Category Archives: Arsenal

Man at the pub, Chary: Set piece lapse gifts City draw

Poor marking at a corner in the last ten minutes of the game allowed City to equalise and prevent the Arsenal from grabbing their first league win since the opening day of the season after the home team appeared to have come from behind to defeat the League Champions.

Circumstances prevented me from attending today’s Ashburton Grove lunchtime kick off so I found a pub in my hitherto unnamed London satellite town where the audience gathered around the screens were split 50-50 supporting Arsenal and non football fans having lunch, hence “Man at the pub”.

Lunchtime drinking - a thankless task but someone has to do it

Lunchtime drinking – a thankless task but someone has to do it

Noteworthy points on team selection being Arsenal’s fifth signing, Danny Welbeck, starting in the middle up top, the prospect of Sanogo being there may have sent the goonersphere into a post interlull induced tailspin, and Monreal keeping his place while consigning Gibbs to the bench.
For the visitors the omission of Yaya “Birthday boy” Toure weakened the City midfield with the down grade Fernandinho taking his place, otherwise both teams were at full strength bar a few (Theo/Giroud for arsenal; Toure/Jovetic for City).

Pellegrini – whose appearance and style far from being that of “The Engineer” comes across as being more like a supply teacher – must have felt he had sufficient resources to avenge City’s last league outing, a defeat at the paws of the Orcs of Staffordshire.

Refreshingly Arsenal started the game with little of the usual hesitancy that had become a feature of some of their early kickoffs with the extremely robust front three of Alexis, Welbeck and Rambo leading the high energy pressing against the visitors, suggesting that the Arsenal were not overawed by City.

This urgency led to Welbeck running onto a loose pass from the the City defenders and chipping over the dandruff free Hart, the watching Gooners in the bar expecting the net to ripple. Sadly a Dulux coat of paint was enough to send what would a been a deserved opening goal for Arsenal and Welbeck back off the post into the grateful clutches of a grateful keeper.

Arsenal’s early dominance rattled the visitors and there then emerged a pattern of rotational fouling which broke up our attacking play, Fernandinho and Milner guilty of a couple of potentially yellow card tackles on Jack and Debuchy respectively.

Jack’s upswing in form seemed to continue as he exerted a degree of control on midfield and, to my eyes, was therefore targetted for fouls, however he hadn’t completely shed his habit of hanging onto the ball a little too long before releasing.

Emboldened by City’s lack of control in midfield Arsenal began to commit more men forward with Monreal being a little too eager to stay upfield, and this would lead to the sucker punch. Navas on the City right used all his pace to keep a ball seemingly destined to go into touch in play. The out of position Monreal was unable to defend his rampaging run to the Clock end penalty box where an onrushing Aguero expertly applied the finish.

Undoubtedly a blow but thankfully not one that seemed to knock the Arsenal out of their stride too much and they soon resumed their aggressive attacking approach.

This continued from the start of the second half, which saw Fatty Lampard withdrawn, possibly due to him picking up a yellow as well as looking off the pace, proving that Arsenal’s forward line is one of the better aspects of the squad.
Özil was feeling his way back into match fitness with some, although probably not enough, decisive interventions in our forward play and some smooth, slick passing.

At last Fernandinho joined Fatty and Zabaleta in the book after one lunge too many, even by referee Clattenberg’s somewhat lax standards, although shortly afterwards he just had to “even” things up by booking Flamini.

Eventually a particularly pacey combination of passes in front of the City penalty area, started by Özil winning the ball in the Arsenal half, allowed Jack to run onto Rambo’s pass then chip Hart delightfully for the equaliser.
An exquisite goal that heartened the team and the supporters, who may have started to fear a home league loss for the first time since last season’s opening day debacle made. The celebrations were made funnier by Aguero being booked for dissent in the aftermath of our equaliser and then subbed shortly after.

Continued Arsenal pressure led to the highlight of the game, Jack flicked on a cross to Alexis who lined up a right foot volley that arrowed into the top corner of Hart’s goal with the accuracy of a laser guided exocet – what a world class finish!

As our Chilean wheeled round in celebration I could see him bursting to take his top off, he unpeeled the Puma skinny fit top as I realised ruefully he was going to get a yellow, but to be fair the adrenalin of scoring such a goal would do that to many a player.

