Trust Chelsea to ruin the start of the World Cup. That was the view of many an Arsenal fan on Thursday afternoon when news finally broke, and that sickening picture of the former club captain draped in blue was released to the world’s press. Cesc Fábregas was supposed to be one of us, wasn’t he? The idea of him playing in west London for one of Arsenal’s main rivals seems complete anathema. A betrayal up there with Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri, Ashley Cole – the list is now too long and too painful.
And then his statement was released – seemingly indicating he would have returned to the bosom of Arsène Wenger had the manager wanted him. As he didn’t, Fábregas plumped for Chelsea and London, where his wife and child live. So save the player the froth-mouthed outrage – mine is firmly aimed at the manager.
Piers Morgan – always a good barometer for the idiot faction of Arsenal’s support –laid it on thick, pointing to Fábregas’s “once a gunner, always a gunner” tweet, and suggesting the reason he has not made a glorious Arsenal return was his high wage demands. But given the relatively low £27m fee demanded for a world-class midfielder just entering the prime years of his career, top-end wages don’t seem unreasonable – and with over £100m in the bank that should no longer be out of Arsenal’s reach.
The anger is understandable, the fans have been fed a diet of hope for tomorrow for years – when the stadium’s paid off, when the new sponsorship deals kick in –well tomorrow is now, yet still another top player is allowed to slip by.
And not just any player. This is a player brought to Arsenal at the age of 16 from Barcelona’s youth academy, who Wenger groomed, and introduced straight in to the first team. He may not have won much – the sole FA Cup medal from his time at the club was in his breakthrough season in 2004-5 – but he carried Arsenal through the lean years, scoring and setting up countless goals over his eight years in London. Wenger rebuilt the entire system of the club around his star man, moving from the 4-4-2 he had always enjoyed success with to a Barça-style 4-3-3 with which he won nothing (this season’s FA Cup triumph only happened when Wenger reverted to 4-4-2 at 2-1 down).
Fábregas never made any secret of his desire to return to Spain and his hometown club – and the fans respected him for that – it would be understandable under any circumstances, but Barcelona were cleaning up and Arsenal were battling for fourth; he’d have been mad not to want to head back to Catalunya. If the way he left in 2011 left a bitter taste in the mouths of some – a pre-season “strike” and a knock-down fee – the fact that a first option was included in the deal and that Fábregas claimed he’d only ever return to England with Arsenal softened the blow, and seemed another piece of great Wenger business. That illusion has now been shattered.
If you are going to include a first option, and reduce the transfer fee on that basis, then why has it not been used? It wasn’t that long ago that Wenger was talking about Fábregas’s return – hinting that some kind of deal was in place should he fail to win round the Barça fans who never took to him. It took just 18 months for that scenario to come round – but Arsenal haven’t moved, seemingly content to rely on the return to fitness of Abou Diaby. Again.
Wenger’s defenders will point to the plethora of attacking midfield options; there are more important areas of the team to strengthen, right-back, centre-forward and defensive midfield. But let’s examine that claim a bit more closely. There’s Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere – the two young, British hopefuls who picked up Fábregas’s mantle when he left. Ramsey is certainly fulfilling that potential, but his injury last season, and Arsenal’s subsequent collapse in form, showed that relying on one world-class player is unlikely to be enough for a title challenge. Wilshere has still not returned to the heights of his breakthrough season in 2010-11 (alongside Fábregas) and we still await a Ramsey-style awakening.
Elsewhere, Mesut Özil is looking to build on a promising first season but showed that he will need to be rested at times, Santi Cazorla will turn 30 in December, and Tomas Rosicky is 33. At a push there is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, untested in the centre, and Mikel Arteta is 32 and needed in defensive midfield, while Diaby is Diaby.
So really, that’s five players for three midfield places and two are in their 30s. If the club are so well stocked in that department why did Wenger feel the need to sign an injured 31-year-old on loan from Russia in January? And even that wasn’t enough to save Arsenal from being devoid of attacking intent from midfield come their crucial run of fixtures. It was that that cost them the league – not a dodgy defence for once, or the lack of cover for Olivier Giroud (although having one decent striker at the club clearly isn’t ideal). In fact, Fábregas hasn’t done a bad job as a “False 9” for Spain and Barcelona in recent years. If it’s good enough for world and European Cup winners ...
To win the league you don’t just need a sprinkling of high-quality players, you need a high-quality squad. This is where Arsenal fall down time and again – and the failure to re-sign Fábregas, an affordable high-quality player who seemingly wanted to join, just reinforces the view that Arsenal under their American owners are now a club content to stick in fourth, making a profit, bringing in the odd bit of stardust to put bums on seats – and perhaps an FA Cup as a bonus every ten years. When fans pay some of the highest season-ticket prices in the country it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect a bit more ambition than that.
Arsène Wenger is one of the best managers the club has ever had but he is also the only one to have gone 10 years without winning the league. If he is to convince the fans that the next three years won’t be as agonised as the last three then this needs to be a big summer, with big players coming in. It’s hard to see where they will come from, but no one predicted Özil’s arrival either. Nothing would please me more than for Wenger to change my, and many fans’ minds, and win another league title but if Fábregas leads Chelsea to a crucial win at the Emirates, with Arsenal missing Ramsey, Özil and Wilshere to injury, we’ll be left wishing he’d bowed out with an FA Cup win and the best wishes of all at the club.
What it comes down to is this: if Kim Kallstrom was needed last season I fail to see how Wenger and the board have decided Fábregas wasn’t required this term.
Toby Moses has been an Arsenal season-ticket holder for 19 years and counting ...