If Cesc Fábregas does leave Arsenal this season, it would be without any notable legacy. He should go down as one of the legends. Indeed he is one of Arsenal’s greatest individuals; the statistics and archive footages will testify to his outstanding ability but crucially, the trophies do not. He has, of course, won the best of the lot: the World Cup but it’s the manner of his involvement which is precisely why he hankers for more silverware. Coming off the bench to set up the winner, as he has done numerously for Spain, Fábregas showed his unparalleled ability to open teams with his penetrative passes but there’s a feeling inside him, that despite that genius, he hasn’t shown enough for it. At least, not at club level which should reaffirm his status back home. When the chance came to prove himself when Arsenal went to Barcelona, he was non-existent and at home, he was overshadowed by his heir, Jack Wilshere.
His ambition has been hampered by the youth development policy and one that, at 24, thrusts Fábregas into the role of a reluctant leader. Encapsulating what Arsenal is about since the “Invincibles” team broke up: skilful, spontaneous and confident in possession – the type of player that makes Arsenal a joy to watch – he has had to mature and lead a generation without the presence of big name players and that has left a bit of fragility in him that can occasionally frustrate. Indeed, that is the argument some have made against Wenger’s handling of the transition. That the youth, fluidity, intelligence, pace and swagger in possession – have effectively taken over the team. And the other qualities that made them great – ruthlessness, power, organisation and experience – have been seen as an after-thought. It all displays the delicacy of the project the team has embarked upon since the move to The Emirates but the thread keeping Fábregas at the club is seemingly what is holding it all together.
He is the talisman; the highest profile player at the club and a leader of his generation. If he, who embodies it, ceased to believe in Arsène Wenger’s project then what hope does a youth development policy have? One of the first products of the project, Gael Clichy, has already departed to a team which must be considered an antithesis of Arsenal, showing that winning matters most if you want to foster a sense of loyalty. Even coming through the ranks of your boyhood club is not reason enough to stay and Arsenal fans will be hoping Clichy’s expected successor, Kieran Gibbs, will not follow the same route of Ashley Cole. Samir Nasri is reportedly next to want a way out but if Fábregas departs, it must surely signal the end of youth project.
If already the transfer seems as if it will be a monumental one, consider the difficulties that Arséne Wenger will have to face in trying to replace his star player. Because the issue is not merely one of changing personnel; it’s also schematic one as Arsenal have built their system around the man who they feel is the most effective player in the game.
Fábregas makes the passes, he breaks down opposition defences and general makes Arsenal dynamic. In the last five seasons, the Spaniard has made 60 assists – no player has made more in the top five leagues. The official Premier League statistics has it at 71 but they tend to count indirect or passive assists (i.e. penalties won or deflections). Nevertheless it underlines his all-round contribution to the team. In that period, he has also created the most chances in the Premiership at 466 and most frequently too – last season he made a chance every 28.6 minutes from open play. The team shape is moulded so that it can make full use of Fábregas’ ability to find gaps that others can’t, fitting him in the playmaker role of the 4-2-3-1. It underlines his immense improvement that he is able to play this role now because it was once thought he was too slow and too weak to play with his back to goal but he has since added a robustness and directness to his game as shown by his frequent cameos off the bench for Spain. Even so, he has mastered the art of evading from his marker and ensures he doesn’t have to play as a typical number 10 would. Rather, he drops deep to pick up the ball, often making a midfield three and is the main man in the press. As a result, Arsenal also concede less goals because they keep the ball better. For them, possession is a form of defence and if they are to improve next season, it’ may be wiser to strengthen the areas that they are best at as opposed more trivial matters.
But despite playing a central role as a team’s chief chance creator – something which he manages to do unselfishly as he is overwhelmingly a team player – this means it comes to a situation where the other ten players are effectively looking to play everything through him. They depend on him to make the final pass – as one team-mate said this season – so what this results in, is the player himself landing a hat full of assists while his team-mates assists/key chances per game ratio can be unimpressive. Wenger realises that Fabregas is crucial to the team if they are to a land a trophy – no-one does what he does better – and until others mature quickly, they will continue to depend on him. The statistics weigh heavily in Cesc Fábregas’ favour: In the 22 games he started in 2010/11, Arsenal won 64% of their matches but that figure plummets to 34% when doesn’t feature. To put this into the context of last season, Fabregas missed 13 games and Arsenal lost 4 of them – such form is not title-winning and is unlikely to inspire him much confidence in the team.
With thanks to 7am Kickoff for the statistics. The dependence on Cesc Fábregas is shown last season by Arsenal’s results when the captain doesn’t play and when he does.
