Category Archives: Arsenal

Ozil-Welbz

Naveen’s Tactical Column: Verticality, Compactness, and Countering Chelsea’s Parked Bus

By Naveen Maliakkal, Footnote Impresario

An Ideal Day for Jose Mourinho

With the Premier League title almost secured, and the fatigue present in the side due to a lack of rotation[1], it seems likely that Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea will play Sunday’s match with a desire to just not lose. They approached their last fixture, against Manchester United, in a similar fashion. United had 70% possession and only 22% of the game was played in United’s defensive third. While they attempted fifteen shots to Chelsea’s seven, they attempted eight of those shots from outside of the box, and their only two shots on target were from distance. This is the type of football Mourinho enjoys playing, defending in a deep defensive block, and exploiting the space teams concede due to their attacking shape[2].

Against United, Chelsea looked to exploit their defender’s inability to play the ball up from the back, particularly targeting Chris Smalling. Out of possession, Chelsea would sit in a kind of 4-4-2 with Didier Drobga and Cesc Fabregas looking to deny passing lanes from the center backs into midfield. With Drogba’s age and Fabregas’ fitness/fatigue, it would seem too much to ask of the duo to take part in a pressing game, which may have been necessary if United had center backs with an ability to play more like midfielders in possession, allowing them to competently advance with the ball. But with United playing one midfielder deep, in Ander Herrera, Fabregas and Drogba would cede United a numerical superiority at the back to obtain a numerical superiority in the area around Herrera. With the lack of comfort the two Manchester United center backs have playing in wide areas, the option of dropping Herrera into the back line, spreading the players out to create more passing angles behind Chelsea’s front two, and creating a more effective numerical superiority, was not in play. This meant that Chelsea could deny passing lanes into the Spaniard, forcing Manchester United into wide areas.

With Antonio Valencia at RB, United did not pose of a threat to Chelsea’s left side. This led to United’s attack having a significant left-sided bias, with 41% of their attacks coming from that flank (as per, Whoscored.com), as Luke Shaw represented a superior option to Valencia in building attacks from deeper positions.

When United want to attack through the center, but find it difficult to break their opponent’s lines, they usually look to use Fellaini’s size and brutishness to win aerial duels, allowing them to advance the play. With Nemanja Matic looking quite fatigued, Chelsea could not rely on him to control as much space as they could earlier in the season. Also, the physical contest of going up against Fellaini could have exhausted Matic. With Chelsea lacking the proper depth to replace what he does, especially in possession, it could make their limited opportunities to counter too inept.

Mourinho opted to field Kurt Zouma in midfield as a kind of man-marker against Fellaini. While young, not sophisticated in his understanding of the game, and lacking the technical ability to solve the problems that come with defending in midfield, Zouma’s impressive athleticism made him a fine candidate to mark the Belgian out of the game. Fellaini’s only recourse was to drift into wide areas, which did leave Chelsea vulnerable, as Zouma could get dragged out of the center, forcing a fatigued Matic to control too much space. This proved particularly effective when Fellaini drifted towards United’s left.

Overall, Chelsea had no problem with United’s center backs passing the ball back and forth between themselves or building down the flanks. The former involved Manchester United failing to move the ball into dangerous areas. The latter played right into Chelsea’s center backs strengths. While John Terry and Gary Cahill are rather incompetent defending in a high line, the simpler task, on both the mind and the legs, of defending in their box, comes naturally to them. Having to pay attention to 180 degrees of space rather than 360 degrees of space, combined with their size, made them more than able to win aerial duels and make clearances on balls played in from wide areas.

Arsenal’s Potential Problems in Possession

Arsenal have a similar problem to Man U with their ability to play a possession-based game against Chelsea [3]. With Gabriel replacing Per Mertesacker, Arsenal have replaced one of the best line-breaking passers at center back, with a player who lacks any identifiable quality on the ball, at this point in his career.

Arsene Wenger desires a more vertical passing game from the back. This way, Arsenal can break a defensive line, and then break another, before the opposition can retreat and get men behind the ball. Arteta represents Arsenal’s best option at holding midfielder, if they want to build from the back, especially in the Wenger manner. His movement and positioning can work to make him an option for the center backs, but, more importantly, it works to create passing lanes into more advanced midfield areas.

