Cesc Fabregas is an Arsenal player no more. After 303 games, he has returned to Barcelona. I would no sooner tell you how to react to a break-up with your spouse than tell you how to react to this transfer saga. So if your coping mechanism is to hate Cesc forever, then you won’t hear any complaints from me. Conversely, if you choose to remember him fondly, I find that perfectly understandable.
But let’s face facts for a moment. Sitting around debating whether he’s a legend or whether he should be vilified is a pointless exercise. In case anyone noticed there’s a football season underway and all that really matters now is how this transfer impacts us on the pitch. And as far as I’m concerned, we’ve just lost one of the best players in the world.
A lot of people have been discussing their favorite Fabregas moments over the past few days. There are certainly plenty to choose from and each one is a reminder of the quality he brought to the team. There’s the goal against AC Milan, the solo effort against Sp*rs and the broken-leg penalty kick against his new side. For me, there’s another appearance in particular that sums up just what Cesc meant to Arsenal.
On December 27, 2009, Aston Villa visited the Emirates. They were upstarts with top-four aspirations and entered the match level on points with us. Cesc Fabregas was only fit enough for the bench and through 56 minutes of the match we never looked likely to find a winning goal. It was a mostly stale performance devoid of real cutting edge from the home side. Then Cesc entered the game.
He lit up the stadium from the moment he stepped on the pitch and Villa had no answer for his creativity. We started creating scoring chances immediately and dominated the game from that point. Cesc scored a brace before leaving after 84 minutes with an aggravation of his injury. After the match, Arsene admitted it was a risk to play the captain but he felt that he had no choice.
Fabregas played only 26 minutes that day, but that was more than Aston Villa could handle. His introduction improved the performance of every Arsenal player and changed the entire dynamic of our attack. He gave everything he had to the cause, despite carrying an injury, and lifted the team to victory. That’s what Cesc was all about as a Gunner. Transcendent talent, responsibility on the pitch, and the creativity to improve everyone’s game.
I realize that it’s difficult to praise a player that has just spurned us. It’s important to rally around the players that we still have and give them our fullest support. But it’s also important to be realistic. Let’s drop the act for a moment. We don’t have another Cesc Fabregas in the side. Aaron Ramsey is a wonderful player and will only improve, but he’s not Cesc. Neither is Jack. Neither is Rosicky, or Song, or Frimpong, or Arshavin, or any other player you want to name. And Nasri isn’t in Cesc’s class whatsoever, despite the fact that he may soon be on a much higher wage than the Spaniard. Losing Cesc makes us a weaker side.
Lately a lot of Gooners have pointed out that when a big player leaves a club it often has the effect of raising everyone else’s level. Players step up and take responsibility that they might otherwise have left to the departing super-star. But I don’t think that applies in this case. For one thing, Cesc is still improving. This is not a situation like it was with Thierry where his career was beginning its decline. And unlike a striker or a winger who often does his best work through selfishness, Cesc’s best qualities were on display when he was providing for his teammates.
It’s an overused statistic at this point, but Cesc created more goal scoring chances than any other player in the top European leagues over the last six seasons. Cesc played vastly more key passes than any other player at Arsenal and often played more than 100 passes in a match. He was not a player that diminished the contributions of his teammates. Quite the contrary, he gave them the opportunity to excel. Arsenal’s winning percentage when Cesc was in the team was always better than when he was out. So while I would love to believe that every Arsenal player will be enhanced by his move to Barcelona, the facts don’t seem to support that conclusion.
Arsenal didn’t get close to the transfer fee that should’ve been paid for Cesc Fabregas. But the fact remains that we are now at least 29 million Euros richer, and have two weeks before the transfer window closes to go shopping. Arsene Wenger must reinvest the proceeds from the sale immediately. He has to buy at least one creative player to replace Cesc. More realistically, since few players in the world are at Cesc’s level, and it’s almost unthinkable that we would invest 29 million Euroes in a single signing, it would behoove Arsene to buy more than one player.
Although I have questioned some of the decision making at Arsenal this summer, I refuse to accept that the club is run by half-wits. Wenger might not have wanted to believe Cesc was off, but he must have acknowledged the possibility. As such, I expect that he has already identified transfer targets he would pursue in the even that Cesc was sold. Now that Cesc is gone, I would hope we can bring those players in relatively quickly. We certainly took our time concluding the Fabregas business, so there’s no excuse for being unable to expeditiously acquire reinforcements.
