Cesc, Barcelona, and Arsenal

Although it has not happened at the time of this post’s publication, all signs point to Cesc Fabregas leaving Arsenal for Barcelona within the next week.  We’ve heard this before, but this time it feels like the seemingly decades-long saga is finally ending.  It is no surprise why FC Barcelona and the Barcelona fans want the Once and Future Cesc; he is Catalan, he is a Barcelona fan, he was brought through La Masia, and he is a part of the fabled class of 1987, the same class that produced Gerard Pique and a little Argentinian of some talent.  Unlike Pique and Messi though, the desire for Fabregas is more about the future than the present, namely he is hoped to be the replacement for Xavi, who is coming to the end of his career.  Right now, Barcelona has a packed midfield with Sergio Busquets, Xavi, and Andres Iniesta.  Despite the fact that he is a star in England, Fabregas will have trouble breaking into the Barcelona starting XI, just as he is not a starter for Spain while Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets are.  (Fabregas is a better overall player than Busquets, but Busquets is one of the best defensive midfielders in the world, an absolutely necessary position in the Barcelona system.)  But that is not the point.  As Xavi’s heir apparent, the next season will be dedicated to making the Fabregas/Iniesta partnership as potent as the Xavi/Iniesta one.  It is also a way of consolidating Barcelona’s midfield domination for at least the next seven to ten years.  Fabregas will take over from Xavi, and eventually Thiago Alcântara will take over from Iniesta.  The next several years will be devoted to perfecting the Fabregas/Thiago partnership.

The real story in this is about Arsenal.  Fabregas is the captain of the club, he has been around for years, and at 24, he is one of the senior players on the team.  He is also one of the best, if not the best, players on the team.  The current squad has largely been built around Cesc Fabregas, the centerpiece of Arsene Wenger’s grand vision.

It’s a vision that has been crumbling apart.  Once Wenger was unquestionable, the man who managed The Invincibles and brought Arsenal to its (thus far only) Champions League final.  However Arsenal has not won a trophy in six years and that trophy drought looks unlikely to end in Year Seven.  Although Arsenal fans are loath to admit it, the blame falls squarely on Wenger.  The club that he built up he has also dismantled.  It is because of his stubbornness, his stinginess with money, most importantly, his reluctance to admit his mistakes.  Any other manager in his position, great or no, would have tried to get a new goalkeeper, better defenders, and players with experience rather than acquiring more untested young players (Gervinho may yet be a good signing, but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is a head scratcher for a club that fancies itself as a contender in the here and now.)

Attracting first-rate players to Arsenal, a top club led by a respected manager in one of the world’s most exciting cities, should not be a problem.  Instead Arsenal have been written off before the season has begun precisely because of a dearth of such talent.  Arsenal play an aesthetically pleasing (at times) brand of football, but one without the killer instinct that makes Barcelona so deadly.  Barcelona meanwhile are both Arsenal’s pole star and bête noire.  On one hand, Arsenal fancies itself as an English Barcelona with a shared philosophy of how the game should be played.  Fabregas, a product of Barcelona’s system, was integral to that.  On the other hand, the Fabregas transfer saga aside, Barcelona eliminated Arsenal from the Champions League three times in the last six years.  The matches have ranged from the painful (Barcelona’s 2-1 victory in the 2006 Champions League final) to the controversial (Barcelona’s 3-1 victory at the Camp Nou this year) to the downright humiliating (Barcelona’s 4-1 demolition of the Gunners in which Messi scored all four goals.)

For all his abilities, Wenger does not seem to understand what makes Barcelona so great; he understands the velvet but misses the steel.  Therefore when Arsenal lose, Wenger finds excuses to mask his failings–usually blaming the other side for rough play.  I am no fan of fouling, but the Premier League is what it is, an intensely physical league born out of the direct English style.  Arsenal are not moving to Spain or Holland, and the EPL is not going to turn into La Liga just because Arsenal get roughed up by Stoke City.  The fans like the EPL as it is.  Besides, Arsenal are no shrinking violets, although if you only listen to the whining of Wenger and his players you would be forgiven for thinking Arsenal are merely victims of thug clubs.

The Fabregas affair is a sign of how far Arsenal have fallen, and yet completely contradictorily it shows nothing of the sort.  At the very core of this transfer is a simple truth, Fabregas always wanted to go back to Barcelona.  He left because he saw Xavi and Iniesta standing in his way to the Blaugrana starting XI.  Now a path has opened up, and it is time for him to go home.  This is nothing to do with Arsenal and everything to do with Fabregas and Barcelona.

Yet, if the core of the transfer says nothing about Arsenal, the surrounding elements are damning.  Unspoken by Fabregas is that he also wants to leave because he wants silverware, and that ambition is not matched by his club.  Despite the bravado, Arsenal have been bullied by Barcelona into selling Fabregas, and most likely for less than the desired price.  (Prices are a tricky matter.  They have been highly inflated in the EPL in large part because the rich clubs inflate the market with irresponsible spending, all the more so for unproven or unworthy homegrown talent.)  I do not defend Barcelona’s behavior during these negotiations, it has frequently been tone-deaf and tacky.  But there is fault all around for this years-long debacle.  It is not, as the English media would have it, Poor Defenseless Arsenal cowed by Big Bad Barcelona

Even more than the Fabregas transfer though, the real sign that Arsenal’s decline in prestige is that Samir Nasri wants to leave for Manchester City.  City have been fascinating to watch these past few years, as the powers-that-be have finally started to create an actual team rather than a collection of highly paid players.  Once shorthand for the eternal losers (especially in comparison with Manchester United), the Ferguson-dubbed “noisy neighbors” made a real statement of intent this summer with their signings, especially Sergio Agüero.  City are blessed with a nearly limitless checkbook and a worldwide fan base that will only grow.  City have one goal this year, toppling United from its perch.  City want the EPL title, and they want it at United’s expense.  The rest of the league is merely a formality.

Nasri’s imminent departure to the Eastlands is the real sign that Arsenal are losing its grip at the top of the EPL  Nasri, like Fabregas, is one of Arsenal’s best players.  Unlike Fabregas and Barcelona, Nasri has no connection to his future club.  Unlike the city of Barcelona (or London), Manchester is not a particularly interesting place to live.  In other words, there is nothing to attract Nasri to City save for money and ambition, both of which City have in spades.  Nasri wants out because he no longer believes Arsenal are winning club.  That is as damning an indictment as any that Wenger’s project has failed.

There was a Big Four in the EPL: United (usually the winners), Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool.  Liverpool fell out of that Big Four first and is trying to claw its way back in.  Tottenham and City competed to fill the void switching off between 4th and 5th in the last two seasons.  The Big Four is now a Big Six, although that Big Six is really a Big Three (United, Chelsea, City) and Lesser Three (Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool).  Without Nasri and without Fabregas, Arsenal have written themselves out of title contention.  This coming season, the goal will be to fight off Tottenham and Liverpool just to qualify for the Champions League, something Arsenal barely did a few months ago.  If Arsenal cannot offer Champions League football, the fallout for the club will be devastating.

This is not Barcelona’s fault; it is Arsenal’s.  Arsenal has had a great run since Wenger took over, but a lack of ambition and pragmatism are dooming the club with a slow decline toward mediocrity.  Arsenal may no longer be Boring, Boring Arsenal, but that is no good if the wins don’t come.  Ask Blackpool.

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