For any the talk of the downgrade from Arteta to Coquelin in terms of what they do on the ball, it is this lack of quality out of possession, when the team has possession, that represents the biggest drop-off in quality that Arsenal experience with Coquelin on the pitch instead of Arteta. Coquelin often looks lost when his teammates have the ball. He does not understand how to free himself up to consistently provide an option for his teammates, nor does he show an understanding of how to create those vertical passing lanes for his center backs.

(Examples of the forthcoming passage from Reading v. Arsenal)

Debuchy passes to Cazorla, Cazorla turns inside. Coquelin is watching the ball, like a hawk!
Debuchy-Cazorla
Cazorla turns upfield and passes to Ozil:
Cazorla-Ozil
Ozil is in double coverage but he beats both men with his touch:
Ozil-beats-two
And immediately turns up field to find Welbeck:
Ozil-Welbz
Reading are forced to foul Welbz — look at the space in front of him and the positioning of Alexis, this is a goal-scoring chance snuffed out by a foul:
Welbz-fouled

This became quite problematic for Arsenal against Reading, in the semi-final of the FA Cup. In the beginning of the match, one can see Coquelin watching the ball, but not playing a role in Arsenal’s control of space in possession. He is not wont to drop into the back line to create a situational back three, allowing Arsenal to spread out at the back, giving them more passing angles to bypass Reading’s front two. He is not a threat to receive the ball, execute a proper turn, and either move forward or immediately play the ball to another teammate in an advanced position. This forces Santi Cazorla to move wide into the build-up, which does create space for Mesut Ozil to drop into, so to receive the ball however, it reduces the number of options in more advanced areas. Ultimately, Arsenal could not control central areas of the pitch well enough, forcing them wide, hoping to move the ball into the interior, forcing Ozil drop deep, or calling for Koscielny to hit speculative long balls. Fortunately for Arsenal, Reading are not Atletico Madrid, defending more like an English side than a proper defensive side, and Mesut Ozil is a phenomenally intelligent footballer, meaning that the lack of verticality in this type of build-up, allowing Reading to get men behind the ball, did not prove too problematic, as long as Arsenal reduced the verticality in their build-up.

A more worrying example came in the second half, after Mertesacker left with an injury. In this passage, Arsenal are trying to build an attack from the back, while maintaining a more Wenger-like level of verticality in midfield. Again Coquelin shows his ability to watch the play unfold, but not much else. The result is a passage of U-shaped passing, a common sign of an a team’s inability to control the center of the pitch in possession, with the ball moving from fullback, to center back, to center back, to full back, and back again.

While Arsenal could get away with this with a ball-carrier at fullback, like Hector Bellerin, having Mathieu Debuchy and Kieran Gibbs at fullback meant that Arsenal had problems advancing the ball down the flanks. Even Bayern Munich, a team that dominates wide areas and half-spaces better than any side in the world, rely on the likes of Juan Bernat and Rafinha to push the ball forward, commit defenders, and either beat them or exploit the space the committing defender concedes with the right pass[4]. The passage of play ends with Debuchy losing the ball. Reading create a chance on a counter attack led by Pavel Pogrebynak and Jamie Mackie playing the same role, in the counter, that Eden Hazard will on Sunday.

If Arsenal do persist with a kind of 2-4-4 build-up, with two central midfielders and the two fullbacks spread out in front of the two center backs, then Arsenal will have to rely on Santi Cazorla and Mesut Özil’s close control to work in tight spaces, beat defenders, and open things up so Arsenal can advance the ball through the center. While Kurt Zouma is not the right type of player to use in a man-marking scheme against Cazorla, as Cazorla challenges a defenders’ quickness and sophistication of thought rather than their physical ability, Mourinho could opt to take Cazorla out of the game with a man marker (he likes to use Oscar for this, Tim). And unless Hector Bellerin plays, having the full backs carry the ball forward seems like a recipe for disaster, as Chelsea can use the sideline as an extra defender, isolate the fullback, win it back, and sprint towards Arsenal’s goal.

Compactness in Possession: Reject the “English” Desire for Expansive Shapes

While the commentators for the FA Cup semi-final talked about Arsenal needing width and Walcott being the man to provide it, it was less Walcott coming on and more Coquelin coming off that improved Arsenal’s possession. By having Aaron Ramsey in that deeper midfield role, Arsenal had a player with the intelligence off the ball and the ability on the ball to allow for greater control of the center of the pitch. With Theo Walcott on the pitch, who struggles to provide value in the build-up play against a deep defending side, it became crucial that Arsenal could control the center of the pitch better, due to the substitution reducing their effectiveness in one of the wide areas.