Arsenal’s superior attacking play had been rewarded and the game settled into possession football by the home team till the turning point of the game.
An aimless cross field ball in the last ten minutes of the game was chased by Debuchy who got his studs stuck in the turf and ended up turning his ankle – the “oofs” and groans heard around the bar when the slow mo showed the awkward angle the right back’s ankle landed confirmed the severity of the injury.

Now we could be down to five senior defenders covering four spots, only Bellerin looks ready for the first team at a push, so let’s all hope he is not out long term.

Chambers came on and soon after conceded a corner which was to provide the denouement – the inswinging corner saw Chesney flap a little and fail to claim with Demechelis rising to prod the ball goal ward.
Chesney got a hand to the ball but was unable to keep it out, in fact he seemed to divert the ball away from Flamini who was at the back post all set to clear, Mathieu slapping his forehead in frustration knowing that he could have prevented the goal.

The remaining minutes, plus six minutes of injury time, saw a helter skelter finish to the game during which it was Arsenal’s turn to be saved by the post when Dzeko’s effort was kept out by the woodwork.

An amusing moment in the closing minutes was Nasri poking in the net after the off side flag was raised and being given the bird by the Arsenal supporters. You could just see him itching to start his Adebayor-like celebration for the winner he thought he’d scored. Plenty of middle finger salutes from the Arsenal supporters in the pub.

Eventually time was blown and the feeling was predominantly of relief at not losing but slight disappointment that the lead could not be kept.

Negatives – the old failings of the inability to defend from set pieces and being vulnerable on counter attacks, especially on our left side, however today this could be more due to Özil’s lack of protection of the left back when he plays wide left than anything. The injury to Debuchy means we are now using an inexperienced teenager to cover centre back and right back spots which is a worry. Being young and inexperienced means we are going to see a few mistakes from Calum but we can only hope they won’t be regular or costly.

Positives – an encouraging debut for Welbeck which combined with our pace up front means opposition defences won’t be able to expect continued slow sideways passing in front of their penalty area to give them an easy game. We genuinely looked like we could go toe to toe with any other teams forward line and with the return of Walcott next month things look good up top.

UTA !

By ChärybdÏß1966 (on Twitter @charybdis1966)

Kompany

Arsenal v. Man City: tactical preview

City’s 4-2-2-2

Manchester City tend to play their most potent football when they play their wingless formation, which starts David Silva and Samir Nasri out wide. This system gave Arsenal all sorts of problems in their 6-3 loss at the Etihad because complicates solving the dynamic resource allocation problem. Before we get into the football, let us look at the value of interaction and specialization.

Economic Insights from the 18th and 19th centuries

David Ricardo came up with the theory of comparative advantage in 1817, arguing that free trade and specialization led to more wealth, as nations could focus on what they do best, allowing greater extraction of value from the Earth’s scarce resources. Nations then trade with one another. However, this does not mean that every nation should completely specialize. Specializing in writing blog posts on Arsenal does not represent the best use of my resources (probably not even a sustainable use of my resources) if I cannot economically interact with others. This brings us to Adam Smith’s insight that specialization is limited by the Market. Specialization is only as valuable as my ability to economically interact with others. Not only does greater interaction with others increase my ability to obtain the goods and services I forego producing due to specialization, but it also allows me to exploit my comparative advantage to a greater degree. When history links prosperity with the greater ability to trade, most likely the increased economic interaction allowed for greater specialization led to the ability to do more with scarce resources.

Interaction and Specialization on the Pitch

When facing only one center forward, a center-back partnership can allocate itself such that one gets tight to the center forward and the other sweeps in behind. This allows the proactive defender to play with greater aggression and to take more risks to intercept or win the ball, as he knows his teammate has his back. Ultimately, the two center-backs read the game similarly, communicate with one another, and assist each other (interact) allowing them to dynamically specialize, allocating their resources to best deal with that threat in that point in time and space. Assuming that a team lack two intelligent complete center-backs, this helps to explain why the fit of the two center-backs plays a key role in their effectiveness. A pairing with the same deficiencies has less to gain from interaction and specialization, as it ensures that one of the defenders’ deficiencies comes into focus during a passage of play.

