Cesc Fabregas was always the Arsenal captain-in-waiting and that waiting ended prematurely yesterday with the permanent demotion of William Gallas. Arsène Wenger had considered promoting Fabregas above Gallas in the summer, but it was only a fleeting thought. Fabregas was too young, Gallas would not respond well and Wenger decided that he still needed the defender despite the obvious misgivings that were manifesting themselves. The captaincy would come for Fabregas but not quite yet, it was decided.
Wenger still needs Gallas – which is more a reflection of the resources available to him than of the player's undoubted abilities – but not wearing the armband. The manager spoke yesterday of his admiration for Gallas as a "man" and as a player but has blinded himself to the divisions within the Arsenal dressing room – to which the French international has been central – in the hope that they would drive his team forward.
In years past Arsenal were, as Ashley Cole revealed when he made his move across London to Chelsea two years ago, dominated by the "French clique" headed by the strong-minded Thierry Henry and Robert Pires which usurped the ageing English brigade of Adams, Keown and so on. That clique no longer exists. In its place is a dressing room with three fairly unpopular figures in its midst: Gallas, Robin van Persie and Nicklas Bendtner.
All three have proved outspoken and abrasive and have been accused of arrogance by their team-mates who have, at times, been bemused by Wenger's indulgence. In Gallas's case Wenger thought the desire to win, the mentality that would lead to him bawling out team-mates even when victories were gained – as he has done – would harden up the youngsters and also bring out qualities that the confident yet, at times, painfully shy Gallas did not always demonstrate.
But Gallas was always a loose cannon for the Gunners. And a narcissistic one. His arrival at the Emirates was muddled and messy, with accusations that he had threatened to score an own goal if he wasn't allowed to leave Chelsea. Even so it shouldn't be forgotten that he had been a popular player in the Stamford Bridge dressing room, and although he was also known to be the one likely to be the first to complain, that didn't matter when he was surrounded by strong personalities such as John Terry and Claude Makelele who were, both, also his friends and were upset to see him leave. Chelsea had, in the end, also been desperate to keep him.
His defection to the Emirates saw Gallas take on Henry's mantle. Not just as captain but as senior statesman in the team. And with it came a similar egocentric approach. It should also be remembered that the two men are close and Gallas was aware that Henry had had a difficult relationship with some of the young players – Van Persie, in particular – before he finally departed. Similarly, Gallas took it upon himself to upbraid Samir Nasri when the midfielder, on international duty last summer, sat in Henry's seat on the team coach. Quite why Henry had a designated seat also spoke volumes, perhaps, about the regard in which he held himself and the way the French national squad organised itself.
It meant that Gallas was quick to react. He was also hectoring. Some players took badly to his, at times, very public criticism of them while he was, it was said, unable and unwilling to listen. And then came the infamous sit-down protest at Birmingham City last spring after Arsenal had conceded a last-minute penalty. It was as if Gallas was washing his hands on his team-mates, in the game in which Eduardo suffered his horrific injury, and it was not forgotten by players and supporters alike.
The treatment of Theo Walcott has also been unusual. Walcott is lauded by all those who know him and have coached him for his humble, team-oriented approach. Yet Gallas, in an interview published by GQ magazine in April, chose to single out the winger for criticism, telling him he needed to "work hard in training" and be "more focused".
It was Walcott, too, who was at the centre of the bust-up during half-time in last month's 4-4 draw against Tottenham Hotspur when he clashed with Van Persie. Insiders are clear where the blame lies and the Dutch striker has been at the centre of disagreements during his Arsenal career – not least with Gallas – as has Bendtner, who famously clashed, on the pitch, with Emmanuel Adebayor. Bendtner has also, of course, refused to take part in the pre-match huddles on the pitch and is reputed to have said he is the best player at the club, while his goal against Liverpool last season was celebrated without him.
Into this has now stepped Fabregas. The Spaniard is also, following Patrick Vieira, Henry and Gallas, the first non-Frenchman selected as captain by Wenger and, although nationality will not have been a factor in the manager's thoughts, it may come as a welcome bonus to remove himself from accusations of Francophone bias.
Interestingly, Fabregas will also, probably, be the most popular captain Arsenal have had since Vieira. Even though the two players he was closest to – Mathieu Flamini and Alex Hleb – left during the summer there is genuine affection for him, not just because of his ability but also his character. "I think it's a new start," said the defender Gaël Clichy who, along with Fabregas is regarded by Wenger as the strongest personality, "it's a good choice by the boss."
It would be interesting to discover what counsel, if any, Wenger took before making his decision. Earlier this year Fabregas, long linked with a return to Spain, split with his agent Joseba Diaz after he became frustrated at the talk linking him with a move. He is now advised by Darren Dein, the son of former Arsenal vice-chairman David, and the man who also looked after Henry's business affairs. Maybe that helped convince Wenger that Fabregas would, truly, be willing to stick around and take Arsenal forward.
William Gallas: Defender
Age 31, 86 Arsenal appearances, 11 goals
*PREVIOUS: Joined from Chelsea in 2006, made captain last year. Sat on pitch crying after 2-2 draw at Birmingham in February. In an interview last week revealed tensions within the squad following poor displays, calling on young players to show more bravery.
Robin van Persie: Striker
Age 25, 149 Arsenal appearances, 50 goals
*PREVIOUS: Clashed with Emmanuel Eboué during training. Accused by Manchester City defender David Sommeil of racist comments. Sent off three times in four years. Argued with Netherlands team-mate Wesley Sneijder over free-kick duties at Euro 2008.
Nicklas Bendtner: Striker
Age 20, 59 Arsenal appearances, 13 goals
*PREVIOUS: While on loan at Birmingham, refused to celebrate penalty after team-mates stopped him taking kick. Had disagreement with Emmanuel Adebayor at Spurs, resulting in the Dane being head-butted. Left to celebrate alone after scoring against Liverpool.
Absolutely Fabregas: The joy of Cesc
Born 4 May 1987, Barcelona
2003+ Arsenal (214 games, 27 goals)
37 Spain caps, 1 goal
2005 FA Cup
2008 European Championship
*Fabregas is both Arsenal's youngest ever player (16 years, 177 days v Rotherham, 2003), and goalscorer (16 years, 217 days v Wolves, 2003)
*The midfielder was named in the Euro 2008 Team of the TournamentReuse content