Excuse me, could you tell me how to get to Cesc Fábregas station?
Haha! Which station is it again? Crouch Hill? Not far from where I lived, then: Hampstead and before that Barnet and Enfield. I did see the footballers tube map; what I didn't understand at first was why they'd done it. It's nice to think I made a mark. I've always felt very welcome; there's a lot of affection, especially from Arsenal fans. I think they even understood me when I left. There was no rancour, no bitterness. They understood that I'd given everything for eight years, that I reached a point where I felt I couldn't give any more, and that I left for personal reasons: to go home, to be with my family, to play for my club, the one I'd been at as a kid. It was important for me to leave the right way.
Going back was an obvious choice, the easy option ... Sunday marks the 10th anniversary of your debut for Arsenal; you were only 16. That must have been hard.
Actually, it was more difficult coming back to Barcelona at 24 than it was going to London at 16. Much more. People said I took the easy option: "Ah, he's going to play with Messi, he's going to win." But I think I took the difficult option: I have to work twice as hard to win a place. I've always been very independent, never afraid of challenges and I had nothing to lose when I first went to London: I was playing in Barcelona's youth system, in the Juvenil B, and although Barça valued me, Gerard [Piqué] and Leo [Messi] had been promoted to Juvenil A while I stayed in the Juvenil B. Arsenal offered me the chance to train with the first team, to learn English, experience another culture, another football. And I went so determined to enjoy it and learn from it that it was exciting rather than frightening. Arsenal are a fascinating club. They give you everything. It's a family, it really is. The fans support you unconditionally, too. I couldn't have gone to a better place.
Would you go back?
Arsenal is in my heart and always will be. I don't know if I'll have the opportunity to go back and play there one day, or maybe after football. It's a club that is always going to be there and will always open its doors to me. The club's like a family so even if it wasn't as a coach, I'm sure they'd give me the chance to play a role. Sol [Campbell] is there now. Arsenal help a lot with the formation of coaches. [Dennis] Bergkamp also went there two, three times a week when he was doing his coaching badges. In that sense it's a lovely club and there might be the chance to do something with them.
As a player, did you learn things at Arsenal that you wouldn't have at Barcelona?
I can't be sure of that but, look, what I do know is that at 16 I was training with Thierry Henry and Bergkamp, [Robert] Pires and [Patrick] Vieira. I'd played 50 games at 17; at 18, I'd played in a Champions League final; at 21, a European Championship final; two years later, a World Cup final. It accelerated everything. If I'd stayed at Barcelona, I'd have got there slower. It made me a more complete player in every sense. Giving me my debut when I was only 16 years old. When I was 18 they sold Vieira so that they could put me into the side. They told me to my face, they gave me responsibilities. They made me captain when I was 21 … so many things that made me feel very special in that team.
The style suited you?
In terms of the style, Arsenal's is perhapsthe team closest to Barcelona: passing, a lot of touches. Barcelona are unique and I had to relearn some concepts when I returned, but in the last few years we [Arsenal] played the most attractive football [in England], entertaining the fans. People enjoy watching them and I'm proud of that. People say: "OK, they haven't won anything but, wow, I'd pay money again to see these boys play." There are other teams that have won more – and I'm not naming names – but when they win people say: "Well they've won but that's all." I'll always have that thorn in my side, though, that sadness. I wish I'd gone with a title.
Why didn't Arsenal win?
It's difficult … it's difficult … it's difficult… [There's a long pause]. I don't know … There are lots of things; there was always something. I remember, for example, the season Eduardo had that terrible injury. That impacted upon everyone and from there we started to drop. We were competing with Manchester United right until the end but we couldn't hang on. We've always been there or thereabouts but we've always had dips. You're up there fighting, someone gets injured, or this happens or that, or you hear that someone wants to leave … I don't know…
Was there some kind of mental block?
In the end, it was a mental thing, yes. Eduardo gets injured and you lose the Carling Cup final to Birmingham, who then were relegated, and you lose it the way we lost it … Imagine it! It's hard to come back, especially when you're young. The manager gave a lot of freedom to the young players, which is why they are so good, why they play so well, because he doesn't overload them with pressure. But when things like that happen, it's difficult.
Should the manager have demanded greater responsibility, then? Should Arsène Wenger have been more interventionist?
No, it's not that. But when everyone is so young it is difficult to find someone who stands up and says: "Come on!" Also, because we were such a young team, there was always a sense of "next time", another chance. The fans kept singing and supporting too, which is great, but … If I play badly I want complaints. No one wants to be whistled but I wanted that pressure, those demands. We often had team meetings and they helped, we made sense of things, but the experience was missing. We suffered because of that. Now I think they've found a good balance. They have people there who have a lot of experience like [Per] Mertesacker and Mikel [Arteta] and [Lukas] Podolski.
Could Arsenal's time have arrived at last?
I really hope so. They've started very well. They look very strong; let's see how they last. In the Premier League you can be going well and then you lose two games and you slip away quickly. It's very sudden. A lot gets decided over Christmas: the team that hangs in there best, that can resist the best, will take the title.
Could Mathieu Flamini make a significant difference?
Yes, I think so, I really do. Arsenal have players who play very well, whose movement is good, who play a different game to Milan and Mathieu interprets that very well. He understands the role of a central midfielder and he runs something like 13km every match, an incredible amount. I'm happy [he's back].
What do you make of the Mesut Özil signing?