And this idea of interaction of specialization applies to any grouping of players that work together. For example, the use of two center forwards operates best when the two complement each other stylistically, allowing them to plan how they will specialize over the course of a match. Looking at Jovetic and Dzeko/Aguero, we have a creator/goal-scorer (albeit two different kinds of goal-scorers) dynamic that fits. Even the Dzeko/Aguero pairing can operate like a big man-little man combination with a Dzeko looking to hold-up play and Aguero looking to run in behind the defense (the problem with that pairing has more to do with their positioning defensively).¹

Manchester City’s use of two center forwards against sides with two center-backs works to limit the ability for the two center-backs to interact and specialize over the course of the match. With each center-back having to deal with an attacker, fewer resources go towards analyzing the overall play in front of them and considering the impact of their actions on the team’s ability to defend spaces. Even though the goal of defending is to defend the space and not the man, it seems natural for a player to hone in on the ball or a man nearby, leading them to lose focus on defending the space. It also reduces the ability for the two defenders to communicate as they allocate more resources towards the opponent in front of them (the marginal cost of communication or looking to see how one’s defensive partner is doing increases). When done well, it can help turn the two center-backs into two individual defenders. Now some center-backs play well one-on-one; however, as Jonathon Wilson has pointed out, most center-backs have become used to/developed in an environment playing against a lone center forward that it made more sense for them to invest in developing as a member of a duo than as a lone wolf.

Now this means little if the ball cannot get to the center forwards. And if the ball does not get to the center forwards, the opportunity cost of the having an extra man up front, instead of in midfield, can lead to Manchester City getting overrun (see their first group stage match against Bayern last season). City accomplish this by playing two creative players inside-wide in David Silva and Samir Nasri.

Manchester City’s Half-Space Attackers

These two look to exploit the half-spaces (often the space in front of the FB/CB gap…a more detailed description of what the half-space is can be found here) the defense leaves open. They will look to exploit the space to the left and right of the central midfielders. This makes a 4-1-4-1 potentially problematic against City. Unless you have a fantastic holding midfielder (we are talking Busquets level space covering…which makes the thought of Steven Gerrard trying to operate in that role comical), both Silva and Nasri can find quite a bit of freedom to receive the ball, turn, and play incisive passes. In particular, David Silva plays the role of the pivotal playmaker that often exists in Pellegrini sides (Riquelme at Villareal, Santi Cazorla and Isco at Malaga, and no one at Real Madrid due to the departure of Wesley Sneijder and Kaka’s decline). If there is one player that needs to be stopped, it is the Spaniard, not Yaya Toure.

And the center forwards can make that task difficult. For example, a team could attempt to narrow their back four and give their fullbacks license to close down City’s creative half-space attackers. However, especially when Sergio Aguero plays, City have center forwards who can make those inside-out runs, those runs from the center going through the FB/CB gap. Therefore, the fullback’s desire to close down his opponent could lead to space for the center forward to exploit. This type of run can provide a passing lane for a deeper midfielder or give Silva/Nasri the ability to make a quick penetrating pass, if the pressure comes too late. Once the ball gets into these deep positions, City tend to overload the box with someone making a run from wide to get in front of a defender for a tap-in or header, and with plenty of runners coming from deeper central areas, either charging in on goal or stopping short to provide an option for the cutback.

The Base of Midfield: Yaya Toure or Bust

Moving further back from this attacking quartet, we arrive at the base of midfield, which often comprises of Yaya Toure and Fernando/Fernandinho. In either pairing, Fernando/Fernandinho operates more as the ball-winner and Toure operates more as the creative player on the ball. Once again, we see an instance of interaction and specialization on the pitch. Specifically with Toure, City have an attacking talent that can not only play the ball into the attacking quartet, but also carry the ball into those positions, join up in the attack, and make those runs into the box to benefit from the penetration of the attacking quartet. When he cares, his blend of size, strength, athleticism, and technical ability is unmatched in the Premier League, outside of Mario Balotelli. Given the options he provides City, his apathy in matches can prove quite a killer. With his decreasing interest in doing anything defensively, City probably need more of a defensive specialist next to Toure. But when Toure loses interest, the problems of specialization reveal themselves. It makes the team less robust to shocks, makes them less able to deal with uncertainty (although hedging against the apathy of one’s own player is a troubling risk to have to manage). And it’s not like healthy Ilkay Gundogan’s or Arturo Vidal’s grow on trees for City to buy and play next to their temperamental superstar. So while David Silva makes this side tick in attack, Yaya Toure’s effort in any particular match determines whether City play like a very good team or a truly elite team.

