Football is a young man’s game and plenty of players peak in their early 20s. Especially strikers who are dependent on explosive speed to hurt opponents. Michael Owen, Fernando Torres and Wayne Rooney all played their best football before they turned 25, after which they all started to lose their physical edge, slow down, and score fewer goals.
But Cesc Fabregas is a different story. He was always a player who relied more on his intelligence, imagination and skill to make a difference on the pitch. The type of player who normally continues to perform at the same level up to 30 and even beyond that, like a David Silva or Andres Iniesta.
Fabregas has now made 500 appearances in English football between Chelsea and Arsenal, and is one of the Premier League era’s finest imports. But as he prepares to leave English football for the second time, likely heading to Monaco from Chelsea, he does so as a 31-year-old whose best days were more than seven years ago. He is one of the greats of his generation, having won a World Cup, two Euros and league titles in England and in Spain. Listing midfielders who have achieved more than Fabregas in the game would not take you very long.
But it is no criticism of Fabregas to say that the very best football of his career, when he was closest to the best in the world in his position, was back in his teens and early 20s, when he first broke into the Arsenal team and took the Premier League by storm. Back then, he arrived in a daunting situation, coming into a midfield which had previously been the best in the country. And as huge players left, and the team declined, and the club left its old home to move to the Emirates, a vacuum of leadership, quality and creative direction formed at the heart of the team. And it was Fabregas, more than anyone else, who filled it.
Those early years at the Emirates will not be looked back on especially brightly in Arsenal history. This was the midst of the nine-year trophy drought, before the loosening of the purse strings, before the arrival of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, before the three FA Cup wins. And yet in those few years, Fabregas set standards of consistency, quality and captaincy that have not been met since. He is – with all due respect to Ozil, Sanchez and Robin van Persie – still Arsenal’s greatest player of the Emirates Stadium era.
All of Arsenal’s greatest moments from those few years had Fabregas at their heart. The set up for Emmanuel Adebayor’s goal at Old Trafford. The long-range strike at the San Siro to knock that great Milan team out of the Champions League. Masterminding the defeat of Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea at the Emirates, or Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2011. And while those Arsenal teams were too inexperienced to ever win anything, they did look like more plausible title candidates in 2007-08 and 2009-10 than they have looked at any point since. Not much would have needed to be different for Fabregas, their little general in midfield, to guide them to a first league title of the post-Invincibles era.
But that lack of success, and the lack of investment that caused it, always made Fabregas’ departure inevitable. Especially with Barcelona wanting to take him back. When he finally returned in 2011, the expectations could not have been higher. He was the man to improve the best team on the planet, and the greatest midfield of all time.
It did not work out quite like that. Fabregas struggled to make himself heard in midfield, and ended up playing more often as a false nine instead. The feeling at Barcelona was that even though Fabregas had been educated at La Masia, he had rather forgotten the Barcelona style of play. The Premier League was so anarchic that he would often have to decide things himself, trying difficult moves, and carrying the ball himself. But that is not how Barca played, they killed teams with passing instead, and Fabregas often looked as if he was trying too much.
It was as if Fabregas had internalised so much of what he learned at Arsenal, that he could not re-learn the Barcelona way. He could not become the player Guardiola wanted him to be, and could not prove himself as Xavi’s long-term successor either. He left the club in 2014 for Chelsea, one year before Xavi departed.
That summer Fabregas made himself available for an Arsenal return, but Arsene Wenger famously turned him down. Because Wenger sensed that Fabregas, having played 303 games for Arsenal by the age of 24, might already be past his best as a player. And while Fabregas was important to Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea winning the Premier League in 2014-15, Wenger’s judgement that summer does not look off. Because Fabregas struggled to make an impression after that, and was never first choice for Antonio Conte’s title winners either.
Whenever Fabregas played he always showed the same old touch and vision and eye for a pass. But he never quite had that old burst, and in a Premier League that got quicker and stronger every year, he could not compete with the modern playmakers like Kevin de Bruyne and Christian Eriksen, creative minds who were pressing and running machines themselves too.
So whatever Fabregas goes on to achieve from here, for Monaco or elsewhere, his greatest moments will always be those of his youth: the penalty against Italy at Euro 2008, the assist for Iniesta at the 2010 World Cup, any number of famous performances for Arsenal around that time, when the team needed a leader and he was able to be one for them. Do not blame him for not hitting the same heights in his later years, after he gave more than many manage in his first bloom of youth.
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