Letting Fábregas go is unquestionable at the moment but history is not against teams that have prospered when talismanic figures leaves the club. When Michael Owen left, Liverpool instantly won the European Cup. Likewise Marseille when star striker Jean-Pierre Papin departed. Perhaps the style of relying on a goalpoacher is unsuited in Europe and it took their main player to leave for Liverpool and Marseille to realise a holistic route is more fruitful. Certainly that was the case with Manchester United and Ruud van Nistelrooy.
It was, in 2006, a clash with their future talisman, Cristiano Ronaldo, which forced van Nistelrooy out of the club at a time when it was felt unthinkable. But despite his brilliant record of goals, ultimately the club’s trophy haul during his five years at the club suggests he wasn’t success. The team was imbalanced towards him and essentially for Sir Alex Ferguson, engineering a fallout with his ‘star’ striker was one of his best ideas as United haven’t looked back. The rigid 4-4-2 became a flexible and dizzyingly high-tempo 4-3-3 which at times became “strikerless” – unfathomable given van Nistelrooy’s legacy – as Manchester United progressed past the quarter-finals for the first time between 1999 and 2007. Indeed, the secret of Sir Alex’s success has been his ability to scrap and evolve sides, especially when it seemed key individuals departing had left them in limbo. For a while, the Scotsman had trouble replacing Roy Keane – perhaps one of the reasons why the 4-4-2 system didn’t work with van Nistelrooy – looking to bring an enforcer type in a similar mould to him and no doubt inspired by Patrick Vieira. But later he realised that it would be difficult to recreate Keane’s qualities so instead of looking to replace him with one outstanding and possibly costly individual, found two, dropping Paul Scholes back and using him in a double shield. Arsenal had similar trouble replacing Vieira but unlike United, they initially went backwards.
Arsenal, under Wenger, would normally play a double pivot – two disciplined midfielders in front of the back four – but with Fábregas breaking through and making himself undroppable, it meant finding a way to utilise a box-to-box midfielder whose creative tendencies would see him get involved further up the pitch thus disrupting some of the balance. Vieira and Fabregas didn’t work so Wenger made the difficult decision to let his captain go. However, the solution, a split midfield with Gilberto solely holding was too inefficient. At the same time, it was becoming more and more evident that Fábregas needed greater freedom to because, as Henry once said: “If you let Fábregas play he can kill a team.” In the Champions League, Wenger switched to a 4-5-1 which the midfielder to get forward with more security nearly reaped instant rewards. In 2007, Wenger discarded Gilberto and brought in the highly energetic Mathieu Flamini to cover the ground that Fábregas would be leaving. It so nearly worked at a master-stroke but ultimately it proved to be too exhausting to last the season, the manager eventually switching to the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 we see now. Perhaps Wenger has learnt from this past, not only utilising Fábregas high up because they need his vision, but it’d be much more efficient to have him as high up the pitch as possible without affecting the defensive balance of the team.
If Cesc Fábregas leaves, this does not instantly mean Arsenal are doomed. To the contrary, the “Ewing Theory” (when a team prosper after their biggest star – or in Arsenal’s case, perhaps a couple if Nasri also departs – leaves the club) may see that that as soon as Cesc walks away, Arsenal will start winning things again. Indeed, their best performances last season were when they took a holistic route. We’ve already said last season, from the months from the middle of December to the end of February, Arsenal were the best team in the league. That’s scant consolation perhaps to Arsenal ending up fourth but it showed, when the parts start to function as a unit, The Gunners can be unstoppable. Fábregas was a key member his dependence wasn’t overwhelmingly evident: Samir Nasri pitched in as a wide playmaker, Jack Wilshere continued probing as did Alex Song graft. Theo Walcott stretched the defence on the right, creating and profiting from the runs Robin van Persie made. Certainly the Dutch striker rising to the occasion has been one of Arsenal’s plus points, helping take the load off Fábregas.
A taster of Arsenal might play without Fábregas was in end-of-season clash with Manchester United when the holistic route was at it’s best. In that game Fábregas’s anticipated successor, Jack Wilshere, who represents the new Arsenal with his rapid “change-of-direction” and glide on the ball, stepped up to the occasion and was given more freedom in a more natural 4-3-3 to wreak havoc. Perhaps that’s the lesson Arsenal can take from the game: that they shouldn’t be fearful of losing their best player and worry about how to replace him directly – that may be nigh on difficult with someone of his vision – but they can certainly reshape. It’s not impossible. When Patrick Vieira departed in 2005, it was thought he would by leaving a huge hole in the midfield but Cesc Fábregas stepped up. When Thierry Henry left, it was not just their greatest ever player that was leaving; it was an icon. But Cesc Fábregas stepped up, nonetheless, to become the main man. Arséne Wenger will be hoping there are plenty of other Cesc Fábregas’ in the team waiting take up the mantle whether he departs in the near future or not.
*Statistics courtesy of OPTA and @Orbinho.