Providing Width with Fullbacks

If you have noticed that City have a rather narrow set up, then I would agree with your perception. Looking at this central column, it seems that the ideal defense against Manchester City would involve playing two narrow backs of four (or the squashed diamond that Villareal used against Barcelona in their 1-0 loss). This would make playing through the center exceedingly difficult. However, Manchester City are fully aware with this and use their fullbacks to provide this width in attack. Specifically, they tend to favor using Pablo Zabaleta to provide this wide threat. Along with Branislav Ivanovic, there may not be two right-backs who make better runs, both overlapping and especially underlapping runs, than these two. Throw in Seamus Coleman and the Premier League has some of the best off-ball attacking right-backs in the world.

Zabaleta’s runs have the potential to exploit Arsenal’s poor defending of deep runners. Very early in the 1-1 draw at the Emirates last season, Zabaleta punishes Lukas Podolski’s lack of desire and/or inability to defend. (I would normally include screen grabs here but I had technical difficulties with the site hosting the video, 7) Vincent Kompany brings the ball forward under no pressure and Lukas Podolski’s positioning is such that he does not eliminate the pass into the half-space to Silva, the pass to Zabaleta, or the pass to Jesus Navas.

Kompany opts for Navas, and Navas drives infield to have Gibbs commit to him. At this point, Silva makes a center-wide run through the FB/CB gap, but the run takes him offside. However, Navas’ quick feet allow him to keep possession, and as Silva slowly drops into a deeper position, Zabaleta bursts through the gap between Gibbs and Silva. With Gibbs’ receiving help too late from Santi Cazorla and absolutely no help from Lukas Podolski, City outnumber Arsenal 3-to-1 out wide.

While Silva moves deeper and coming back onside, Zabaleta makes a run into the gap between Gibbs and Silva. Navas plays the ball into Zabaleta, who has already beaten the static Kieran Gibbs. Zabaleta cuts inside and now can shoot, play a ball across the box for Edin Dzeko tap-in at the back post, or cut the ball back for Nasri. Zabaleta opts for the cut-back which Mikel Arteta cuts out beautifully. However, his under-hit ball to Santi Cazorla is intercepted by David Silva. This leads to another opportunity to exploit Arsenal’s in ability to track deep runners, ending in a Navas curler that goes just wide.

In addition to David Silva, Pablo Zabaleta is the most important player when it comes to City’s attack functioning properly. No other fullback does what he does offensively as well. In that sense, it seems odd that Manchester City did not purchase an appropriate right-back to provide cover for Zabaleta. While Bacary Sagna could provide valuable depth at center-back (though with Kompany, DeMichelis, Mangala, and Nastasic, City do not seem to lack center-backs), in no way does he provide what City need at right back.

As you could observe in their 1-0 loss to Stoke City, Sagna’s age and inability to do much of anything going forward allows a team to organize two narrow lines of four. Essentially, Sagna, in this particular 4-2-2-2 set up, makes the dynamic resource allocation problem simple for the opposition. Pellegrini could play Sagna with Jesus Navas (the last of the traditional wingers) to give the side width, but that comes at an immense opportunity cost, as City lose a half-space attack in Samir Nasri. The other option would be fielding Kolarov at left-back, and forcing City’s attack down the left side more than they would with Zabaleta. This means that City divest from attacking down the right where David Silva tends to overload the opposition, leading to a decrease in City’s attacking potency.

The Potential of a City 4-2-3-1

In City’s first big EPL match of the 2014-15 season, Pellegrini went with City’s more fluid 4-2-2-2 against Liverpool. However, last season, he started with a 4-2-3-1 structure away to Arsenal, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, and Chelsea. With Stevan Jovetic potentially unavailable and a match against Bayern Munich on Wednesday, Pellegrini may look to save Sergio Aguero’s hamstrings for their trip to Germany. This could lead to a 4-2-3-1, with Fernandinho, Fernando, and Toure in the middle, Silva on the left and Navas/Nasri on the right, setting his side to disrupt things in midfield and rely more on strength, fouling, and athleticism (the Mourinho/SAF post-Invincibles way of dealing with Arsenal). If Pellegrini desires better control of the match, he could go with Fernando and Toure at the base, Silva/Nasri in either the left or central attacking trio positions with Navas wide.