This greater potential for control manifested itself almost immediately after the substitution. With Ramsey in the deepest midfield role, Arsenal had someone who defenders have to worry about. This allowed the fullbacks to tuck inside, keeping the line compact, as they did not have to space themselves out as much to find free space, which gave Arsenal three men close enough together to exert a numerical advantage over Reading’s defensive front. With the line of three able to play into the next line, both Ozil and Cazorla stayed higher up the pitch, staggering themselves so to not be directly in front of their teammates. One could classify this more as a 2-3-2-3 kind of build-up. This allowed Arsenal to comfortably work the ball down the left, with Ramsey giving Arsenal a numerical advantage, ultimately leading to a shot on goal from the Welshman.

(Here is Ramsey taking the ball forward for a shot from the holding midfield role – note that Cazorla’s on the right, Ozil’s on the left, as Naveen points out, they get to go forward more where they are more effective. On a side note, if you look in the upper right corner, like “Where’s Waldo?” you’ll see Gibbs, hiding behind the defenders, in a great position to get caught out on a counter attack. -Tim)

Ramsey-Reading

 

So, while there are obvious costs of not playing with Coquelin, particularly apparent when Arsenal lose the ball, the gains in possession from having someone who has even the smallest idea of what to do, both on and off the ball, (or in Ramsey’s case plenty of ideas on what to do) are immense. Not only did having Ramsey in that role help Arsenal control central areas but, their ability to maintain a more narrow shape played a positive role as well.

By keeping a narrow shape in possession, the ball can change direction more quickly, making it harder for the defensive unit to ideally solve resource allocation problems, and it allows for a better ability to gain control of important spaces and exploit important spaces at the right moment in time. This is why sides that play a narrow shape in possession require intelligence and technically gifted players who can work in tight spaces, along with identifying and exploiting transient opportunities to control more desirable areas of the pitch.

Maybe most importantly, a narrow shape in possession facilitates counter-pressing and better control of space by the unit, if possession is lost. Counter-pressing may also help Arsenal score goals against a stubborn Chelsea.

To score goals, a team needs to bait the opposition out of position, so to gain control/exploit the spaces they want. Some teams do it with possession. Some teams do it by giving their opponent control of possession and waiting for their opponent to get into a poor defensive shape. With counter-pressing, a team combines both approaches.

First, the attacking team uses their possession to advance the ball into a space that serves a purpose in possession, but also allows for effective counter-pressing. If the attacking team loses possession, the opponent potentially moves into a bad defensive shape, as they try to execute an attacking transition. The counter-press then wins the ball back, and with the opposition defense out of shape, the side that started with the ball now has a greater ability to exploit/control space than they did when the passage of possession happened.

With long balls to Giroud having lowered effectiveness against the likes of Terry and Cahill, counter-pressing could prove Arsenal’s best way of breaking down Chelsea’s defense, as their attempt to start an attacking transition leaves them ill-suited to control space, if they lose the ball. Therefore, as was observed against Manchester City, Liverpool, and Manchester United this season, Arsenal may need to show proficiency in an aspect of football they have rarely showcased under Arsene Wenger, if they wish to earn all three points.

@njm1211

[1] It seems like the Chelsea strategy for winning the EPL was fly and die, where they hoped to build a large enough lead at the start to not have to worry about the title during the final quarter-season, when the physical attrition would manifest
[2] Against teams that understand positional play with respect to controlling space with possession and controlling space in the event of a loss of possession, defending in a deep block can lead to a side being pinned into their penalty box, hoping for luck, an insane ability to block shots, an immense goalkeeping performance, to obtain a desirable result. See Chelsea’s entire 2012 Champions League run in which all three of those factors were in play, in that order of importance
[3]Unless Arsenal plan on getting a 0-0, they will be forced into a possession based game. If they score though, it could prove problematic for a Chelsea side whose XI could be ill-suited to controlling space with possession.
[4]One can see how important it is to build a side of eleven players who understand what to do with the ball at their feet and when they do not have the ball at their feet to allow a team to control space in possession.