We already knew that the start of the season would be a stern test with Cesc and Nasri unlikely to feature. Now we face the grim prospect of playing Liverpool, United and Swansea without Song and Gervinho who will likely be handed 3 match bans. As things currently stand, that means we can expect to see plenty of Emmanuel Frimpong in these key fixtures, as well as potentially relying on youngsters like Oxlade-Chamberlain or Ryo Miyachi.
With no disrespect intended to any of the players I named, it’s unfair to expect them to be ready for that challenge. And with no timetable set for Jack Wilshere’s return from injury, that means our already thin midfield will be stretched even further. It adds additional urgency to Arsene’s transfer business. He simply cannot afford to rely on what he has within the team at this point. And Saturday’s performance at Newcastle confirms that conclusion.
There are two ways to look at Saturday’s draw at St. James’ Park. Taken purely in the context of the new Premier League season, it’s far from calamity. It’s simply an away draw at a difficult ground. Chelsea failed to win at Stoke. Liverpool failed to win at home versus Sunderland. While United managed an unsurprising but somewhat fortuitous three points at WBA. None of our rivals sparkled on opening weekend although Manchester City has yet to play. In that respect, taking a point from our travels was certainly an acceptable result.
But when you view the Newcastle match in the larger scheme of things, you can take a somewhat bleaker view. The new-look midfield of Ramsey, Rosicky and Song lacked a cutting-edge. The front three weren’t getting the service they needed, and at times there was simply no one coming back to pick up the ball from the defense. Jack Wilshere’s absence certainly played a big role in that impotency, but we will have plenty of matches this season where we don’t have our first choice midfielders. At the moment there’s a decided lack of depth in the creative positions.
Theo Walcott came on from the bench after an hour, but rather than taking off Ramsey or Rosicky and moving Arshavin into midfield, it was the Russian who left the match. Arsenal were clearly crying out for new ideas in the middle of the park, but the simple fact is that there wasn’t a single alternative on the bench. Wenger had Theo, Djourou, Jenkinson, Frimpong, Chamakh and Oxlade-Chamberlain to choose from. Not one creative midfielder among them, and really only one senior squad member that you’d expect to add something to the game at this point in his career.
It was clear what we needed but we simply didn’t have it available. For me, our lack of midfield options was a glaring reminder that you can’t sell Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri in the same summer, not buy a replacement, and expect anything other than diminishing returns. I’m not suggesting for one moment that replacements won’t be bought. I’m merely pointing out that we had the worst of both worlds on Saturday. Nasri and Cesc weren’t playing, but no replacements had yet arrived. Just imagine if we already had replacements for Cesc and Nasri and they were named in the squad. Would the game have been different if they were in the starting XI with Arshavin and Rosicky on the bench rather than Oxlade-Chamberlain and Frimpong? It’s hard not to think so.
We also got our first look at our biggest signing of the summer in competitive action. Gervinho’s build-up play was magnificent at times. But his inability to pick a final ball was reminiscent of Theo Walcott’s least effective moments at Arsenal. Naturally it was only one game, but he will now miss three league matches thanks to his red card. That’s three important chances to acclimate. And while I’m understanding of his reaction to Joey Barton’s thuggery, we are a club that desperately needs to show more composure than we saw last season. This incident was merely more of the same. It was hardly different from Diaby’s sending off in February. Alex Song also allowed himself to be baited into a moment of indiscipline and now we look certain to be without him for three matches as well.
But the game was far from dire. We had plenty of chances to create goal-scoring opportunities that went begging. Arshavin missed an easy pass to Gervinho with only one man to beat. Djourou had two options on a counter attack that would’ve sent RVP or Theo in on goal. Van Persie’s first touch in the penalty area let him down repeatedly, and I’ve already mentioned Gervinho’s failure to pick a final ball after frequently getting past defenders.