Arsenal: The Return of the 4-2-3-1?

With Mikel Arteta coming off of injury and Mathieu Flamini good for a yellow card betting pool and not much else, a 4-1-4-1 could prove suicidal against the half-space attacking of Silva and Nasri. Also, Arsenal lack the familiarity and the players of that Bayern side (this really falls apart without players like Lahm, Muller, and Neuer) to implement such a pressing system to pin City in their own half (though I did describe how Welbeck could lead to a future of high pressing for Arsenal). Therefore, it seems like this match could see a return of the 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 giving Arsenal an improved ability to defend against the movement of Silva and Nasri.

Defend the Half-Space Entry Passes/Don’t Let City’s Midfielders Breathe

With Manchester City so dependent on playing passes into the half-spaces, Arsenal should look to block those passing lanes. In a 4-4-1-1, with Welbeck and Ozil up top, Welbeck could look to deny a pass into the one of the half-spaces, preferably the half-space on the side of City’s more attack-minded fullback. On the other side, the wide midfielder can look to tuck inside to block the passes into that half-space. If Arsenal can cut off City’s attacking quartet from the rest of the team or force Silva and Nasri to collect the ball far from goal, they will have gone a long way towards winning this game.

Also, Arsenal cannot start with the passive approach with which they often start these big non-Champions League matches. With the two best options being press and harass or keep things compact and look for opportunities to break, the last thing Arsenal can afford to do is start with the unorganized, space-out, and low energy/urgency defensive scheme that allows the opposition quite a bit of joy on the ball. At their worst against Manchester City, it seemed Arsenal did not want to apply pressure until City moved the ball right in front of the back line.

This also seems odd when you consider that the center-backs and central midfielders of City do not have greater close control or elusiveness. There is no Xavi at Manchester City. Also, the base of City’s midfield is a specialized duo that needs to interact for the team to function. Cutting off Fernando/Fernandinho from Yaya Toure could go a long way in reducing the potency of City in possession.

In fact, in the 6-3 loss to City, Arsenal’s first goal came off of Aaron Ramsey pressing Yaya Toure. In this passage, City play the ball wide to Sergio Aguero, who wants to pass it to David Silva, but Theo Walcott has done well to prevent that pass with his positioning. Aguero plays it back to Yaya Toure. Ramsey runs to pressure Toure who attempts too slow of a turn, in an attempt to protect the ball. Ramsey wins the ball and with Gael Clichy and Zabaleta high up the pitch, Ramsey and Giroud occupy the two center-backs. Toure and Fernandinho attempt to track the play, but no one is in position to deal with the run of Mesut Ozil. Ramsey picks out Ozil, who is now 1-1 against Kompany. Ozil buys some time with some feints, giving Theo Walcott time to get to the top of the box. Ozil plays the cut back; Walcott shoots and scores.

With Arsenal’s pace on the counter and a passer/decision maker like Mesut Ozil, Arsenal have all the reason in the world to try to create turnovers in central midfield, helping them defending City and use their defense to attack (especially with Yaya Toure possibly fatigued after playing two ACN qualification matches for Ivory Coast).

How Will Arsenal Deal with City’s Right Side Threat? Hopefully Not With Ozil

While there are merits to playing Mesut Ozil on the left (half-space attacker, can operate as a carrier, fantastic decision making on the counter attack, etc.), playing him on the left against a marauding right back is problematic. It either forces Ozil to drop deep to defend, reducing the marginal benefit of playing him on the left as a counter-attack springer, or it leaves the left-back completely alone, hoping for a central midfielder to help him, to deal with the right-back, the right sided attacking player, and overloaders. The cost-benefit analysis of Ozil on the left against a right-back like Zabaleta, probably tips the balance in favor of playing Ozil centrally, maybe on the right, or not at all.

Vincent Kompany, the weak link

Vincent Kompany is not the central defender that he once was. This should not come as a shock as much of his value came from his athleticism. His age combined with his recent muscle injury history paint the picture of a player in physical decline (whose contract takes him through the 2018-19 season). Despite this, he still has the tendency to advance forward in defense, to close down the opposition, and in possession, to carry the ball into advanced positions. This presents an opportunity for Arsenal to exploit.

