Any Arsenal supporter who came out hard for the signing of Cesc Fàbregas this summer is probably glowing with smugness and vindication. Perhaps buried beneath several layers of indignant fury, depression and dread, but smug and vindicated nonetheless. As Arsenal struggles with its familiar problems, Fàbregas has started the season in stunning form for Chelsea, becoming the main creative outlet for a team looking as ominously dominant as the first time José Mourinho moved to London.
It wasn’t such a clear case at the time, however. Fàbregas had been fairly disappointing for Barcelona – he had the raw numbers of assists and goals, but the people emotionally invested in the team, who watch them every week, never rated them. They remembered how many of those assists and goals were the fifth in 5-1 home wins over Levante, and remembered his anonymous performances in Europe and in the biggest games. His struggles proved that no matter how good you are, when you move from Arsenal to Barcelona, you really need to step up (a lesson that really ought to have been learned by all parties after Aliaksandr Hleb, Alex Song, and so forth.)
Arsène Wenger’s decision might also have been viewed as a question of rationality. Arsenal was, well, in the same position it’s been in for years. The team’s prospects were defended in a similar fashion to how Theo Walcott once was, at his worst – potentially brilliant, once he learns to shoot, pass, cross, create, move off the ball and make the right decisions. Arsenal, too, was very close to being a great – the team just needed a solid defensive midfielder, some defensive cover, a top-class goalkeeper and a reliable, all-round, goalscorer up front. Fàbregas was hardly a priority, and it’s unlikely Arsenal fans would have pushed for a move for their former captain without the emotional connection. Everything Fabregas could theoretically bring was the job of Mesut Ozil, and although he’d underperformed, it was far too early to give up on him.
The rationality argument fails to hold water, however. Arsenal did need steel in midfield, defensive cover, and improvements in goal and up front. But the club’s big signing instead of Fàbregas wasn’t any of those things. It was Alexis Sánchez, who like Ozil, appears to be a player who can play well at times but does little to make the team more than the sum of its parts.
It perhaps reinforces the idea that Fabregas should have been signed instead of Ozil – a case of timing just not working out. Perhaps most damning, Ozil has been defended on the basis of those around him — Giroud’s poor finishing, Walcott not making the right runs, or whatever — when the whole purpose of his signing was to improve his teammates. In that sense, Ozil has not succeeded, whereas it would be perfectly reasonable to question whether Diego Costa would have had such a great start had Fàbregas not also done so.
Maybe Arsenal is defending its choice on the wrong lines. The team did have problems of playing in front of its opponents too much – failing to be decisive in the final third. Mesut Ozil would surely add the creativity require– Nope. Well, perhaps give him a world-class player with pace to pass to, like Alexis Sanch– Nah. Fine, replace Giroud with someone with pace and workra– No. That hasn’t worked, either. As Spurs showed, even a poor team is still able to keep Arsenal at bay.
Instead of seeing Arsenal through the lens of Fàbregas (or, Walcott), the team should probably be compared to its goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczesny, or Danny Welbeck. Yes, we know there’s something brilliant there, and we know its very close to something extraordinary. The problem is something’s either holding it back or missing, and nobody has a clue what it is, how you could train it, or where you might buy it.
It’s partly a curse, partly a blessing, but perhaps there’s something to be said for Arsène Wenger still doing things his way. He gave in to romanticism, but only his own personal brand of it. As long as he remains in charge, for good and for ill, Arsenal remains resolutely Arsenal.