James Lawton: Wenger lets blurred vision over Fabregas cloud Arsenal's future
The bitter truth for Arsenal's followers is that, while rivals have addressed the challenge of strengthening their squads, their club appears locked in denial
Arsenal insisted it was rain rather than any other kind of blurring of vision causing the postponement of the official team picture yesterday.
What, though, were they going to say? That Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri looked about as cheerfully expectant as victims of a dockside press gang hauled off to a most unwelcome voyage – or that an especially warm glow surrounded the one summer signing of a team desperately in need of defensive strengthening, Lille's 24-year-old Ivory Coast wide man Gervinho?
So there was a gently merciful drop of rain to prevent any fresh embarrassment and, who knows, when the shoot is reconvened at the training ground in a few weeks' time Arsenal may just have a few new players to provide the spirit and the steel that were so profoundly missing at the end of last season?
That was at least one implication of a statement of chairman Peter Hill-Wood, imperious enough to have been delivered in the old marble halls of Highbury. "We don't do business in public," declared the Old Etonian.
But that did rather beg another question. Are Arsenal still aware that they have a public? And if they do, have they the vaguest clue about how badly it is hurting?
There is not much concrete evidence as the Fabregas-Barcelona saga inches along, and Nasri continues to wear an expression that, despite the warnings of Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli, suggests he might prefer to be in the hellhole otherwise known as Manchester, and the great Arsène Wenger seems ever more inclined to detach himself from reality. This was the manager, after the odd Fabregas half-time walkout from the rather less than stimulating game with Boca Juniors at the weekend, who said: "Cesc loves this club deeply and he loves Barça deeply too. An honest player can love two clubs. But he cares deeply about this club and that is why I hope we can keep him."
However much you admire Wenger, it is hard not to imagine these plaintive words on the lips of a jilted lover.
No doubt, it is partly true. Fabregas grew to magnificent expression and competitive sturdiness at Arsenal. He knew the opportunity Wenger had provided and he responded with some years of consistently brilliant performances. But the footballer's life is short and certainly it does Fabregas a disservice to suggest that he is just another member of a huge, floating and opportunistic player population.
Fabregas wants to go home to Barcelona because, if he still has a love for Arsenal, it is plainly not as strong as the one he feels for his hometown club. Going back to the Nou Camp, after all, would not exactly represent some dream sequence of a triumphant homecoming.
Barça made it clear that their priority was not Fabregas but Chilean forward Alexis Sanchez, who was duly signed, and there is no guaranteed first-team place for the Arsenal captain if he moves. Sanchez didn't, unlike Fabregas, feel the need to sweeten the deal for Barcelona by offering to take a pay cut.
If we are truly measuring the relative caring of Fabregas, we have to say Barça is the winning suitor – and by some distance. He sees not so much easy opportunity as a place at a club who have the set the highest playing standards, achieved a level that he plainly thought was at one point within reach of Arsenal. Now such an ambition is touched with fantasy.
Naturally, Wenger is taking it hard. Fabregas, like Wenger's other great discoveries, was not so much a signing as a vision, an understanding of potential to grow, not just in playing ability but the most striking influence.
He saw similar qualities in Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira, and he can always congratulate himself on benefiting so richly from the prime of their careers. Two out of three is not so bad and surely the priority now is for Wenger not to fight so desperately, even humiliatingly, to hang on to Fabregas, and the less certain qualities of Nasri, but to face the world as it is rather than how he would like it to be.
The bitter truth for Arsenal's following is that, while all their most serious rivals have addressed the challenge of strengthening or, in the case of Chelsea, remotivating their squads, their own club appears to be more than anything locked in denial.
Liverpool's Kenny Dalglish talks, a little airily, of winning the title; Sir Alex Ferguson has made major investments; City have signed Diego Maradona's son-in-law (talk about a reach for reflected glory); and Chelsea argue that, in tyro coach André Villas-Boas, they have another Mourinho. Much of this, of course, may soon turn to dust but the important difference is that serious attempts at renewal have been made. Meanwhile, Arsenal make a desultory move for Phil Jagielka, an old target, and sing an unrequited love song to Cesc Fabregas.
Perhaps Arsenal shouldn't fret over a blurred team picture. Maybe they should worry that it is about to fall off the wall.
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