It is a reunion with a revolutionary. Arsenal’s greatest player, Thierry Henry, last month identified a successor as skipper as a transformative force. He is the man who changed Arsenal.
“Cesc Fabregas changed the mentality of Arsene Wenger,” the Frenchman said on Sky Sports. “We used to play a flat 4-4-2 and because of Cesc and the player that he was he started to think that he had to build the team around Cesc Fabregas so he went to a 4-3-3 and he still builds his teams the same way.”
To some extent, football was changing anyway. The traditional 4-4-2 formation is increasingly outmoded. Yet Arsenal were scarcely the last of the dinosaurs when playing an idiosyncratically brilliant brand of football. When the supposed strikers were Henry, wandering out to the left flank and sprinting infield, and Dennis Bergkamp, dropping deep to orchestrate with masterly precision, they seemed a futuristic vision, not a rigid 4-4-2.
Cesc Fabregas made quite an impression on the Arsenal first team as a 16-year-old
Image credit: PA Photos
But then Fabregas emerged, heralding a radical difference between eras. Wenger’s Arsenal can be divided into two periods: before Fabregas and after his installation as the playmaker. Before Fabregas, Arsenal won league titles. Not after he broke into the team. Before Fabregas, Arsenal central midfielders tended to be built like West Indian fast bowlers. His emergence marked the start of a time when many were shorter than Tour de France contenders and with considerably less lungpower.
Before Fabregas, the archetypal Arsenal midfielder was Patrick Vieira. Physicality gave way to technicality, seemingly with a totemic captain’s blessing. “He is a future great. In fact, he is almost great already,” wrote the Frenchman in his 2005 autobiography. Admittedly he also described Jeremie Aliadiere as “incredible”, so perhaps compliments were distributed too liberally, but a decade on, it raises a question: has the subsequent decade brought the greatness his teenage talent promised?
At international level, arguably. Fabregas is on the brink of a century of caps, a remarkable feat for a 28-year-old who has always faced considerable competition for a place. He has not merely helped Spain win three successive international tournaments but played a pivotal part in each final. It was his pass that prompted Andres Iniesta’s decider in the 2010 World Cup.
But at club level? He has been, by any standards, a very fine player. He has also been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Barcelona won the Champions League the season before he arrived and the year after he left, but never during his three seasons in the Nou Camp. They have won La Liga five times in seven seasons: the two years when others prevailed, Fabregas was in their squad. His only silverware with Arsenal came in the 2005 FA Cup. He had to join Chelsea to win the Premier League.
Chelsea's Cesc Fabregas kisses the trophy after winning the Barclays Premier League
Image credit: Reuters
He did so when recording 18 assists, a tally only Henry has bettered in a season in the division’s history. As his closest challenger, Santi Cazorla, had 11, it was a Bradmanesque level of statistical dominance. Yet his 2015 increasingly has the feel of an annus horribilis, and not just because only four of those assists came after New Year’s Day or because his ridiculous sending off at West Bromwich Albion, for kicking the ball at the referee, highlighted the growing petulance in his make-up.
Together with his diminishing productivity, the concern is that his defensive deficiencies are ever more apparent. While Wenger changed formation to accommodate Fabregas, Mourinho tinkers with his team to try and hide him when Chelsea don’t have the ball. He started with the Spaniard as a No. 10 in the Community Shield defeat to Arsenal, but moved him back because he had too little creativity at the base of the midfield. He used him as a deep-lying playmaker at Manchester City, but Fabregas afforded David Silva the freedom of the Etihad Stadium. He reverted to operating as a No. 10 at Everton last week but, with Chelsea trailing, a rethink was required.
Without Fabregas, Chelsea would not have won a league game this season. But only because he persuaded Pedro to sign and his fellow Spaniard was the catalyst for victory at West Bromwich Albion. While a goal and an assist against Maccabi Tel-Aviv represented a welcome improvement, his own form has prompted suggestions that Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Oscar should be preferred against Arsenal.
Demotion would be particularly damning in a meeting with his old employers. Twelve months ago, the impression was that Wenger had erred in not opting to take up his option to re-sign Fabregas. Now, while Mesut Ozil continues to divide opinion, it is harder to argue Arsenal need Fabregas. Cazorla never attracted the same hype upon his emergence, but has turned himself into a more dogged, deep-lying creator. He brings assists and industry alike.
Ahead of Chelsea's match against Arsenal, Richard Jolly says Cesc Fabregas has never made the leap from good to great despite revolutionising a club.
Image credit: AFP
Cazorla is more than two years Fabregas’ senior but can seem sprightlier. Yet a dozen years into his career and with more than 600 games for club and country, Arsenal’s youngest ever player feels an old 28. Like Wayne Rooney, another who debuted at 16, it is legitimate to wonder if decline, like stardom, came at an earlier age. His current travails may only be a blip, but there would be a perverse pleasure in seeing Fabregas race Juan Mata over 100m, if only to see how long it took.
His legs seem ever less willing. A thinking footballer evidently had the eloquence to persuade Pedro, but, after being exiled from Barcelona, does Chelsea really stir the heart the way Arsenal once did? The sense that he was the figurehead not just of a new generation, but a new way of playing, was confirmed when he was named captain at 21. When the totemic Invincibles like Vieira and Henry left, he was the personification of Wenger’s vision. He was emblematic of Arsenal, with their permanent promise of a brighter tomorrow but his patience, like many a player’s, was not as inexhaustible as Wenger’s. He left in search of silverware.
Fabregas did not fail at Barcelona. A total of 42 goals in 151 games is very respectable, but the reality is that he was shunted around the side. He never had the centrality his replacement, Ivan Rakitic, assumed. The Croatian became the man who took Xavi’s place in the team. Yet it is worth recalling that the ideologue of the Nou Camp’s greatest team feared Barcelona would sell him in 2008 to make way for Fabregas. Guardiola was appointed and duly decided otherwise, but that was a sign of how highly Fabregas was regarded then. But the crown prince never became king. The potential great remained in the ranks of the very good.