As I wrote in my look at Alexis Sanchez, the Chilean excels at exploiting FB/CB gaps. In that match against Real Madrid, he did well to punish Real Madrid’s defenders who looked to close down Barcelona’s midfielders. In this game, Sanchez and Welbeck may look to exploit that gap created when Kompany goes forward to close down at Arsenal player. It also gives Arsenal the incentive to give Kompany the false impression that he should advance the ball into space. While cutting off the easy passes, Arsenal could collapse on Kompany, especially with a player who starts behind Kompany, win the ball and look to break quickly into the space he left behind.

Diagonal Runs

Diagonal runs could prove quite effective against Manchester City as it would force DeMichelis to run with Sanchez/Welbeck or it could give Sanchez/Welbeck plenty of space to receive the ball to drive Arsenal’s attack forward, with a run from a central position to a wide area. With Zabaleta likely to take up advanced positions to supply that crucial width in attack, attacking down the left could prove quite beneficial for Arsenal, despite their desire to attack down their right side.

Diagonal runs between DeMichelis and Clichy could also prove quite effective. That ability, to attack this gap and finish, helped make Theo Walcott one of Arsenal’s most effective players against City. He will be missed, but it will be interesting to see how Arsene Wenger sets up his front 4.

I would prefer a 4-2-3-1/4-2-1-3/4-4-1-1 with a fluid quick trio of Alexis Sanchez, Danny Welbeck, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in front of Mesut Ozil. This seems like the best way to exploit City on the counter and have enough athleticism to break from deeper defensive positions or to more effective apply pressure. However, with Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla fit, we may see an attempt to control the game with Ozil, Cazorla, Ramsey, and Wilshere, a mistake in my opinion. Wenger’s squad selection may give us a clue as to how he wants the side to progress with Danny Welbeck and without that elite holding midfielder who is essential for a 4-1-4-1.

Follow Naveen on twitter @njm1211

¹Looking at the other team in Manchester, a pairing of Robin Van Persie (at this stage in his career) and Radamel Falcao involves two penalty-box players who want to finish moves. Throw in Wayne Rooney, who looks much more suited to a penalty-box role, rather than a creative role (unless a team desires to attack at a snail’s pace), and United have three individualistic penalty-box players. At best, the quality of these players is additive, certainly not multiplicative. In reality, due to diminishing marginal returns of having two penalty-box players on the pitch, the quality they provide United as a pair is less than the sum of their individual quality (A alone+B alone> A+B together). The inability for United’s center forwards to extract value from interaction and specialization makes it less likely that they can overcome the opportunity cost of playing two up front (often involves divesting from central midfield or divesting from the flanks). Throw this into the mix with what I wrote about Falcao in my first Welbeck piece, United going after Falcao looks like an even greater waste of resources.

Image and phrase "Cesc la Vie" copyright 7amkickoff.com and Tim Bostelle, no use without permission

The tragedy of Cesc Fabregas: the “almost won” player.

I remember the first time I saw Cesc play. It was Spring of 2006 (the 05/06 season), I was horribly hungover, it was bitterly cold, and Arsenal beat Charlton 3-0. Hleb, Adebayor, and Pires scored that day but the thing that most stands out to me is my memory of the guy sitting next to me, talking to his friend, and how exuberant he was in his praise for the young Spaniard.

“It’s like he creates time and space, I don’t know how he does that.” Was the quote that I most remember, because it best describes the magical way that Cesc played back then. As if somehow he was more than a mere midfielder, he was instead some master of the space-time continuum and able to reach into the fabric of the universe and pull out time and space by the handful.

If you remember, it was a weird time to be an Arsenal fan. Arsenal had just sold Patrick Vieira to Juventus and were preparing for a move from Highbury to the Emirates. Fiscal austerity was kicking in and Robert Pires was offered a new contract, but just a one year deal. Chelsea were shipping in their Russian made T-84′s specially fitted with £50 note cannons which they would park on Arsenal’s front lawn and start firing at players. Henry was captain of the club, Sol Campbell had thrown a strop and was toiling in the reserves, Ashley Cole was being tapped up by Mourinho, and Arsene Wenger had made a bold move at the start of the season to shift Arsenal’s buying policy from established players to guys like Cesc Fabregas. He had no choice, really, Wenger knew that building the Emirates stadium would mean fiscal austerity for 6-8 years.

