Keeping Cesc Fabregas in the summer was a symbolic one, if not already indicated by his position as captain of this side. Fabregas is the talisman; the highest profile player and a leader of his generation. If he ceased to believe in Arsenal Wenger’s project then what hope does a youth development policy have?
Little – according to Manchester United left-back Patrice Evra.
Ahead of the clash at Old Trafford (which United won 1-0), Evra’s words that Arsenal is a club in “crisis” will have irked Wenger and indeed Fabregas. The Spaniard has only one trophy to his name – an FA Cup won in 2005 – and if trophies are a measure of a club’s success, Arsenal has failed him. Wenger, however, will argue different although he is in to no illusions as to the importance of silverware. Staying competitive is really what modern sport is about. Marat Safin’s contempt at his career, despite many critics arguing he should have added more to the two tennis Grand Slams he has to his name, lies in the fact he had remained a key challenger despite being sandwiched in between two great generations – Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras and then Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – and injuries.
The youth development policy is designed to achieve just that – remain competitive – following the move to the Emirates Stadium. It’s a strategy – not the manager’s fetish – which every organisation builds in times of change and that is the way Arsenal have gone to keep themselves at the top or thereabouts in the future. Wenger feels that by bringing a gifted group of players forward together with a shared sense of belonging and loyalty will allow success to be sustained and create a footballing culture which evokes the same sense of collective improvisation as the “Total Football” sides. Holding on to Cesc Fabregas means Arsenal can compete even stronger for honours this season and crucially, those players he has come through with have matured an extra year.
Fabregas embodies the Arsenal spirit emotionally; Guillem Balague writes of a Spanish embassy event which Fabregas was invited to, taking along with him a shy Arsenal apprentice named Fran Merida, who among the stars and football dignitaries was unsure of where to sit. Fabregas, though, ensured seats were shuffled and space was made so that Merida could sit alongside him. The side’s competitive streak is reflected in his manner – Fabregas’ on-going duel with Frank Lampard is tinged with edge and passion which makes for a fascinating watch – although at times it can go overboard. The pizza throwing incident in 2005 illustrates an almost combustible temperament among the team’s young charges and was continued this season with Samir Nasri’s non-handshake of William Gallas.
On the pitch and he is the sort of skilful and spontaneous specimen that makes Arsenal a joy to watch – combined with a fragility that can occasionally frustrate.
When Fabregas made his first start in what would be considered to be the first team – a Community Shield tie against Manchester United in 2004 (he made his début in the League Cup the season previously but Wenger had already began toying with the idea of blooding his youngsters and giving his fringe players a chance in the competition) – the club had just reached the pantheon of what makes a great team. They had won the Premiership without losing a game and would subsequently go 9 more matches without defeat and Fabregas represented a new generation ready to prolong the period of success. Featuring the likes of Ashley Cole, Jose Antonio Reyes, Robin van Persie, Jermaine Pennant and Gael Clichy alongside legendary first-teamers, Arsenal ran out 3-1 winners at the Millennium Stadium in great swashbuckling style. Cesc Fabregas was magnificent, showing maturity beyond his years in a defensive midfield position, hassling and harrying his older opponents with much tenacity. Indeed the only thing giving away his tender years was his overgrown mullet.
In truth, Fabregas had not been intentionally deployed in the defensive midfield role; a role that he had played during his time at La Masia, Barcelona’s academy. Alongside Gilberto Silva, the Spaniard was detailed to undertake a shared role, as a double pivot, but his youthful modesty ensured he took the back seat in his first high-profile game. Soon enough, however, he was starting regularly in the first-team and naturally began getting more involved with play. His contribution to Arsenal’s free-scoring start to the season didn’t go unnoticed but there were question marks about putting someone so young into the heart action. ”If he plays better than the other players he will be in the team,” said Wenger. “But ideally he will wait one more year. He is an exceptional player and there is more to come from him.” However, it had become necessary.
Edu and Patrick Vieira’s injury problems meant Fabregas had to be elevated into the starting line-up while it had started to become obvious that the former was unlikely to stay beyond the final year of his contract. Edu was the type of player who would easily slot into the creative side of the game while offering the stability that Fabregas was relied upon.
There was another issue and that was, despite scoring a hat full of goals, that the Gunners had become more vulnerable at the other end. The game that forced Wenger’s hand and required him to reassess things was the 5-4 win over Tottenham although it would be until the following season that the changes would take place. Spurs had total control of the first-half, dominating Arsenal in terms of possession and territory and the Gunners midfield were unable to match their rival’s intensity. As it was, Fabregas rose to the occasion in the second-half and inspired Arsenal to the famous victory, producing a delightful assist to set up Fredrik Ljungberg but the partnership between he and Arsenal’s captain, Vieira, was not working.
Arsenal, under Wenger, would normally play a double pivot; two disciplined midfielders in front of the back four although with Fabregas you had a box-to-box midfielder who’s creative tendencies would see him getting involved further up the pitch and thus disrupting some of the balance. For Vieira, the securities Emmanuel Petit, Gilberto or Edu provided, allowed him to venture up-field but with Fabregas, he was forced to assume a more defence-minded role. It just didn’t work. “When Cesc Fabregas was 18, 19, I would play him in a 4-4-2 with Patrick Vieira and I saw it did not work,” said Wenger. “Then I had the decision to make about letting Patrick go, because Gilberto Silva and Vieira worked, Fabregas and Silva worked, but I could not play Fabregas and Vieira.”
