I hadn’t meant to write anything else about Arsenal until next season’s Premier League preview. Honestly, as I write this, I’m more focused on things like the World Cup, summer movie season, the string of summer TV shows, paying attention to baseball and the like. Sure, the silly transfer season stuff hangs somewhere in the periphery, but the World Cup has helped to mute it somewhat. And don’t discount the power of that FA Cup victory in helping to temper normal summer anguish. Players will be bought. The team will strengthen. No worries. At least that’s what I thought.
But if there was any specific story that would force Arsenal back into the headlines, even as the rumor mill throws out names like Cavani, Balotelli, Morata, Mandzukic, Gundogan, Ruddy and the like, it would be Cesc Fabregas. And that’s not a reflection on the cavalcade of names being trundled about by the fishwrap makers. Arsenal and Cesc Fabregas got history like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor had history.
When he finally managed to force his transfer to Barcelona three seasons ago, it felt like the end of a negative saga that had managed to define everything that had gone wrong for the club. Barcelona had spent several years pursuing their former academy starlet, even as they were rampaging through Europe. They’d used every element available to them to make the move happen. Friendly media sources like Sport and As had ran nearly daily stories regarding the move. Every one of Fabregas’ former La Masia friends or Spanish National Team partners had been interviewed again and again to foster the desire for a move. Let’s not forget that his Barca friends and Pepe Reina managed to slip a Barca kit on him during the middle of celebrating winning the World Cup. Imagine Steven Gerrard and Raheem Sterling putting a Liverpool kit over Adam Lallana while England celebrates winning the World Cup. What kind of reaction would that get?
So Barcelona paid 35 million pounds, took their prized asset back and it all seemed like it would be the end of it. Arsenal followed his sale (and that of Samir Nasri’s) with their worst game in nearly a century. It might be hyperbole to say that it’s taken the intervening three years for Arsenal to get back to where it was prior to his sale. Not that this mattered to Fabregas. Playing under his idol, Pep Guardiola and expected to eventually take over Xavi’s midfield general role, everything was supposed to work for Cesc, right?
In his three seasons with the Catalan giants, Fabregas has a total of 42 goals and 47 assists in 151 appearances. (15 goals & 20 assists in 48 appearances in 11-12, 14 goals & 12 assists in 48 appearances in 12-13 and 13 goals and 15 assists in 55 appearances in 13-14). Decent numbers by a contributor to the Catalan cause, right? By way of comparison, in his last season with Arsenal (2010-11), he had 9 goals and 14 assists in 36 appearances, when a hamstring injury helped shorten his season.
While injuries have continued to be a part of his time at Barcelona – as they were at Arsenal – no one can look at those numbers and not think that he has been an adequate part of the squad. His problem, however, has been twofold. First of all, with Xavi and Iniesta still at the heart of Barcelona’s midfield, the natural position that Cesc used to have at Arsenal is gone. This has meant he has been deployed elsewhere – on the wing, as a secondary striker (a false 9) – or seen his appearances cut to coming off the bench or starting only when an injury elsewhere has opened a spot for him. Instead of playing in his natural spot, in a team built around his talents – like he was at Arsenal – he’s found out that Barcelona doesn’t just bend to you.
The second problem has been the level of expectations that were built around him ahead of his move. Years of speaking of his talents and of building him up as the great Barcelona talent that got away have worked to create a situation where fans rightfully expect him to deliver in the games that matter and to help the club keep hauling in trophy after trophy. Here’s a dilemma or perception versus reality. In his three years with Fabregas, Barcelona have won six trophies. In 2011, he helped them nab the Spanish Supercup, the UEFA Supercup, the FIFA Club World Cup and the Copa del Rey. In 2012, he was part of the La Liga winning team. 2013 brought them the Spanish Supercup again. For many sides, this would be a respectable haul. Specially considering that each season has been under a different manager – Guardiola in 11-12, Tito Vilanova/Jordi Roura in 12-13 and Gerard Martino this past season.
But for a club of Barcelona’s stature, they measure a season’s success in how they do in 3 competitions: La Liga, the UEFA Champions League and the Copa del Rey. And in those three years, they’ve only had 2 of them and none in the last year. Those seasons have also featured losses to everyone from Chelsea and Bayern Munich in the Champions League to Osasuna, Real Sociedad and, of course, Real Madrid in many different encounters. The problem, as it relates to Cesc, has been that the majority of the dropped points and losses have occurred on the business end of the season – March, April, May – when every point is vital and expectations increase. As people look to point to the flaw in the system, it’s easy to point out the cog that’s not fitting in the machine.
And that’s the crux of his dilemma at Barcelona. He’s a tremendous talent, but he doesn’t fit what they normally do. Barcelona rely on their famous tiki-taka passing style. They are a team that is disciplined and looks to have dominion of the ball for as long as possible. Passes are short, players run to get the ball back if lost and everyone works cohesively as a unit. Cesc works best as a channel between the midfield and attack (the advanced/attacking midfielder in the heart of the 4-2-3-1 that Arsene installed when Mathieu Flamini left) that can attack behind the striker or hold the ball and create for other attacking midfielders/wingers. It’s what made him so great in the Premier League for Arsenal.
Cesc Fabregas is a great Plan B when teams like Chelsea want to deny Barcelona the space or the time on the ball. At least on paper. But just like Zlatan Ibrahimovic found out during his time at the Nou Camp, being Plan B doesn’t mean they are looking for you to become Plan A. And when things don’t go as well as expected, the mistake is often yours because you’re the part that doesn’t fit in the perfectly-tailored tiki-taka system. After all, Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and the rest have won it all. So it clearly is not them that’s the fault.