It’s also very important that we praise the defending from Arsenal. Thomas Vermaelen’s return was a welcome sight and his partnership with the excellent Laurent Koscielny looked solid despite facing few Newcastle attacks. We were comfortable defending set-pieces throughout the match and Szczesny looked very assured when called upon. Perhaps the most important performance came from Gibbs who hardly put a foot wrong after a summer spent worrying that he wasn’t ready to be our first choice left-back.
If anything, my conclusion from Saturday’s match is that Arsene Wenger has been right all along in his assessment of what this team needs. He has repeatedly suggested that we are an attacking side and we need more attacking options. I would argue that we might be able to survive with the defenders we already have in the squad. While I’d like another defender to arrive, I can see a scenario where we succeed without one. Conversely, I cannot imagine Arsenal competing for a title without adding depth in midfield and at striker. If Arsene were to go out and buy a quality creative player and a top class striker now, without signing a defender, I think I would probably consider that sufficient.
Once again Arsenal can complain that the referee got a critical decision wrong. It’s hard to suggest Gervinho shouldn’t have been sent off, but there’s no question that Barton should have gone as well. He’s a player who’s always on the brink of losing control or injuring an opponent. Anyone who suggests he adds grit and determination to a match needs to remember that those qualities can be provided without violent behavior.
Pardew’s mealymouthed defense of Barton after the match was difficult to endure. But it made pleasant listening compared to the player’s inane ranting on twitter. You have to laugh at a self-professed “hard man” falling to the ground in a heap from having his face touched. And, I fail to understand how the appropriate response to being incensed about diving is to dive.
What’s worse, is that Gervinho did not dive. I’m not convinced he deserved a penalty, but I am certain there was contact. Something that Barton has since acknowledged while pandering to Match of the Day. But it’s a bit hypocritical to debate the outcome of the scuffle when Song should’ve been sent off for his earlier stamp. Ultimately these incidents could have far more impact on our season than the result of the match itself.
As the match wore on, you could clearly hear lusty renditions of last season’s “spend some f**king money” chant sung by the away fans. Naturally this has sparked a debate about how to support the club. It’s no secret that growing segments of Arsenal’s fan-base feel betrayed by the board and let down by the manager. The summer business has not lived up to expectations or, indeed, to promises. That’s only served to increase the frustration that seemed ready to boil over at the end of last season.
I questioned the chant on twitter, by suggesting that it wasn’t the appropriate time to deliver that message. But @arse2mouse astutely pointed out that there really is no other time. The easiest way for the fans to make the manager aware of their feelings is to express them during a match. If not then, when? After all, that chant won’t do much good after the transfer window closes.
I would merely question the timing in this case. Late in the game, down a man, and battling for all three points at a hostile ground, I can’t help but feel it might not have been in our best interest. What I must acknowledge is that the away supporters are undoubtedly among the most loyal, dedicated, and vocal fans at the club. If that’s how they want to express their frustration, while I might disagree with the timing, I refuse to condemn the behavior.
It is worth pointing out that Arsene has spent money this summer. Not every fan will agree with how he’s spent it, but that doesn’t change the fact that he has dipped into the transfer budget. In order to spend the big money, he needs to cash in on Cesc and Nasri first. And when the match kicked-off on Saturday, neither had been sold. So the supporters’ demands that he “spend some f**king money” will now be properly tested following the sale of Fabregas.
Let’s face it, no manager can survive when the fans support for him lives and dies with every result. Once you reach that point the situation is usually untenable. If we are going to see a vocal outpouring of fan disdain 70 minutes into every unsatisfactory performance, then I’d suggest we are heading for an even more difficult campaign than we already anticipated. Unless we want to live in a state of constant upheaval, we are going to have to get behind the team and the manager no matter the infuriation we may feel at how the club’s being run at the moment.
Today we usher in a new era at Arsenal. The captain is dead, long live the captain. Robin van Persie is now our skipper as the team moves on without Cesc Fabregas. No one at Arsenal knew Cesc better or loved him more than his manager. So no one should have a deeper understanding of just how much quality we lost. It’s now up to Arsene Wenger to figure out how to replace him.
In the mean time, we have just 24 hours until we face Udinese in the first leg of our Champions League playoff. It will also be our first home game of the season. And if the fans can create an atmosphere like the one against Barcelona last season, it could be enough to carry the players to victory. For the sake of Arsenal Football Club, I genuinely hope that’s what happens.