Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Tuesday December 22 2009
"Don`t it always seem to go/ That you don`t know what you`ve got till it`s gone," as Joni Mitchell once tunefully remarked. 2nd place in Arsenal`s player of the noughties has no need for misty eyed recollection or hazy nostalgia, his era is very much in the here and now and, as a result, I think he is often underappreciated in the ranks of true Arsenal greats. George Orwell once said that the biggest struggle in life is seeing what`s on the end of your nose and Arsenal has a little midfield genius currently riding on the rim of its spectacles. Quite simply, Francesc Fabregas Soler might well be the most complete midfield player in Europe right now. He is the Arsenal captain and current top scorer, the lynchpin of all that is good about Arsenal, possessed of one of the most far ranging passing radars in the world game, his execution unerring, his lascivious appetite for responsibility ever increasing, a rare mixture of youth and experience given that he has been a first team regular since the age of 17, he also has snarl and bite in the tackle and despises losing. Arsene Wenger remarked recently that "there is no room for good losers at Arsenal" in which case, it is easy to see why he made the Catalonian captain.
But for a slight rumble in a European courtroom, the September 2003 signing of Cesc Fabregas would have barely represented a footnote in the Arsenal match day programme. Fabregas was born and bred into the Barcelona youth academy, he came to attention in the summer 2003 U-17 World Championships in Finland. Fabregas won Player of the Tournament as well as the Golden Boot for the tournament. Wenger did not hesitate to take advantage of loopholes in Spanish contract law to snafoo him on a free transfer. Barca were hardly in jovial mood at having had one of their most promising sons cradle snatched from them and brought the issue to tribunal. Arsenal eventually had to pay out £500,000 compensation and even threw in Giovanni van Bronckhorst on a free as a goodwill gesture. As swap deals go, that might well be the most lopsided in history. A bit like wresting Milla Jovovich`s hand away at the altar and leaving the newly jilted husband with a St. Bernard and a subscription to Razzle. Fabregas spent his first season in England as a sixteen year old learning his trade with the Arsenal reserves, as well as training with the likes of Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira. He did have time to break a couple of records, becoming Arsenal`s youngest ever player on his debut in a Carling Cup game at home to Rotherham, aged just 16 years and 177 days. He did not look out of place and even managed to become Arsenal`s youngest ever goal scorer in the next round at home to Wolves. But Fabregas spent much of the first year in the Reserves (which still put him a few years ahead of his peers) looking on as Arsenal sauntered to the title unbeaten, he was also very rigorous in learning English, spending a few hours every day studying.
It was the summer of 2004 in which Fabregas was suddenly a name that was tripping of the tongues and typewriters of the game`s patrons. (Upon scoring his first goal for the club in October 2003, the commentator erroneously referred to him as 'Fabrice Fabregas.`) With an injury to Patrick Vieira, the sale of Ray Parlour and Edu`s late return from the Copa America, Fabregas was given the number 15 shirt and a space in the team presented itself, alongside the unflappable Gilberto Silva. Every Arsenal fan can pinpoint the moment when the 17 year old Spaniard really arrived on the scene. In the 2004 Charity Shield match with Manchester United, Fabregas was pitted against Premiership midfield behemoths Paul Scholes and Roy Keane. He consummately outperformed both with an assured display far in advance of his years. The occasion gave birth one of Arsenal`s more pointed serenades, "He`s only 17/ He`s better than Roy Keane." So the next week at Goodison, Fabregas was handed another start in our opening league encounter. Our mulleted magician proved that his one man show in Cardiff had been no case of beginner`s luck. This time he was up against the might and muscle of Gravesen and Carsley, who tried to ensure an uncompromising introduction to Premiership football. Frankly, they couldn`t get close enough to him to kick him, after the final whistle, Fabregas was voted Man of the Match but was too young to legally collect the magnum of commemorative champagne for himself.
Fabregas went on to procure a few more personal records, becoming Arsenal`s youngest ever league goal scorer by notching a tap in against Blackburn Rovers in August- a game that saw Arsenal break the record for consecutive league matches undefeated. In December, he notched against Rosenborg to become Arsenal`s youngest ever goal scorer in European competition and the second youngest scorer ever in Europe`s elite tournament. Fabregas continued to perform with distinction throughout the entire season, nudging ahead of Edu in the midfield pecking order. With the Brazilian`s contract ebbing away, his decision to leave was made for him by the precocious young Fabregas. Cesc celebrated his 18th birthday with a clinching goal in a home fixture with Liverpool and finished the season with an F.A. Cup Winners medal, starting in the final against Manchester United. Fabregas` maiden season ended with 46 appearances, three goals and four assists. What was remarkable was how comfortable Cesc looked in league with the likes of Bergkamp, Henry and Vieira, matching their authority on the pitch in spite of his vacuum of experience. His passing was always made to measure. Dennis Bergkamp commented that a class player was immediately recognisable as he always finds time and space on the ball, a trait Fabregas displayed from appearance number one.