So to the question at hand: should Arsenal spend the 30 million pounds that it will take to bring him back to Emirates? It’s a charged question. There’s big emotional responses that are as serious as the technical and financial responses.
For many Gooners, the idea of bringing Cesc is akin to welcoming back the prodigal son. The one who got away. He was the heir to the line of succession that went from Adams through Vieira to Henry and, finally, to him. He was meant to be the lynchpin for the next phase of Arsenal’s history. For others, it’s bringing back Judas – no different than welcoming back van Persie or Nasri into the club after he walked away from captaining a team built around him. He turned his back on the club, the manager who believed in him and the supporters who had his back. Those emotional responses are strong too. Watch the reaction on Twitter when it came out that Arsenal wouldn’t activate the buy back clause in Fabregas’ contract. You’d imagine that the FA Cup victory didn’t happen with so many angrily threw recriminations at Arsene Wenger, Ivan Gazidis and the club. That’s how much vitriol flew in the hours after that news broke.
Assessing it from a technical standpoint doesn’t help us either. Yes, if every player is healthy, Arsenal are in no dire need for Cesc Fabregas. The purchases of Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla in back-to-back years along with the emergence of Aaron Ramsey point to Cesc’s position and influence having been properly replaced. Add Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Tomas Rosicky and youngsters Gedion Zelalem, Chuks Aneke and Thomas Eisfeld and there’s no real immediate need to add another creative midfielder to a team that has so much talent that needs to play consistently to get into a groove and maximize its talents.
The caveat “if healthy” is the key though. As we saw just last year, injuries tend to occur at an alarming rate for Arsenal. Of that list of creative midfielders up there, the only player who didn’t deal with some sort of knock or injury was Chuks Aneke and he was out on loan. And the losses of Ramsey, Wilshere and Ozil during the February-March death runs were crucial to the collapse of our title aspirations last season. So the idea of bringing Cesc back to further strengthen that midfield has some merit, even when you take into account that Cesc has also his own long history of knocks and injuries. Because that has to be considered too. Fabregas could be just as absent as any of our current midfielders.
Meanwhile, from a financial standpoint, the idea of spending a large chunk of our transfer kitty on a player that doesn’t immediately solve a need is a tough one for some to swallow. If we admit that the needs are for a goal-scoring striker, a defensive midfielder capable of shielding the back four, a starting right back with some pace and skill and backups at goalkeeper and centerback, then we have to admit that those are pretty expensive purchases. Even if you think a backup keeper and centerback can be had for a total of 10-12 million pounds and that a starting right back shouldn’t cost more than 10 million, that still leaves 2 key starting positions and 78-80 million quid to obtain them.
If you think that’s enough, consider that top-level strikers run from 30M upwards. Unless you’re putting your eggs in the Loic Remy basket, you have to expect that Arsenal will be spending top money for a striker of better quality than Olivier Giroud. How much would Milan demand for Mario Balotelli? Or PSG for Edinson Cavani? Even if they still go for Remy at 15M pounds, they could find a way to bring a quality, fast winger to provide a threat from the left wing (Angel Di Maria for one) for a large price. So that’s two players who’ll eat up anywhere from 30M-40M of that transfer budget. Leaving the remaining 25M-30M for a quality-level starting DM that can take over for and platoon with Arteta and Flamini. Which if we’re talking Javi Martinez or one of the Bender twins is right around what you’d expect them to cost. So there’s your 100 million pound transfer kitty all spent without adding Cesc.
At the same time, buying a midfielder of Fabregas’ caliber for 30M pounds is a deal. When Mesut Ozil can go for 42.5M and Adam Lallana is about to go for 25M, buying a tested, proven, capable midfielder who knows the Premier League and Arsenal for 30M looks a lot like a bargain. Something else to consider: Barcelona still owe Arsenal anywhere from 12-15M pounds for the transfers of both Fabregas and Song in 2011 and 2012. So the 30M haul that Barcelona are hoping for in cashing in on Cesc could, in actuality, be even lower than that if Arsenal get in the way.
That, perhaps, may be the final decider for Barcelona. They could very well look at how little they’re going to get from his sale and opt to not sell him. Arsenal will either get Cesc Fabregas back at a cut-rate price or will pocket 50% of the millions Barcelona get from his sale. If the Catalans were hoping to use Fabregas to fund a transfer for someone else – say Koke – they’ll find that there’s less money in it than they thought. What do they do then? Do they sell one of their own, one they worked so hard to unsettle when they won’t get as much in return? Or do they try to walk it back when there’s a good chunk of their socios who are ready to see the back of the Barcelona kid wearing the #4 kit?
So we come back to the start: should Arsenal bring back their former captain? Should the millions of pounds earmarked for other positions be spent in bringing an extremely talented player just for the sake of denying his move to a direct rival? Specially when there’s talent available at his spot? Or should the club simply say “No” and pocket whatever is half of what the club that worked so hard to get him pockets from a rival?
It’s not as easy to give an answer as it might feel at times. But an answer is needed. And it may just be the case that the media reports of Arsenal’s “Not interested” claim are true. If so, many Gooners are just going to have to get over seeing Cesc Fabregas in a blue Chelsea kit next season. Lord help us if that comes to pass and he scores a goal against us. It’ll be like the end of the Aston Villa 3-1 loss from last season’s start.
Here I thought it was going to be a quiet summer.