Spectacular. If you have the chance to sign Özil, you can't let it pass you by. He fits Arsenal perfectly. It doesn't matter if you already have seven or eight players with a similar style, because they'll understand each other perfectly. [Jack] Wilshere sees football the same way, [Aaron] Ramsey, [Santi] Cazorla, [Tomas] Rosicky … The only player who's maybe different is [Theo]Walcott, but you also need that type of player because it is true that at the end of a move, after that pass, pass, pass, you need a Pedro: someone who will get behind the opposition, who gives depth, stretches the attacks, and seeks out the space. You need a Walcott or a [Robin] Van Persie, whose movement is incredible.
Does it hurt to see Van Persie at United?
I wouldn't say "hurt" ...
But do you think: "Arsenal could have been so good"?
He always had bad luck with injuries. I don't think I was able to enjoy a whole uninterrupted season with him. When I left he had an incredible season, scoring 30, 35 goals. If only we had always had him right because it would have helped us.
Can Özil provide some of those goals?
I think he's going to enjoy it enormously. He's the man who has to make the difference in the final third. His last pass is brilliant, he'll get more space and with space he kills you. He's going to score more goals himself because of that space. There's no one better than him for that mediapunta role. In England opponents follow you, but if a player comes out to you it is easier to play a quick one-two and go beyond him into space. In a tactical-defensive sense, it is much more calculated in Spain; it's harder to score goals than in England.
Yet the assumption is that the Premier League is harder than La Liga ...
It's complicated, because the English league is more difficult to win but on an individual level it is much, much easier to shine in England. I always thought English football was the best to watch because there are more goals, more chances, more excitement. But now I understand why there are more goals and more chances: it's much more crazy, out of control, everyone attacking, pouring forward ...
The crowd plays a part. The crowd roar and the full-back bombs forward and then the other full-back goes forward and the crowd noise gets louder and louder. Sometimes in England it feels like you don't have time to think, but that's more a mental question; it's more about your own aggressive intuition, the atmosphere. It motivates you but it means you lose control. In Spain, teams work much more on shape; they're more tactical, more positional. If I see a game in England – I don't miss any of Arsenal's games – I enjoy it. As a spectacle there's nothing better. English football has it's things but it also has a lot, a lot, of virtues.
Was it easy for you?
I wouldn't say that. But if we're talking about someone like Özil, it's a question of space. A Spanish-style footballer, like [David] Silva or Özil, if they can find two seconds to think, will see the pass because there'll be space. You see players like Silva in England and you think: "Bloody hell, how good is he!" A second, space, and there's the pass. In Spain, you're up against a Mario Suárez or a Gabi [both at Atlético Madrid] and what a pain they are! In Spain, reducing space is worked on more. In England, it's fast but you can find that space if you are a good player.
Xabi Alonso told the Guardian that tackling is not a defining quality to aspire to. Jack Wilshere said that tackling is a key ingredient in the English game that must never be lost. Do those two positions – manifestos, even – sum up the difference?
I can see both sides. I think Xabi's not dismissing tackling but referring to it as a last resort. That's how we tend to see it in Spain: defenders don't swallow the dummies as quickly. In England the attacker goes, ping! and the defender dives in quickly, flying by, wheeee! In Spain the defender stays on his feet longer. As for Jack, I think he's talking about how the English love to see defenders fly into tackles. They love that! You do that and the supporters get right behind you and it intimidates the opposition. But there's a player who's played in both leagues and does that better than anyone: [Javier] Mascherano. Masche always dives in and he always comes away with the ball. He uses it a lot but not as a last resort, rather as a specialty. For him it's a recurso [something you have to resort to] and a cualidad [a quality, something to aspire to]. Masche is incredible, very clever: he knows when to tackle, when to stand. He's a guy who really knows how to play football.
How good can Ramsey and Wilshere be?
As good as they want. They have quality on the ball and they have the physical attributes. Ramsey's stamina is spectacular. He and Flamini are the strongest I've ever seen, covering the ground. Wilshere is a bit different to the typical English player. He's not a [Steven] Gerrard or a [Frank] Lampard, he's more of a short passer, a "tocador"; a player of association. Ramsey is one of those that you look at and think: "He doesn't stand out in any specific quality, but he does everything, everything, well." His touch is good, his movement's good, now he's scoring goals too, providing assists. He's a kid who as a team player is a beast. Above all, he now has the confidence, responsibility.
Do you see a bit of yourself in him?
Sometimes I look back and I think about being captain, about the responsibility I had, and I wonder: how did someone like Ramsey look at me? I watch the way Ramsey is playing now, how he looks so liberated, and I think maybe I blocked his way. Maybe I was an obstacle. Sometimes you need someone to leave for you to step forward and say: "I'm here." I'm saying that about Ramsey just as an example, by the way, because the poor kid had the injury too – I could say the same for Jack. It's the concept I'm talking about, the idea of stepping up. That mental unblocking is so important. Both of them have a brilliant future.
With Manchester United struggling, is this a unique opportunity for Arsenal to finally win the league?
Haha! With Manchester there is always talk about a dip … a dip, a dip, the end's coming, it's over … and they always end up right up there. You can't trust them. Ten years ago I arrived in England and for 10 years I've wondered, for 10 years people have said: "Look out, this year Manchester might collapse." But it never happens. That's one battle I gave up on long ago. Whenever anyone says to me: "Manchester won't be the same this year," I say: "No, no, no, Manchester will be up there for sure."
In part two …
• Life at boyhood club Barcelona
• Playing for the Spanish team
• Pep Guardiola and Bayern Munich
• And when Manchester United came calling in the summer