This was Wenger’s youth revolution. Fabregas, Eboue, Flamini, Clichy, Hleb, Adebayor, van Persie, Senderos, Song, and Toure would reach two finals in two years (Champions League and League Cup) and lose them both to bigger, richer, clubs with a policy of spending huge money on well established stars.

11 days after I saw Arsenal beat Charlton 3-0, the Gunners hosted Juventus in a Champions League quarter final which was billed as the return of the former Arsenal captain, Patrick Vieira. Reading the papers and blogs one imagined Paddy would stride, long-legged, back into the marble halls of Higbury and show us all what we had been missing. In fact, Arseblog, just a few days before the match, summed up most Arsenal fans’ feelings about Vieira when he said “I think the one thing we’d all agree on is that we should have replaced Vieira.” It’s a sentiment that people repeat to this very day, eight years later.

But in the match against Juventus, Cesc was at his very best. The memory of that game is my favorite moment in Fabregas’ career. Cesc rose to the occasion: he flattened Vieira time and again; he made Vieira look like a tired old man with his constant movement; he scored the opening goal after Pires dispossessed Vieira with the only tackle of his career; and he finished Vieira off with the assist for the second goal.

Fabregas wasn’t some 6’4″ hulking Arsenal legend. He was a bird-chested teenager with an Alice band and a propensity for Piresesque facial hair. His was the perfect underdog story, the teenager triumphing over his bigger, meaner, older brother. How could I not fall in love with Fabregas?

Fabregas, Pires, Goatee

After Juventus, Arseblog would reverse his stance and again capture what almost all of us were thinking:

Cesc just showed again what a player he is. If you were given a choice between him and Vieira in your midfield would anyone seriously choose Paddy? He looked lost tonight. He looked like he didn’t have the legs to compete. He never got forward. He never threatened. He could hardly move at the end. The total opposite of Cesc who was creative, in the middle of everything and right to the final whistle was full of running. His smile at the end of the game made my heart glow. I love that lad and I still maintain Arsene did some good business moving on the former captain when he did. Tonight’s listless performance is typical of his season and his last season with us. It is a cliché but nobody knows the players better than AW, not even themselves. Vieira didn’t enjoy his return one little bit and while I’m glad he was shown respect before the game I have no problem with the way he was shown up during it. People have often criticised us for not being ruthless enough. Well, things have changed. I’m sure he looked at the ability and the promise of our young side and wanted to be part of it. I’m sure he saw himself playing alongside the precocious talent of Cesc. Oh well! You make your bed, Paddy…

It looked like Cesc was the heir apparent but Cesc would actually go on to have an “almost won” career at Arsenal.

In the season he toppled Vieira (05/06), Arsenal lost to Barcelona in a heart-breaking Champions League final.

In the next season (06/07), Cesc signed his first major deal with the Gunners, an 8 year contract which would have him at Arsenal to this very day. It was a huge coup off the pitch but on the pitch Arsenal lost to Chelsea in a horrible League Cup final refereed by Howard Webb which saw Theo score his first Arsenal goal and Toure and Adebayor both given red cards.

In 07/08 Arsenal led the League for most of the Winter but finished 4 points short of Man U with the season falling apart after Eduardo’s leg was broken by Martin Taylor. For me, this was Cesc’s best season for Arsenal. He only scored 13 goals but he had 23 assists and nearly led Arsenal to a League title.

In 08/09 Cesc signed a new deal, reportedly upping his salary to £110,000 a week and handing him £3m in back pay. The contact was intended to be large enough to fend off the advances of Real Madrid who were publicly saying things like “Cesc needs to approach us.” But it also stifled Arsenal’s ability to bring in top quality players and the Gunners ended up settling on overrated emergency signings like Andrey Arshavin. Despite the big contract, this was Cesc’s worst season at the club as he was sidelined for four months with ligament damage.

