Besides invention, Arsenal will miss Cesc Fabregas' courage

Apart from his 71 Premier League assists in five years, the significance of Cesc Fabregas for Arsenal came from his drive.

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"A big club first of all holds on to its big players and gives a message out to all the other big clubs that they just cannot come in and take [them] away from you."

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Arsene Wenger's words last month were bullishly defiant. Now, however, Arsenal risk being condemned by their own manager's mouth.

Their status is an increasing subject for debate. They are Champions League ever presents but are enduring a six-year trophy drought, seeming to exist in a void between the best and the rest.

And they are no longer, with Cesc Fabregas gone and Samir Nasri expected to join him before the transfer deadline, a big club, at least according to Wenger in July. Exits from Arsenal have become almost an annual affair, but the latest have a symbolic as well as a footballing significance.

Fabregas - the captain and figurehead - the personification of their footballing ideology on the pitch; Nasri the embodiment of Wenger's prowess in the French transfer market. Like other talents before him, he had flowered under his compatriot's guidance. Unlike most, however, he and Fabregas will be departing before their prime.

Nasri's transformation into a prolific scorer - 15 last year - was typical of Wenger's catalytic impact. His preference for a move to Manchester City is indicative of a very different trend, with Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Toure and Gael Clichy moving north in the last two years. But none were as pivotal to the plans as Nasri. This must be a particularly painful form of rejection for Wenger.

The circumstances surrounding Fabregas are rarer. This is ambition without avarice, his hometown club Barcelona's annual tug on the heartstrings finally exerting a greater pull than Wenger's fatherly guidance, but his exit heightens the sense that the manager is looking increasingly isolated. Other believers in his blueprint of frugality and flair, unhindered by pragmatism or experience, seem fewer.

Fabregas, indeed, is trading a position of eminence at the Emirates Stadium for a lesser role at the Nou Camp. Outstanding midfielder as he is, it is entirely feasible that Fabregas will not feature in Barcelona's strongest side. Pep Guardiola, the coach, believes competition is a must, appearing convinced that a major signing or two every summer will prevent his slick achievers from lurching into complacency.

Wenger's methodology is altogether different. Through no fault of his own, the 17-year-old recruit Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain received a less than rapturous reception when signed. It is not the individual being criticised as much as the entire approach. To fans tired of waiting for the future to arrive, prodigies have less appeal than proven professionals.

Yet the baton is passed to ever younger players. Wenger's playmakers are still more untried, whether Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey or Oxlade-Chamberlain.

If the hope is that they will be empowered by the absence of Fabregas, the main beneficiary when the Spaniard was injured last season was Nasri, who revelled in a central role. Rather than a solution, however, the Frenchman is now compounding the problem.

However, besides his invention, and a total of 71 Premier League assists in five seasons shows an astonishing consistency of creativity, the significance of Fabregas came from his drive. Given a shortage of personality players, Robin van Persie, Thomas Vermaelen and the teenager Wilshere now have a greater responsibility to lead.

Arsenal's confidence can appear brittle, but Fabregas brought a swagger. Occasional moments of petulance were evidence of his will to win, but the definitive proof was more edifying. For all the intricate passes and moments of exquisite skill, perhaps the abiding image of his Arsenal career came in March 2010 when, a broken leg notwithstanding, he thrashed in a penalty to equalise against the club he supported all his life.

It is that spirit which Barcelona have bought, and that courage that Arsenal will struggle to replace. The relief that the sagas are ending should not camouflage the damage the departures will cause.