Sunday, December 10, 2023

Let’s Talk About Cesc

By now, you will have heard the most recent edition of the Arsecast featuring Cesc Fabregas and if you haven’t, why the ever loving fuck not?! Fabregas talked candidly about many subjects, including the summer of 2014 when he was considered surplus to requirements at Barcelona.

Fabregas confirmed that he had a clause written into his contract allowing Arsenal first refusal on his signature. The club had a seven-day free swing before the clause expired, enabling them to talk to the player unopposed by other clubs, but Arsenal never reached out and the player decided to join Chelsea. Cesc’s explanation is largely in line with what was reported at the time.

It’s a debate that has never truly subsided since the summer of 2014, so I am confident that I am not rousing any sleeping dogs by revisiting the question as to whether Arsenal should have taken him back. Understandably, many respond emotionally to the question because fandom is a territory where feeling often trumps thought.

Fabregas’ Arsenal legacy is complicated and inspires strong feelings in many. A lot of Arsenal fans really wanted him to return because they still considered him a folk hero and a lot of Arsenal fans really didn’t want him to return because they still considered him a pariah. I am certain that had Arsenal taken the plunge that summer and been reunited with Cesc, the latter group would have dissolved soon enough.

This also would have represented an emotional quandary for Arsene Wenger too. Fabregas’ departure undoubtedly hurt him, having cleared out the guts of a successful team to build around his young Spanish prince, Fabregas became frustrated with the lack of quality around him and returned to Barcelona for a better footballing project, guided by the one footballing idol Cesc had that superseded Arsene.

However, for the sake of argument, it’s better to leave these arguments to one side and consider whether, knowing what we do now, the club should have exercised their buy-back clause. At the time, I know I was opposed to the idea and not on emotional grounds. I don’t think Wenger or Arsenal rejected the idea on emotional grounds either.

The truth is, accommodating Fabregas into the team as it was in the summer of 2014 would have been a logistical arse-ache with some key player sales required to make it work. Mesut Özil had only been at the club for 12 months at this point and having Özil and Fabregas in the same midfield would have been a difficult fit.

At the outset of the 2014-15 season, Ozil was playing on the left wing as Wenger juggled with Cazorla, Ramsey, Wilshere and Ozil at his disposal. “What is Wilshere but basically a No10? He played his whole life at No10. Somebody had to go out there. Is it Wilshere, Özil, Ramsey? Nobody is really natural out wide. So you keep good players out or you try to get them together,” he said in September 2014.

Adding Fabregas into this equation would have complicated things further. If Fabregas’ career has taught us one thing, it’s that you must build the team around him to extract his best form. He needs tactical scaffolding around him to extract his best, he is not a servant but a master. The message if you are signing Fabregas is simple- go hard or go home.

At Barcelona, this couldn’t happen because the team was already forged into the image of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi. He had similar difficulties with Spain for similar reasons. He wasn’t a bad player for Barcelona or Spain, but he also wasn’t the one-man tour de force we saw at Arsenal. His Chelsea career splits neatly into two halves, largely because the apparatus around him changed.

During his chat with Andrew, Fabregas says that Mourinho really sold him the vision of playing for Chelsea. It’s easy to see why. They could offer Ramires and Nemanja Matic as a midfield buffer, Eden Hazard as a ball carrier and Diego Costa upfront. It’s a tactical jigsaw with a Cesc shaped hole in it.

In fact, it calls to mind the 2007-08 Arsenal team, which offered him Mathieu Flamini as a human shield, Hleb and Rosicky as ball carriers and Emmanuel Adebayor for him to clip laser guided long passes to. Fabregas didn’t fit into Antonio Conte’s 3-5-1-1 formation at all and he quickly became surplus once the Chelsea side wasn’t sculpted according to his gifts.

In short, to make his return a worthwhile project, at least two of Cazorla, Ramsey, Wilshere and Özil would have needed to make way. (For what it’s worth, I think Fabregas would have worked quite nicely with Giroud). In hindsight, we can say with some confidence that selling Jack Wilshere in the summer of 2014 would have been something of a masterstroke- even if some fans would have found it difficult to swallow at the time.

You might even reason that moving Özil to one side for Fabregas would have been worthwhile. Mesut’s Arsenal legacy is probably impacted by recency bias, so it’s easy to forget how good he has been over the entirety of his Gunners tenure. Assuming Arsenal would have availed of Fabregas at the peak of his powers, it’s difficult to argue that Özil has bettered Cesc’s Arsenal form though.

Obviously we didn’t know that in the summer of 2014 (and some of you might not agree with my conclusion anyway). It would have been a major call to sell Özil one year after the club obliterated its transfer record to buy him. Lest we forget that Wenger had already swung the axe in a pretty dramatic way to make room for Fabregas in the first instance.

The sale of Patrick Vieira was the most obvious adjustment, but I think the eventual sale of Thierry Henry was in part informed by Fabregas’ emergence. The keys of the team were being handed over from Henry to Fabregas, as Wenger moved to more of a 4-5-1 shape- a system custom built for the Spaniard over and above the captain.

One can understand why Wenger did not have the energy or the inclination to dismantle another team- which was still in its early stages of construction- to reimagine the Fabregas project. Given how things actually turned out, it probably would have been worthwhile. In this alternative timeline, it’s difficult to imagine Arsenal ending up in a worse position than they are currently in.

In this timeline, Fabregas likely leaves at the same time that the likes of Giroud, Walcott and Wilshere melted away. In the podcast, Cesc says he felt a lot of his teammates during his time at Arsenal weren’t on the same psychological level as him and a team featuring Cazorla, Sanchez, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Ramsey would have been more satisfactory in that respect.

The potential re-signing of Fabregas is one of the most interesting and obvious alternative timelines in Arsenal’s recent history and, well, I think alternative timelines look pretty attractive to all of us at this juncture. Personally I think Arsenal were contemporaneously correct not to entertain the prospect, in hindsight it might have been good fun to find out how it might have all turned out.

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