Cesc returned the next season (09/10) and was made captain. He started the season on fire, a new man, and scored his now iconic goal against Spurs (my second favorite Cesc moment). But injuries again took their toll: Cesc had his leg broken by Carles Puyol while playing against Barcelona and crucially, van Persie made a paltry 14 League starts for the Gunners after having his foot broken by Chiellini while playing for Netherlands. As a result, Arsenal finished 4th. Meanwhile, the Barcelona tap-up machine kicked into overdrive. This was the World Cup year and Cesc was playing on a Spanish team that was mostly Barcelona players. After they won the final, off a Cesc assist, they were celebrating back in Spain and Puyol and Pique pulled a Barcelona shirt over Cesc’s head. It was a brilliant bit of maneuvering by Barcelona and Cesc reportedly only agreed to stay with Arsenal one more year after that.

After much summer speculation over Cesc’s future he returned to Arsenal for that final season. In his very last “almost won” with Arsenal, the Gunners lost the League Cup final, a game played with the captain out injured. Many people like to claim that Cesc gave his all this season but for me I saw exactly the opposite. He was out often with niggling injuries, played just 36 games (all competitions), missed the League Cup final, and on the last day of the season signaled his intent by asking for the day off to watch the Grand Prix in Spain.

That summer, Cesc demanded a trade and demanded to be traded to Barcelona. Cesc made it clear that Wenger had no choice, he refused to travel or train with the team. The captain of the club refused to train with the team.

Why does that matter? It seems ridiculous that I would have to explain this but when the captain of the team is refusing to train with or travel for the team then he is exercising the nuclear option. There is no going back once a player does that unless you can somehow force them to apologize publicly as Man City did with Tevez. And even then, this is vastly different than Tevez being petulant over a substitution. This is the club captain, the player the team was built around, throwing a massive wobbler. When that happens it destroys the fabric of the team.

In the ultimate irony though, by blowing up the team, Cesc became the engineer of his final “almost won”. I can only imagine that a fully committed Cesc, the Cesc who played a miraculous 48 games¹ for Barcelona scoring 15 times and assisting 20, playing along with Robin van Persie who scored 37 goals in all competitions, along with Song and all the other players who were at the top of their games that season, I have to imagine they would have won at least one trophy.

But with his nose filled with Pique dust he forced the move back to Barcelona a year or two before he probably should have. I imagine he thought he would take over for Iniesta or Xabi since they were on their way out at the club… I sure thought that’s what would happen.

But it didn’t. And in the most tragic of all the “almost won’s” in Cesc’s career, he was shoved out of the Barcelona chute a mere three seasons after begging them to take him. He won trophies with Barcelona, but he never led the team to a trophy the way he would have done at Arsenal.

Despite the way he treated Arsenal on his exit, despite the fact that we would be getting back a player who just had his dream crushed, and despite the fact that we have Özil, Jack, Cazorla, Wilshere, and now Sanchez who all like to play in the advanced midfield role that Cesc was best at, I would have taken Cesc back. 

Why didn’t Wenger? Because Wenger knows his team. He knows what he wants from his team and what he wants his team atmosphere to be like. He knows that the Fabregas experiment at Arsenal had run its course. He also had to know the old maxim “you can never go back”. Cesc can never again be that 19 year old kid jubilantly cutting Vieira to pieces. You can’t go back.

Cesc had to learn that lesson the hard way. He tried to go back to Barcelona and they weren’t the same. Then he tried to return to Arsenal and we weren’t the same. Left in the cold, he joined Chelsea.

Wenger said no because we don’t need him. Go back up to the top where Arseblog asked the question “who would you rather have, Cesc or Vieira?” and ask yourself, “who would I rather have Ramsey or Cesc?”

I would say Ramsey because Ramsey is not an “almost won” player. Ramsey repaid our faith in him with a gutsy performance in the FA Cup final, his goal winning Arsenal their first trophy since 2005, ironically ending Arsenal’s “almost won” era which happened to coincide with the Cesc era. Like Cesc did to Vieira that night at Highbury, Ramsey has replaced Cesc.

 

Thus, Cesc is the ultimate tragic figure. He is the architect of his own demise. His hubris made him break up the best thing that he could ever hope for, a career at Arsenal. Rejected by both the club who made him and his dream club, Cesc runs into the arms of the one man who represents the exact opposite of both clubs: Jose Mourinho. Jose Mourinho, hated by Barcelona supporters and despised by Arsenal supporters.

It’s the ultimate “almost won” for Fabregas. Because no matter how many trophies he wins with Mourinho they will all feel hollow compared to what could have been with Arsenal or Barcelona.

Qq