Legend?

Is Cesc Fabregas an Arsenal ‘legend’? Is Aaron Ramsey? These are debates that recur time and again in the Arsenal twittersphere. Both have reprised recently given Ramsey’s imminent departure to Juventus and Fabregas’ liberation from the craven claws of Chelsea Football Club. If images of Fabregas sobbing into his blue shirt as he took his bow in England reviled some, the sight of him in red and white under the stewardship of Thierry Henry at Monaco tugs the heartstrings of others.

Fabregas’ Arsenal legacy, some 7 and a half years after his departure, is tough to place because there is so little consensus amongst Arsenal fans. Part of this is because the term ‘legend’ itself is so nebulous and difficult to define. Its terms of reference are foggy and largely grounded in emotion and are, therefore, entirely subjective.

If the question is “was Cesc Fabregas one of the best Arsenal players of the last generation?” the answer would unquestionably be a resounding ‘yes.’ But ‘legend’ is a term with a milieu of difficult to place criteria. They require time and distance to fully assimilate, which is why it is not worth having the discussion about Aaron Ramsey just yet. With Fabregas, it’s slightly different.

Everything about the club has changed since he left, the team has been through various cycles and now the difficult sight of watching him turn out for Chelsea is no longer a factor. A lot of what cements a player’s ‘legend’ status is out of the player’s hands entirely. It comes down to context. How adequately the player is replaced goes a long way to crystalizing their legacy.

Far more people would be inclined to refer to Gilberto Silva as a club legend now than would have when he departed in 2008 because he was ‘replaced’ by Alex Song and Denilson. Marc Overmars has to be one of the most underrated players of the Wenger era. His contribution to the 1997-98 Double team was inestimable.

In a tangible sense, he scored the winner at Old Trafford in March 1998 (the game that undoubtedly won the Gunners the title), he scored twice in the 4-0 win over Everton that confirmed the league championship in May 1998 and he opened the scoring in the 2-0 FA Cup Final win over Newcastle a fortnight later. Yet he is scarcely recalled in hushed tones by Arsenal fans nowadays.

This is, partly, because he left for Barcelona after only 3 seasons. But, I would venture, it’s more to do with the fact that he was replaced by Robert Pires who, remarkably, was even better than Overmars. This is another reason that Fabregas’ legacy is so difficult to place because it’s hard to identify who actually replaced him.

Fabregas himself very clearly replaced Patrick Vieira, even (eventually) taking his number 4 shirt, a move which necessitated a shift in style as Wenger tossed the young Spaniard the keys to his team. Since Fabregas signed for Barcelona, I suppose his departure has been offset by a mixture of Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Özil. All of whom are good players, even if a couple of them have split the Gunners fan base on occasion. But the fault lines are not as clear in an age of high squad turnover and tactical flexibility.

And this is the crux of the issue with Fabregas, to extract his best, you have to absolutely commit to him. You have to mould the team in his image and Wenger happily did this. Part of me thinks Cesc was unfortunate to play for Arsenal during ‘Project Youth’ when the club could not surround him with the quality enjoyed by The Invincibles.

But a bigger part of me thinks that nothing has done more to service Fabregas’ Arsenal legacy than the austere environment in which he operated. Arsenal’s lack of financial firepower meant they were in a position where they were more likely to build their entire team around a teenage prodigy. Where would a 21 year old Cesc even fit into the Invincibles side? At the expense of Gilberto? Ljungberg? Vieira? Any one of those entirely shifts the equilibrium of that perfectly balanced team.

He deserved to play alongside better than Denilson, Song, Eboue and Chamakh, but dragging this wispy band of ne’er do wells into the top 4 allowed Fabregas to shine. He was a gemstone in a cesspit and, tactically, it meant the team absolutely bent to his will. Cesc did not enjoy the same liberty at Barcelona or Chelsea where, though good, he was another brick in the wall.

Both of those sides had more quality and, therefore, less incentive to throw all of their eggs into the Fabregas basket and both ultimately regarded him as disposable. In essence, the Catalan’s career is another incarnation of the ‘would you rather be Matt Le Tissier [an immortal legend at a relatively small club] or John O’Shea [a bit part player with a sack of medals]?’ debate. I don’t think Fabregas peaked at Arsenal physically or mentally, but he played his best football there because the circumstances were ripe for him to do so.

Like Liam Brady, Fabregas left Arsenal with a solitary FA Cup medal for a team on the continent at a time when the Gunners were struggling to compete. I think, as with Brady, Arsenal fans understood Cesc’s decision to go- especially given his hometown club had just constructed one of the greatest club sides ever under the tutelage of Fabregas’ footballing icon. Even the most one-eyed Arsenal fan could see the attraction.

Had Barca been anything other than Guardiola’s dream team at that point, I think he might have given Arsenal another few years. But of course, how you feel about the circumstances of his departure will be a deciding factor as to how you regard him. How you feel about the strike during pre-season to help Barca force the price down when they were already the only team in play, how you feel about him preferring the Spanish Grand Prix to his side’s fixture at Fulham on the final day of the 2010-11 season. Does one consider these grievous insults? Do the wounds linger? Or is it just par the course in modern football?

Likewise, his subsequent decision to join Chelsea is not straightforward ‘emotionally’ speaking. The player himself suggests he would have been open to a return to Arsenal, but the club didn’t want him. We all struggled to reconcile Fabregas wearing Chelsea blue, some cannot forgive it and regard it as an opening of old wounds. Others find mitigation in Arsenal’s decision to pass up on an emotional reunion.

That’s the crux of the matter, it comes down to how you feel about those incidents and, true to form, there is a schism in the fan base on that score. There is not really a right or wrong answer. The question of who qualifies as a club ‘legend’ is fraught with difficulty at the best of times because it’s impossible to devise an MOU of what a ‘legend’ actually is. Usually, a set of fans just know somehow.

Fabregas’ case is fascinating because there is so little emotional consensus on the circumstances of his departure. Contrarily, the relatively weak teams in which he played made his star burn more brightly, lending him a kind of pathos too. Cesc’s Arsenal legacy is a mass of contradictions. Maybe we don’t have to debate whether or not he was a ‘legend’, maybe that he is worthy of conversation after all these years is a legacy all of its own.

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