Fabregas, Pires, Goatee

Remember when Cesc beat Vieira? Who will beat Cesc this weekend?

Think back to March 2006. What were you doing?

I was standing in my basement, watching a Champions League football match. The top billing for the match read “Arsenal v. Juventus” which should be a big game all by itself, the team who finished second in the Premier League versus the best team in Italy¹. But the real game, the drama, was played out in midfield as an 18 year old Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal prodigy, played head-to-head with one of the giants of the game, Patrick Vieira, former Arsenal captain.

Vieira had left Arsenal that summer to join Juventus and Chris Harris, writing for Arsenal.com, on the day before the match put it thus:-

In the pubs and bars around Highbury – not to mention the pages of Arsenal’s fanzines – Patrick Vieira has been a hot topic of conversation this season.

Were Arsenal right to sell him last summer? Did they replace him adequately? If Edu had stayed, would Vieira have been missed? Would Cesc Fabregas have risen to prominence if Vieira still occupied a first-team place?

“Has Vieira been replaced” is a bit of a funny question now, 9 years later, because we are still asking the same thing and coming up with the same answer: nope. The truth is that players like Vieira are irreplaceable. No one asked the Chicago Bulls “have you replaced Michael Jordan?” when he retired (for the first, second, and third times) because everyone knows that Jordan was a unique player. The same with Vieira, his size, power, and tactical awareness combined with stamina and a natural technique made him a unique player in world football. All comparisons fade away upon any cursory inspection. He is and was irreplaceable.

What you can do, however, is find another unique talent and build around him. That is what Arsene Wenger did when he found Cesc Fabregas and put him almost straight away into Arsenal’s first team.

Ten days before the Juventus match, I was in London for Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Charlton. On the day 38,000 fans sat in the freezing cold on a cloudless day and watched in pure yellow sunlight the dawning of an 18 year old prodigy. Despite his mullet and Alice band, Cesc Fabregas charmed every single Arsenal fan that day. This little slip of a lad, moving effortlessly to the exact right place to collect a pass, passing the ball perfectly to a teammate in open space, his head constantly on a swivel, knew where all of his teammates were and where they would be when he needed them to advance the ball, dominated Charlton that day.

There was a man sitting next to me at that match and I remember his words as clear as today. He was talking to his friend and he point out Fabregas and said, “that Fabregas, what a magnificent player, just look at the way he seems to create space and time.”

It was a key insight, something I had never heard before and so I watched for it. Sure enough, Fabregas, because he knew where everyone was around him and had the technique to receive and get them the ball, was able to move into spaces that people would otherwise overlook. And these were tiny spaces on a crowded pitch, with giant players running at him full speed. But like an Aikido master, he just used their own momentum and power against them, and created even more space and more time.

So, in the build-up to the Juventus match, what everyone wondered was whether this 18 year old kid could weave his magic against a former Arsenal colossus. Patrick Vieira was the man who dominated Arsenal’s midfield for 9 years before that match. He was the man who acted as both bulwark for Arsenal’s defense and spearhead for Arsenal’s attack. Vieira was also Arsenal’s emotional leader, lifting the team by going nose-to-nose with the infamous bullies of the day, players like Roy Keane². Patrick Vieira was everything for Arsenal.

But in their head-to-head Fabregas ruled the day. Fabregas dictated the tempo of the match, keeping things close to him at all times, and simply passing and moving. On Highbury’s tiny pitch, and facing a Juventus team which outsized them in nearly every position, Arsenal were forced to probe slowly, prodding, looking for an opening and Cesc Fabregas did exactly that, showing a patience which belied his tender years.

Fabregas scored the opening goal in the 40th minute, taking a pass from Thierry Henry, and sort of scuffing the ball between the legs of Thuram and into the lower corner as Buffon stood and watched. His celebration was pure joy and is often the very picture of Fabregas’ time at Arsenal.

Fabregas also set up Henry for the second goal, getting to the end line and cutting the ball back. Henry expertly controlled the pass (it wasn’t the best pass to be honest) and fired into an open net.

Vieira’s humiliation was complete as he received a late yellow card and because of his foul would miss the return leg in Turin. After that, Juventus seemed to lose the plot and Camoranesi and Zebina were both sent off. A 2-0 win, with 2 red cards and a yellow card to the former Arsenal captain, Arsenal had destroyed the Italian champions.

