to go with him and he would find me a team. Sportingly, it didn’t work out, but we had a lovely year there.”
The TV is showing replays of Rob Holding’s goal. We had missed it the first time round. Arsenal have one back, 3-1, with four minutes left.
“A bit late, but good,” Montiel says of a game we’d long since considered over.
Parra goes back to talking about the old days. He describes himself as having been a very bad student and says that, despite them going to different schools, Arteta always helped him by explaining lessons to him at home, so that they both got passing grades. That was when he realised the true extent of Arteta’s human qualities.
Montiel has another story on the same subject.
“When he had his first contract with Adidas, Mikel arranged for jackets to be sent to the club,” he says.
“When he went to Everton, he gave us loads of kit — boxes full of it. These are things where you see he’s a different guy.
“There have been a lot of players who have gone on to become professionals from this club, but a lot of them are so wrapped up in their careers that they don’t remember much about the early days. He does. We still have a relationship today. It’s exciting, because you’re aware of the level he’s at now, and the number of people he’ll have to see.”
The two friends say Arteta hasn’t changed much since they’ve known him, that he expresses himself in the same way and that when they see him they still recognise the boy he was.
“He has maintained a good environment. If at some point he’s gone off the deep end, which I don’t think he has, it will have been those close to him who’ve put him in his place,” Parra adds.
It is now the 95th minute at the Etihad. Erling Haaland is finally rewarded for his perseverance with a goal — his 49th since signing for City last summer — for the final 4-1 margin of victory.
“He’s gone wild,” Montiel jokes, as the TV shows the Norwegian running amok in celebration, his long, blonde hair let loose and flying like a banner behind him.
Then thoughts turn back to Arteta.
“Knowing his character, he’ll try and help his players still believe,” Montiel says. “He will make sure they keep going right until the very end, until winning the league is no longer mathematically possible.
“It’s going to be hard. That was such an important game, and you could see they lacked the depth a great team needs to succeed.
“But given time he will build an even stronger side — just like Pep Guardiola has done.”
(Top photos: Naomi Baker/Getty Images/Laia Cervelló Herrero; design by Samuel Richardson)
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