Wenger subsequently confessed he had only intended to use Fabregas for around 10 or 15 matches in the 2004-05 season, but felt the Spaniard had already shown that he was ready to undertake a more prominent role. He was about to thrust more responsibility on slender young shoulders. When Juventus came knocking for Patrick Vieira in June 2005, Wenger did not scurry to keep his captain from the door. Speculation raged as to who Wenger would purchase to replace his talismanic captain, who had produced a very indifferent campaign of performances. Arsene left the mischief makers to compile their own list of desirables, in Fabregas, he felt he already had an organic solution. Fabregas was unfazed by the responsibility as he became the pivot of Arsenal`s midfield and an automatic starter with Edu also despatched in the summer of 2005. Initially there were some doubts as, shorn of the physical presence of Vieira in midfield, the Gunners began to struggle physically away from home and the veneer of invincibility was beginning to slip. However, despite an indifferent start to the season, Arsenal scraped into the top four at the expense of neighbours Spurs who, quite literally, soiled themselves on the last day of the season. (Will recanting that ever, ever get boring?)
Fabregas was cut from a different cloth to Vieira and he really began to assert his personality onto the team in European competition- something Vieira always struggled to do. In Arsenal`s run to the 2005-06 Champions League Final, Fabregas was instrumental. Again, the young Spaniard did not just want to prove he belonged in stadiums such as the Bernabeu pitting his wits against the likes of Zidane, Guti and Robinho, but that he could outstrip such competition as he did so delightfully in Arsenal`s historic win in the Bernabeu. He repeated the trick in the titanic tussle in the second leg at Highbury and, as a result, was called into the Spanish squad for the first time. But if Fabregas` delightful shoeing of Messrs Scholes and Keane in 2004 had been the first watershed of his Arsenal career, the second arrived in March 2006 when Patrick Vieira`s Juventus came to Highbury- it was a case of the sorcerer versus the apprentice. Fabregas scored the first and made the second as Arsenal ran out 2-0 winners, Vieira looked lame of legs and befuddled of brain as his young deputy out marshalled him with his movement and passing. Vieira simply could not get close enough to him all evening to rough him up. Wenger had been vindicated, not only in his decision to promote Fabregas but to sell Vieira, who was clearly no longer up to the pace of the English Premiership. Cesc started the 2006 Final against his boyhood club Barcelona but finished on the losing side. After the game, Cesc commented, "It is true I grew up as a Barcelona fan, but right now, I don`t like them very much" when asked by a reporter if he took some solace from seeing "his team" lift the trophy.
That summer Cesc went to the World Cup with Spain, aged just 19. When he came back his dismantling of an Arsenal legend in Vieira saw him reach another symbolic landmark when he was presented with the number four shirt. However, in 2006-07, there was still one Arsenal legend whose shadow Cesc would have to shuffle out of. Having stopped just short of begging Thierry Henry to renew his contract in the summer of 2006, Arsenal were in a situation where their star player had too much power and had been allowed to become bigger than the team. Arsenal spent much of the early 2006-07 season shifting between 4-42- a formation designed to fit Henry- and 4-5-1 a formation built around Cesc Fabregas- the extra reinforcement in midfield needed to suit his developing frame. It was a neat juxtaposition, Fabregas` star was rising but the biggest tree in the forest was blocking his sunlight. Henry endured an injury hit season and in his long absences, Fabregas was feeling his way into becoming the team`s quarter back. A young Arsenal side reached the Carling Cup Final, with Fabregas at the fulcrum of the engine room in what would be one of the club`s more creditable Cup Final defeats. Cesc began to show that he would no longer have his physicality questioned and that he was not prepared to be bullied any longer. Scuffles with Teddy Sheringham, Tim Cahill and Frank Lampard as well as a touchline altercation with Mark Hughes during the season pointing to a young man who was no longer prepared to be intimidated by more seasoned professionals. One of the most distinguishing features of Cesc`s Arsenal career is that every year, he identifies a weakness from the previous campaign and embellishes and improves upon it. Fabregas started every single league game in 2006-07 and was nominated for both the PFA Young Player of the Year and the PFA Player of the Year, he was voted Arsenal`s Player of the Season outright with 60% of the votes and was the league`s second highest goal provider with 13 assists.
However, the young Fabregas identified a frustrating weakness. During the 2006-07 season, Fabregas went six months without scoring between October 2006 to April 2007 (he promptly scored for two games in a row in April 2007). Cesc sought counsel from his manager, who reminded him of his goal scoring feats at Youth Level- often he would score in excess of 20 goals a season from midfield at Youth Level. Wenger encouraged his young upstart to shoot more often and make more forward runs into the box- trusting the ball retention skills of his midfield partners Hleb and Rosicky, whilst also using Flamini as a tough tackling buffer. With Henry now sold, the stage was set for Fabregas to really take the team by the scruff of its neck and make it his own. The Gunners began the season with verve and swagger, topping the table with Fabregas notching eleven goals before December. The goal scoring weakness had been well and truly rectified, with Cesc scoring a number of long range goals. In Alex Hleb, he had somebody with whom he could entrust the ball and move up-field into the penalty area. (Witness the equaliser at Anfield in October 2007). Fabregas continued to be the main source of goals in terms of assists. Fabregas is a player that recognises and plays to his team mates` strengths. Whilst Cesc was injured for four months in 2008-09, even Mr. "The Big I Am" Emmanuel Adebayor was forced to sheepishly admit that the reduction in his goal scoring form had been due in no small part to the quality of pass he could expect to receive from Fabregas on a regular basis. (Interestingly, Adebayor had neglected to credit Cesc during the summer of 2008, when apparently he was the new Thierry Henry and deserved a contract to replicate that). Fabregas had not only the ability to find so many passes for Adebayor- a striker who liked to play on the shoulder of the last defender (or, as was often the case, three yards beyond the last defender) - but also the intelligence to play the ball at a height and weight that meant Adebayor could use his physical prowess without having to leap into the air and flick it onto nobody.