But it was more than just a win. With the win, Arsenal signaled a new era for the club, what we would later call “the Fabregas era.” There was a major shift in the way that Arsenal played football after that — or perhaps we were just more in tune with the shift after that match. The Gunners focused less on swift counter attacks, less on a big, powerful midfielder, and instead dominated possession with intricate passing, technically gifted midfielders, and constant movement.

There is so much more that can be said about the Fabregas era, much of which was well said by Les Crang in his Rogues Gallery column yesterday, and I will leave that for now. Suffice it to say that Fabregas left Arsenal (in a huff), went to Barcelona, and then orchestrated a move to Chelsea. That was three seasons ago, almost four years, and I have to wonder, has Arsene Wenger replaced Cesc Fabregas? And if he has replaced him, who is it? Will we have a repeat of Juventus 2006, where the once great Arsenal player returns and his game is completely overshadowed by his replacement?

There are many candidates for Cesc’s replacement. Cesc himself was tipped as his own replacement. During his contract talks with Chelsea, Arsenal had a chance to pay him £200k a week and buy him back from Barcelona but for myriad reasons³ Arsene rejected the player. Martin Keown claims that Ramsey is the man, though I have my doubts. Ramsey is a fantastic footballer but I don’t know if you can build a team around him as we did with Fabregas. The common consensus this summer is that Özil is that man. Özil certainly shares many of the traits that Fabregas has: he finds space, he creates time, and he is the most technically gifted player I’ve seen play the game. Özil also came with a massive price-tag and if anyone is going to be your franchise player it’s probably going to be the record signing, right?

But I don’t think Arsene has started building his team around Özil. I think Arsene is building his team around Alexis Sanchez. And I think Alexis is that franchise player.

When Alexis first came to Arsenal, you could see right away that he was different from all the other players. First, he’s a body in constant motion. You know how they set the atomic clocks to the constant vibration of atoms? Well, God sets the vibrations of atoms to the constant motion of Alexis Sanchez. Second, it’s his constant motion which has led to the development of a new style of play at Arsenal. A style of play where the team rely on hard work up front to press the opposition into errors. I remarked on this early on, possibly his first match with Arsenal; Alexis was constantly closing down space on the opposition defenders and causing problems along the way, while his teammates seemed confused by this new style of play. I said then that I hoped his teammates learned to play with Alexis and not the other way around. In other words, I hoped that they adopted his style and not that he adopted Arsenal’s stale, passing and possession, style.

In my opinion it looks like Arsenal have done just that. The Gunners beat Liverpool with a high press. They beat Man U at Old Trafford with a similar style of harassing the opposition when they have the ball. It looks to me like Arsene might have found the player he wants to build around, Alexis.

It’s telling that Wenger believes Alexis is the Premier League player of the season. Most pundits have already given that award to Chelsea star Eden Hazard but Wenger sees Alexis as a close second this year and as a winner next:-

“He should run him [Hazard] very close [this season],” Wenger said. “He has had a big impact and let’s remember, it is not the first season [in England] for Eden Hazard. For Alexis Sanchez it is his first season.

“If Alexis doesn’t make it this year, he will give him a fight for next season. He is my choice for Player of the Year, but only because he is my player.”

As much as Arsenal fans see this match as the return of Fabregas and as much as we want to see if Ramsey or Özil will outplay Fabregas the way that Cesc did to Vieira in 2006 I think this is actually a matchup between Alexis and Hazard. Chelsea isn’t built around Fabregas, his job is to get the ball to Hazard. Much the same way Arsenal isn’t build around Özil, his job is to get the ball to Alexis.

What I’m hoping for is a chance to see Alexis get one over on Hazard.

Qq

¹Juventus were stripped of their 2005 and 2006 Serie A titles as punishment for their involvement in the 2006 Italian Football match-fixing scandal known colloquially as “Calciopoli”.
²Keane once crushed a man’s kneecap for laughing to him
³The manner which he left Arsenal still stings. I wouldn’t be surprised if he lost Wenger’s trust in that deal and once you can’t trust a player, how can you build a team around him?

