As he took his leave, Cesc Fabregas showed his eloquence is not restricted to the times when he has a ball at his feet. There was something poignant in one of his parting reflections. The Wenger wunderkind accepted he has become an increasingly immobile maestro. “Physicality goes away from us all unfortunately,” he said. At 31, it has left Fabregas sooner than most but then everything came early to him: an Arsenal debutant at 16 and captain at 21, a European Championship winner at 21 and a World Cup victor at 23 who secured his 100th Spain cap at 28.
His tally stalled at 110. Decline seems to have come early, too, but the 761 career appearances tell a tale in themselves. Anti-climactic endings might be Fabregas’ stock in trade: in a fond farewell to Chelsea, he departed missing a penalty against Nottingham Forest. A prodigy has experienced the pain of rejection: overlooked by Arsene Wenger when his mentor had the first option to re-sign him in 2014, sidelined for Jorginho, a similar-style player but a younger model, in Maurizio Sarri’s first and flagship move.
If Fabregas can still pick a pass with uncanny precision and read a game with masterly ease, he should be remembered for what he was, rather than what he is. He was never quite the new Xavi or Iniesta, as he was understandably billed on his return to Barcelona, but he ranks as a genuine Premier League great: second only to Ryan Giggs in the division’s all-time assist charts.
He was a transformative player, whose influence spread across three clubs. Michael Carrick was set to sign for Arsenal in 2004 until an example of Fabregas’ talent in the Community Shield persuaded Wenger to abort the deal. The Spaniard epitomised Wenger’s changing ethos as 4-4-2 made way for 4-2-3-1 and the physical were omitted amid an emphasis on the technical the Arsenal manager arguably took too far. Yet Fabregas was a precocious figurehead, scorer of 19 goals as a No 10 in 2009/10. He was a false nine for some of his time at Barcelona and returned to England as a deep-lying playmaker.
It was a very different position. It could have been a very different club. If leaving Arsenal symbolised the way Wenger’s protégés abandoned hope of realising their ambitions under him, Manchester United’s failure to sign him in 2013 summed up the doomed impotence of the David Moyes era. Maybe it is fanciful to think one signing could have halted a precipitous decline, or that a Carrick-Fabregas partnership could have prevented United’s midfield from becoming a wasteland, but there is an alternative history to be constructed.
Fabregas instead became the Wengerboy turned Mourinho ally, the Arsenal captain who later joined Chelsea; it was the sort of contentious move that colours perceptions. If Diego Costa felt a more typical Mourinho ally, a ruthless, unpopular provocateur, Fabregas, with his 18 assists, was as much of a catalyst for the 2014/15 champions; perhaps they were throwback champions, the last Mourinho side to win a major league.
If Antonio Conte’s appointment was a sign his status was shifting, Fabregas still figured fourth for assists in 2016/17, a season when he only started 13 games for Chelsea’s title winners. He became a different kind of impact substitute, coming off the bench to pick holes in defences. Fabregas won over Conte – his pass led to Eden Hazard’s decisive penalty in May’s FA Cup final – but Sarri’s arrival rendered him yesterday’s man.
And so he heads off to a slower league with the technical skills that may be timeless elsewhere. But those yesterdays were often glorious as a wonderful talent changed Arsenal, Chelsea and English football.
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