Wenger was able to maintain his version of the 4-4-2 in the next season after both Edu and Vieira had departed but unlike in the past where it was a shared role, Gilberto acted as the sole fetching midfielder for Arsenal’s ball players. However, the intensity it required was becoming evident in the side’s failure to add to their trophy cabinet and somewhat displayed in a 4-0 FA Cup defeat to Manchester United in 2008 whereby Gilberto was given the run around by United’s dynamic attack. Matthieu Flamini, though, was superb in the same role in that very season as Arsenal’s “water carrier,” as his astronomic fitness levels and tactical acumen helped the Gunners retain an organised structure. His departure may have happened in slightly acrimonious fashion but there was no doubt he was essential to the team and off the pitch, forged a strong friendship with Fabregas. The energy exerted in the season looked like it had taken its toll on the Frenchman and he, along with another one of Fabregas’ close friends, Alex Hleb packed up their bags and jetted off to pastures supposedly greener.
There were tactical ramifications too that mustn’t be overlooked in examining Cesc Fabregas impact in his earlier years. The emergence of Chelsea as a superpower, and specifically under the guidance of Jose Mourinho ignited a tactical shift in the Premier League. The 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 became the vogue as opponents packed the midfield, making it more difficult for Arsenal to break them down as opposed to their approach in the “Invincibles” era where, even Leicester City would come to Highbury and play a high line. Jose Mourinho said:
“Look, if I have a triangle in midfield – Claude Makelele behind and two others just in front – I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2 where the central midfielders are side by side. That’s because I will always have an extra man. It starts with Makelele, who is between the lines. If nobody comes to him he can see the whole pitch and has time. If he gets closed down it means one of the two other central midfielders is open. If they are closed down and the other team’s wingers come inside to help, it means there is space now for us on the flank, either for our own wingers or for our full-backs. There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop things.”
Bearing that in mind, it was perhaps no surprise to see Arsenal string their most successful run in the 2005/06 Champions League playing a compact 4-5-1 with Gilberto acting as the holding midfielder. The Gunners were able to assume their shape more easily and with a playmaker functioning behind Theirry Henry, had control of zones which they didn’t in the past. Dennis Bergkamp’s no-show at away matches due to a fear of flying was a huge loss to the structure as his operational mastery meant he dropped back to stop the holding midfielder from passing the ball out. In later seasons, Robin van Persie attempted to ensure Arsenal didn’t have a man disadvantage by dropping back to become a spare midfielder.
That is not to say, however, that Cesc Fabregas is unable to play in a 4-4-2 or an adapted version of the system. In 2005/06, in a 1-0 win over Manchester United (they are becoming a common theme now), Fabregas ran the show from a deeper position while in 2007/08, he was arguably the player of the season. Fans would love to see him assume the second midfielder role in the double pivot in the current side but therein lies another problem. In the past, one would argue the quality in creativity was there to allow Fabregas to play deeper; now his deployment further up is a must. Jogging your mind back to the Community Shield encounter with United and some of the players which Wenger would have hoped form a backbone for Arsenal for years to come, are no longer with the side. It becomes difficult then, for a manager to build a side when the best players leave after failing to offer their services for more than two years. Economic circumstances have contributed to the reason but surely one of Wenger’s regrets would be seeing the bond between Flamini, Hleb and Fabregas become dismantled after a season and to lose Tomas Rosicky for effectively two seasons. The mess that was 2008/09 was proof of Arsenal’s attempts to recreate an understanding and what must go down as Wenger’s least attractive years despite relative success on the field.
At face value, the 1-0 defeat to Sheffield United in 2006/07 seems inconspicuous. On the one hand it is surprising because Arsenal has generally been good against newly promoted sides but as a defining game, it’s not expected. But as it stands, the loss forced Arsenal to reassess their approach to defence-minded teams eventually culminating to the structure as it is today. Sheffield United took a one-nil lead before half-time and would hold out for over half-an-hour without a natural goalkeeper; defender Phil Jagielka acted as an emergency goalkeeper when Paddy Keeny had to be taken off injured. ”After that game we realised that if we didn’t change our mentality we would always struggle in those kind of games,” said Fabregas. “From then on we’ve been showing great character, great attitude and doing really well. We had a talk between ourselves and decided that we had to change, become more competitive.”
Fabregas became the focal point of the team through the natural ascension of letting him exert his sheer influence on the game. Though physically robust, Fabregas’ impact on the game has usually been more through stealth and subtlety, through precision passes and the keen awareness of the ebb and flow of the action. As Henry said after the 2-0 Champions League win over Juventus in the year Arsenal went all the way to the final, “if you let Fabregas play he can kill a team.” And he usually does and that’s why he has added steel and dynamism to his game that has made him one of the best midfielders in the world.
Some would argue, however, that it is unhealthy for a team to rely on one individual as the Arsenal side does currently on Cesc Fabregas. That the team is built around him shouldn’t be a sign of Fabregas’ weakness but a sign of his strengths. That one individual is able to elevate the results of a team with such effectiveness shows the sign of a truly world class player. His 15 goals and 13 assists took him to new heights last season but it is the way he goes about contributing to the final result. Fàbregas often makes 10 or 15 passes out of 60 unsuccessful because he knows that for a team to score, they must take risks and who better to take them than a purveyor of the through pass.
His performances against big teams in recent seasons leave little to write home about but again, that perhaps says more about the unit as a whole than of Fàbregas. Which remains part of the challenge of Wenger’s team this season; how to drag out of the shadows of Cesc Fàbregas, a winning Arsenal side. And one that is led by their iconic captain and not, they hope, their prodigal son.