Arsenal looked destined for the title in 2007-08 with Cesc at the hub of our success until a well documented collapse in March. Fabregas was still responsible however for possibly Arsenal`s greatest night of the season, when the Spaniard led Milan veterans Andrea Pirlo, Genaro Gattuso and Kaka a merry dance in the San Siro- capping a fine virtuoso performance with a thirty yard striker to win Arsenal the tie. This goal sat alongside those registered against Manchester United and Liverpool at Anfield, as well as a wonder goal at White Hart Lane. Cesc was announcing himself as a player for the big occasion. Though Arsenal finished the season empty handed, Fabregas gathered a number of personal decorations, winning Arsenal.com`s Player of the Month for August, September, October and March, winning the PFA Young Player of the Year as well as being nominated for the PFA Player of the Year. He was voted Arsenal.com`s player of the season for the second consecutive season. Cesc made 44 appearances scoring 13 goals and 22 assists. That summer, he went onto to become an integral member of the Spanish side that was victorious in Euro 2008- starting in the Final to boot.
Having set standards so astronomically high during the 2007-08 season, Cesc was always going to have to go some way to match it in 2008-09. In truth, he couldn`t. An injury in December saw him sidelined for four months, disrupting his accelerating progress. Fabregas also found himself at the hub of a midfield that was undergoing transformation. With Flamini and Hleb shuffling off their Arsenal coil in the summer of 2008 and Tomas Rosicky apparently shuffling off his mortal coil for the whole season, the permutations of the midfield to which Cesc was party to shifted constantly. Fabregas began the season fatigued and carrying a knee injury, with Denilson or Song as a defensive partner, but finished the season as a second striker. However, there was still fruit to bear in his campaign, following some acrimonious comments to the press in November 2008, William Gallas was stripped of the captaincy and Cesc was awarded the armband on a permanent basis. It was a symptom of his rising stock and confirmation that the young team belonged to him on the pitch. The January signing of Andrey Arshavin was also incremental to Cesc on the pitch, for too much of the season the creative burden relied exclusively on him. Whilst out injured, Arsenal developed a new skin and tightened up defensively, contributing to a 21 match unbeaten run in which we began to look slightly more George Graham than Arsene Wenger, conceding few but scoring few without Fabregas at the heartbeat. Arsenal were consequently on something of a pacemaker until Arshavin arrived and he and Fabregas have struck up a rich partnership ever since, recognising the quality in one another. A testament to their symbiosis would be just how often a Fabregas goal is punctuated with an Arshavin assist and vice versa. As I have mentioned, Fabregas has always been quick to recognise the qualities of his team mates and has used Arshavin as a creative sounding board, easing the burden on himself in the Arsenal side.
This season, he has been liberated in the 4-3-3 formation, with Denilson and Song playing good cop bad cop behind him, Fabregas has again had license to get forward from deep and dictate the play in the centre of the pitch. At time of writing Fabregas has eleven goals and fifteen assists in 21 appearances this season and is the club`s top scorer. Take a second to absorb those statistics; he has been responsible, directly or indirectly, for 26 of our goals in 21 games. An absolutely unstoppably dangerous weapon to have in our Arsenal. Particular highlights this season have been his virtuoso display in the 6-2 mauling of Blackburn, in which he scored twice and made the other four. Most indicative of his quality for me would be his beautiful defence splitting pass for van Persie`s winner at Craven Cottage. The fact was, Cesc wasn`t having the greatest game as Fulham`s midfield crowded him out. He found one yard for one second in the entire match and it was enough to win us the match. There simply aren`t many players in the world that have that quality and utilise so consistently. Fabregas appears to have blossomed into an amalgamation of the previous generation`s best midfielders. The man himself claims Pep Guardiola as his greatest influence, but he strikes me as a hybrid between Guardiola and Scholes- a devastating concoction indeed. Fabregas is the very definition of a soccer quarter back and at 22; he is still yet to fully develop mentally or physically. Let`s hope Arsenal can keep him from his homeland long enough to fully reap the benefits. I think the next stage in his development is to harness his iron will to win and his steely competitiveness and to radiate it towards his team mates. Given Cesc`s appetite for improvement, I wouldn`t bet against him becoming one of the club`s truly great captains as well as one if its truly great players.LD.
Don`t forget, the poll to vote for your player of the Noughties is on the bottom right of the page.
Date:Tuesday December 22 2009
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