Fabregas-new

Rogues Gallery: Cesc Fabregas

By Les Crang, Sr. Cescarian

If some day I leave Arsenal it will never be to sign for another English team. I’m very sure….How it happened [that Fernando Torres joined Chelsea from Liverpool], in so few hours, I didn’t expect it. I didn’t imagine Torres leaving the Premiership, but neither that he would leave in the middle of the season.

20th April,2011 Daily Telegraph

How the lies fall so easily from Cesc’s mouth. In writing this, I will say first off, I will try to be fair to him and look at his career with us with an open mind. But be aware, I can write his name, but I always refer to him as ‘the Spanish player’. So, if I seen to be dismissive of his career, that’s only because of him being dismissive to us in 2011 when Barcelona finally turned his head. What a shame. He could have been a legend, but to me he joins Frank Stapleton, Robin Van Persie and Samir Nasri. A turncoat. That is why I could not put a picture up of him in Arsenal colours. Petty? Certainly.

How different it all seemed to be when he first joined us from Barcelona youth set up, the La Masia. Cesc had been seen by two of Arsenal’s scouts at the U17 world cup tournament, where he was player of the tournament, ending shared top scorer with 5 goals. They eventually lost the final to Brazil, 1-0:-

Cesc would be one of three signings that Wenger made in the close season in 2003, costing £500,000. The other two signings would be Gael Clichy from Cannes as an 18 year old and Jens Lehmann from Borussia Dortmund. An outlay of less than £3,000,000 for all three players. By the time all three had left, Arsenal would bank almost £45,000,000. But i’m getting ahead of myself.

Anyhow, Cesc would make his debut in the League Cup game against Rotherham aged 16 years and 177 days old. On learning of his debut Cesc said:-

Getting involved with the Carling Cup was a big surprise to me…Normally the coach gives the team out the day before but he didn’t do it so I thought I’d be on the bench.

Vic Akers came the day before and asked what name I wanted on my shirt, how am I called, you know, because nobody knows me. I am very shocked to be in the squad and could never imagine being part of the starting line-up.

I then found out after the game that my parents already knew I’d be involved because one of the club’s staff had called them so say, he’s going to play tomorrow so come and watch him in his first game at Highbury. They enjoyed it so much.

Cesc would play a mere two more games. The next would be against Wolves, whom Cesc would score against them in a 5-1 win:-

This would make Cesc, Arsenal’s youngest ever scorer. It would also be the first game alongside Patrick Vieira, who said of him after the game:-

He has a brilliant future. He is fantastic. He can read the game really quickly. Nobody can say he is too young. I played first-team football with Cannes when I was seventeen.

The following season of 2004/5 Cesc would start to be a regular in the team, starting 24 games and 9 appearances as a substitute. Cesc would score his first league goal against Blackburn Rovers, the game that would create a record of 43 games undefeated over taking Nottingham Forest record of 42. The fans had started singing ‘He’s only 17, he’s better than Roy Keane’ (even though he was only 16). Wenger said afterwards:-

A boy of that age can have one good game but he is consistent, it is not stupid to say that he could be in the full Spain squad. They have a lot of midfielders but they shouldn’t be scared to bring him in.

If Cesc was impressing on the pitch with his feet, he was impressing with the fans, especially after ‘game 50’ at Old Trafford:-

After the match, rumours came out Cesc had confronted Sir Alex Ferguson, throwing a slice of pizza at the ‘great man’. This was later described by Ashley Cole, who said of ‘Battle of Buffet’ or Pizzagate afterwards in his biography:-

This slice of pizza came flying over my head and hit Fergie straight in the mush … all mouths gawped to see this pizza slip off this famous, puce face and roll down his nice black suit.

In his first full season, Cesc would be part of the FA Cup winning team of 2004/5 over Manchester United, when Patrick Vieira scored the winning penalty in the penalty shoot out.

This would be Patrick Vieira last piece of action for Arsenal, before being sold to Juventus for £13,750,000, for Cesc to take over his mantle in the centre midfield.

The season of 2005/6 would certainly indicate that Cesc had taken the mantle of Paddy. This can obviously be seen in the march to the Champions League Final. Jon Spurling, wrote about Paddy’s return to Arsenal the following season with Juventus in the champions league game at Highbury. It was a match which featured Vieira, the former Arsenal midfield Genral, facing Fabregas, Arsenal’s fresh-faced midfield lieutenant:-

Robert Pires early tackle on Vieira, which set up Cesc Fabregas’s strike, but the symbolism was clear; it simply wasn’t to be Vieira’s or Juve’s night. Arsenal fan John Lowry recalls: ‘It was lovely to sit behind the North Bank goal, and just enjoy the fact that Arsenal were demolishing Juventus. The match was largely about Vieira,.’

