28 October 2021

18 years ago today, Cesc Fàbregas made his Arsenal debut!

When Cesc Fàbregas made his Arsenal debut, there were clear signs of the effervescent, scintillating talent he had and the amazing player he would soon become. Aged just 16 years, 177 days, he became the youngest player to ever start for Arsenal, doing so in a League Cup tie against Rotherham United (which we won on penalties, 9-8, after finishing in a 1-1 draw. As the years went on, Fàbregas would go on to thrill and amaze Gooners with his passing, play, and leadership. It seemed inevitable that he would go on to become an Arsenal legend and that he, with a squad being built around him, he would lead us to Prem titles and possibly even Champions League glory. So why do I despise him so?

Okay, so "despise" is probably a strong verb. I don't literally despise him. I do, however, blame him, perhaps irrationally, for our current sorry state. Hey, I admitted upfront that it's irrational. It's also hyperbolic. Bear with me, though, because I don't think I'm far off here. Arsène had a vision for this club and was building a squad around Fàbregas. Surrounded by other attackers like Nasri, van Persie, Rosický,, Eduardo, Adebayor, and Arshavin; and supported by the likes of Diaby, Sagna, Toure, and others; it had the look and feel of a club ready to compete for and win silverware in numerous competitions. In the end, though, we fought to numerous third and fourth place finishes in the Prem and round-of-16 exits from the Champions League. One can see why a player like Fàbregas might get frustrated.

It wasn't just his own frustration. His Spain NT teammates were pressuring him to return to Barcelona, and it must have been hard to resist the temptation. However, that's as far as I go in offering sympathy or understanding. Fàbregas held the club hostage to his demands, spending most of his last season with us openly flirting with Barcelona, and this undermined his performance on the pitch. In fact, in one of his most-damning (and revealing?) moments, Fàbregas attempted to play out of danger with a foolish backheel pass to Wilshere just outside our own area. Against Barcelona. At the Camp Nou. Iniesta pounced, laid it off to Messi, and the rest is history. Of course, there were numerous other factors at play, but conceding an early goal in that fashion against such an opponent was devastating. Barcelona would go on to win the match 3-1 and advance on aggregate...4-3.

But I digress. That open flirtation led to all sorts of problems. It almost certainly made it harder for us to convince players to join the club. What kind of competitive club with aspirations of winning would sell its captain? By holding us hostage to his whims, Fàbregas set in motion a series of events that fatally undermined Arsène's vision. First, we had to sell him below his market value because there was only one club he was interested in going to. This cemented our status as a selling club with no ambition. Samir Nasri, who no doubt had been conferring with Fàbregas all this time, would sign for Man City a few weeks later. Shorn of the heart of our creative midfield, not to mention the heart and soul of our squad, we still managed to finish third in the Prem, led by Robin van Persie's best season to date. Sadly, though, to borrow from Sartre, les jeux sont fait. Seeing former teammates coast to league titles, not to mention draw fatter paychecks, van Persie looked at a dressing room full of unproven young talent and budget-by transfers, realised that his own career was entering its twilight, and got out while the getting was still good. Don't blame van Persie. Don't take the effect and make it the cause.

The cause was  and the manner of his departure. He was the first domino. What elite players did we miss out on because of his antics? What could that trio of Fàbregas, Nasri, and van Persie have become? How much silverware might that squad have won, bolstered by the development of players like Wilshere, Ramsey, Walcott, and others and by the acquisition of any of the players we'd be linked with from 2010 on? The mind reels.

Instead, we languished. The influx of oil money at Chelsea and Man City inflated transfer fees and wage packets while we at Arsenal were hamstrung by financing that new stadium and by Wenger's stubborn, high-minded insistence on self-financing and developing young talent. By the time we splurged on Özil and Alexis, the rot had already set in. A few glamorous signings boosted hopes, as did three FA Cup wins in four years, but it was a false dawn.

Meanwhile, Fàbregas's much-vaunted return to his boyhood club lasted all of three seasons after which he wanted to return to Arsenal, as if a jilted lover should just be standing by, waiting wistfully like a foolish cuckold. Nasri's career fizzled out. Van Persie won that Prem title with Manchester United but saw his decision all but vindicated as his career faded away. Arsène, betrayed but not bitter (at least, not publicly), finally retired. Fàbregas went off to Chelsea, the only London club that could afford his now-inflated wages and transfer-fee, and that's all I have to say about that.

A decade on, here we are, three managers, one Europa League final loss, and two eighth place finishes to show for it. We're a shadow of the club we could have been. We've been wandering the wilderness for years, and I place the blame squarely at Fàbregas's feet. He could have stayed and led this club to glory. He could have retired a legend and had his own statue outside the stadium. He would have joined a pantheon of other players whose names will ring down through history. Instead, he sold himself to the only bidder, became a barnacle at Barcelona, shoehorned into a squad that didn't really have a need or a role for him, and "earned" a league title.

So it's the anniversary of his Arsenal debut today. Fine. Good for him. Let's not fool ourselves nor let him fool us either. He stopped being a Gooner a long, long time ago.