Ironically, in the Champions League Final, with Arsenal down to 10 men, Barcelona started to see how good Cesc was when Barcelona, trying to put some ‘bite’ into the midfield had started with Mark Van Bommel, rather than the returning Iniesta. Ironically, it was not until Cesc was substituted and Iniesta came on for Barcelona that the Catalians took advantage of Arsenal being a player down to equalise and then win the game.

Over the next five years, Arsenal would get to see the best of Cesc, with him becoming a full international and appearing in the 2006 World Cup.

So where does one start with his great games? The season of 2007/8 was probably one of Cesc’s finest, with so many goals and great performances. Cesc had felt shackled by Thierry Henry whilst he was at the club saying:-

Henry intimidated us. He is a great player, but it was not easy to play alongside him.

Henry’s departure in 2007, meant Arsenal had a new team and certainly a new focal point in Cesc. Kevin Whitcher wrote ‘With Flamini and Fàbregas prepared to contest the midfield, the team actually contained a more robust spine from defence to attack’. How true.

The other day, I sat down to watch Arsenal – Season Review 2007/2008 (I’m sad like that). I forgot how many goals Cesc scored. Like The first equaliser against United at home:-

Or the equaliser against Liverpool:-

Maybe the goal away to Spurs:-

What about the goal against the European champions, AC Milan in the San Siro:-


AC Milan vs Arsenal (Classic Match 2008) by Arsenal2011Season

So many great goals in a season which he would score 13 league and cup goals. It was not to hard to see that Wenger saw him as are most important player.

Cesc would have other great games for Arsenal. Perhap my two personal favourites being two 3-0 home wins. The first against Spurs in 2009, when Cesc scored a second goal from a Spurs kick-off, after RVP had put us 1-0 up (Sky was still showing RVP’s first when Cesc scored):-

Or maybe a couple months later when Cesc, with a thigh strain, was a substitute, came on for less than an hour, and scored two goals before being substituted. The Guardian headlined the game as ‘Cesc Fábregas’s brief masterclass keeps Arsenal upwardly mobile’.

By now, Cesc had taken over the captaincy at Arsenal from William Gallas, who had gone out late one night and been caught smoking. Many felt it was Gallas disintegration at Birmingham, after the Eduardo leg break that had made Arsene consider changing his captain.

On gaining the captaincy Cesc said:-

It is a great honour for me to captain one of the biggest clubs in the world.

It is a proud moment. I know it’s a big responsibility but together with my team-mates, I know we have the spirit and commitment to get back to winning ways and fulfill our potential.

Was Wenger right in building his team around him? Was Cesc really that great? To me no and no.

On Wenger building the team around him, actually, at the time (the season of 2004/5) it was tactically not. Matthew Whitehouse in his interesting book Universality – The Blueprint for Soccer’s New Era: How Germany and Pep Guardiola Are Showing Us the Future Football Game wrote :-

Cesc Fàbregas, Mathieu Flamini, and Alexander Hleb into the side. If this was Wenger’s belief – that the Spanish type of player was the future – then he was both right and wrong. The Spanish model of development, notably being put in place by Barcelona more so than others, was already over a decade old, having been set up around 1990 by Johan Cruyff. For Arsenal to overhaul their previous French/African type of player and style was risky, dangerous, and ultimately flawed.

What Wenger needed was some strength and height in the team (like Chelsea had done with Geremi, Essien and even the short but strong Claude Makélélé). As Gilberto Silva said in an interview:-

Patrick’s departure was a huge loss. It did give Cesc [Fàbregas] the chance to break through, but I don’t think I’m being too controversial by saying that Arsenal have never replaced Patrick’s leadership since then.’

Cesc was constantly under rumor that he would return to Barcelona. This seemed a repeat of another former Captain constantly rumored to be going to Real Madrid, Patrick Vieira less than 10 years before. The incessant tapping up of Fabregas by Barcelona players, who would say things like ‘Cesc has Barca DNA’, became sickening. Then, Spain won the World Cup and on the return flight, out came the picture of Pepe Reina and Puyol putting a Barcelona shirt on Cesc. In fun and jest they said. It hardly enamoured him anymore to Arsenal and had made it abundantly clear he would only return to Barcelona if sold.

As for his greatness as a player, i’m not really that sure. Often, Cesc would have an outstanding opening four months and then just disappear for the rest of the season. Fallacy? check his goal scoring stats for 2007/8. Most of his goals were scored at the beginning of the season. Though it would be unfair to say he totally faded at the end of the season, as he won a World Cup (2010) and European (2008) for Spain. Always nice that he put that extra effort in.

I also feel Cesc’s departure from Arsenal was poorly handled. As summer 2011 approached, Cesc, Captain of Arsenal, flew off to attend the Spanish Grand Prix as his teammates fought for fourth place against Fulham, hardly “captaining” the team. His refusal to entertain moving to any other club, plus a refusal to train with and play for Arsenal in the summer, meant we lost Cesc to Barcelona for the pittance of £35,000,000.

Worse, his leaving meant the end of Wenger’s project youth and essentially dismantled an established Arsenal team. Gael Clichy had left earlier in the close season and Nasri left soon after Cesc. As Kevin Whitcher said:-

If it came to pass that three of his young stars, who were supposed to stay in north London for their most productive years summarily departed, then ‘Project Wenger’ would be dealt a fatal blow.

It certainly was a blow to Arsenal as a team bereft of their entire core lost 8-2 to Manchester United in our third game of the 2011/12 season.

But I was quite glad that Pep Guardiola finally did get Cesc at Barcelona. Their annihilation in 2011 of Manchester United in the Champions League final (before Cesc joined) was an outstanding spectacle of tiki-taka football.

Then Cesc joined. A player they did not need and could not fit into the team. They needed a new striker to replace David Villa and a centre half to replace an aging Carles Puyol really. What team drops Iniesta or Xavi for Cesc? No team and certainly not Barcelona. So what to do? Pep, in his recent book said :-

Look at my last year with Barça. We changed everything and started using a 3-4-3 system so that we could accommodate Cesc Fàbregas.

They played Cesc as a false 10 and it worked with limited effect. In fact with Messi now the main striker, in Cesc first season Messi scored 73 goals in all competitions. But with no Eto’o, Henry, Villa (often injured) or Zlatan to help with the scoring, Real Madrid won the title by 9 points. Cesc added a mere 16 goals.

By April 2014, with Pep gone and Cesc not a regular in the Barcelona team he was booed in a home game with Atletico Bilbao. This followed strong speculation during the January window that Cesc was going to join Robin van Persie at Man U. 50% of Barcelona fans wanted him sold. It seems they checked and Cesc was only 50% Catalan DNA.

Although many Arsenal fans (I was one of them – Tim) wanted him back in the summer, I was certainly not one of them. He had made his bed. He had gone to a team that didn’t need him and couldn’t use him. He was an extra in a cowboy film dressed as Robocop. He then hinted he wanted to come back to Arsenal, but in the end joined Chelsea. We had signed Mesut Ozil (a better player than Cesc in my mind), and although Chelsea look likely to win the 2014/5 title i’m not worried Cesc didn’t join us. Since the beginning of 2015 he has been anonymous until he scored against QPR recently.

Cesc certainly did give us some wonderful years and goals (see below for his 57 goals). But he also left us with a ‘fait accompli’ on his departure to Barcelona in 2011. Thankfully we replaced him with an excellent stop gap in the much maligned Mikel Arteta. And since the stadium and corporate sponsorship deals have started flowing in, Arsenal have started signing some great players in Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, David Ospina, Gabriel Paulista, Olivier Giroud, Nacho Monreal and Alexis Sanchez. Cesc, at Chelsea, seems part of a machine. No longer the central point of a team. He is Eden Hazard’s water carrier. What a waste. Thankfully, we are moving in the right direction. I also do not think I am the only one who feels this. In So Paddy Got Up, Sian Ranscombe wrote of Cesc departure to Barcelona:-

I still think Dad summed up the feeling of the sad football fan the best with this comment: “I just get annoyed when people don’t love my club as much as me.” And isn’t that exactly it? Players can come and go, but we can’t. Or won’t.

@plasticspam