Fabregas’s stature diminished by switch to Barca

Cesc Fabregas has revealed that new boss Tito Vilanova wants him to make slight adjustments to how he played the role Barcelona assigned for him last season. Instead of being so “static on the inside left”, he is instructed to “be more mobile…and look for space, help my team-mates by playing the easy ball.” To anyone who saw him scale rare peaks during season upon season of increasing excellence at Arsenal, the mere suggestion that Barcelona have prescribed a role for Cesc that circumscribes and modifies his talent to the base requirements of the team is scandalous. A player of his potential should not be running around like a makeshift winger in a team whose pretentious attempts to make midfielders play like forwards contributed to their own downfall last season. In fact, it is difficult to imagine Cesc being denied the chance to fill the prime years of his career in the position that he was born to play: playmaker, dictating everything that happens on the pitch and treating lovers of the game all over to a demonstration of rare artistic talent and footballing intelligence.

However, it is fast becoming apparent that the freedom he enjoyed at Arsenal that was behind his rise as a footballer of rare genius will not be afforded him at Barca. Xavi and Iniesta’s occupation of the most privileged berths football has to offer is warranted, but Cesc’s love of Barca may well blind him to the point at which they begin selling him short and stalling his career through rigid tactical game plans and the evergreen presence of Xavi. The level of acclaim he commanded among the entire footballing fraternity has already diminished since he left Arsenal – not because he is among finer company but because his unmatched footballing intelligence is being circumscribed and starved of the chance to shine in his misplaced role at Barca. It is sad to see him being relegated to just another name amid players with greater technique but lesser vision in discussions of the best midfielders in the world today. It is a reversal of the path of thrilling ascent that Arsene Wenger set him on at Arsenal, and may well ensure that the second act of his career is not quite as luminous individually as the first was. One would not go as far to say that his accelerated return to Barcelona was a misguided decision, but Arsene Wenger’s assertion that the challenge of leading Arsenal to glory would have had far greater value for Cesc than being just another champion at Barcelona will echo around for him for as long as he takes to find terra firma at his boyhood club.

Wenger and fans in accord over Song

It is heartening to see Arsene Wenger’s unsentimental reaction to Alex Song’s latent courting of interest from Barcelona and other rivals. So used to having to beg players who invariably display a lack of regard for the loyalty he has shown them to stay, he is finally adopting a business-like approach to hiring and firing that recognises Arsenal will no longer be held hostage by any one player. The club ably demonstrated that it could move past the feared ravaging effect of Cesc Fabregas’s loss last year, and that has rightly emboldened them to play hardball with wantaway players this summer.

Song’s betrayal of Wenger’s faith in him was apparent long before he encouraged the advances of Barcelona in the way that he constantly shirked the holding midfield duty Wenger had asked him to perform on the field. Arsenal were roundly mocked for their defensive troubles last season, but that was to ignore how much an attacking 4-3-3 system relied on the holding midfielder protecting the back four to be successful. Much like Sergio Busquets for Barcelona, Wenger would have instructed Song to stay in position to shield an exposed defence whenever Arsenal lost the ball up the field in recognition of the fact that the repurcussions of the holding midfielder neglecting his duty in their system would be far worse than for most teams. Instead Song’s insatiable lust to play the killer pass often contributed to starting opponents’ lethal counter-attacks, while his willfull indiscipline in straying from his position meant that Arsenal’s defenders were often deserted and made to look more silly than they deserved by the goals they conceded. Furthermore his desire to keep the ball to himself for a few additional seconds, while well-executed, displayed a lack of understanding that Arsenal’s possession game required quick exchanges to ensure that the opposition did not settle into premeditated defensive positions and blunt their attacking edge. As a player whose conversion from a central defender to a holding midfielder revealed his footballing intelligence, these acts of sabotage against Wenger and Arsenal’s plans can only have stemmed from a desire to indulge his tendency to do as he pleases overriding his sense of duty to the team.

In the context of enduring such frustration from a player whose position holds the key to so much of Arsenal’s success, it is no wonder that Song’s calm willingness to consider a future away from Arsenal is approaching something teeteringly close to a final straw for Wenger. Financially too, it would make no sense to allow Song to use external interest to hold the club to ransom for a contract once his current one expires in 2015 or to follow Nasri and van Persie in attempting to walk away from the club for free. The new Wenger, hardened by his experiences with three key players who have deserted him in the last twelve months, has finally come to view the transfer market as a means of strengthening the club rather than a destabilising act. If Barcelona follow through with their interest on Alex Song, it will provide Arsenal the funds to go after a different player with a greater sense of team responsibility, whose embracing of the holding midfield role would finally allow them to negotiate the thin margin of error allowed by their system between attack and defence.

van Persie-United talk hits Arsenal fans where it hurts

Both Manchester clubs have given Arsenal plenty of grief in the recent past, but it will still hurt more if Robin van Persie were to go to Alex Ferguson’s team rather than Roberto Mancini’s. City’s recent picking of Arsenal’s ripe talent has its roots in the club’s overall expansion and is devoid of any personal undertones. However, United’s bolstering at Arsenal’s expense, by acquiring their best player, cuts more deeply for a welter of personal reasons. It was not too long ago that Arsenal were United’s strongest rivals, and Wenger Ferguson’s greatest managerial foe. It would have been unthinkable then for Arsenal to be forced to sell their best player for the benefit of their most important rival. For Arsenal to now effectively play the feeder club role to Manchester United through the van Persie sale would be a painful and fresh reminder of how they have diminished in stature while United have kept growing. Add to that the image of van Persie and Rooney dovetailing together to score against Arsenal next season, and it is easy to see why his possible switch to United provokes stronger feelings than to his other two suitors.

Tactically speaking, fans may also wonder what Arsenal’s voluntary strengthening of both their Manchester rivals says about their ambition for the new Premier League season. This is a club that should not accept the status quo proposed last season of both Manchester clubs being a cut above the rest, and preventing United from becoming the first club to reach City’s plane through the acquisition of van Persie would demonstrate this.

If he has to go, better Arsenal explore and exhaust these options in the following order: Juventus, then City and then – only if the price is agreed on Arsenal’s terms without compromise – United.

Cazorla’s and Sahin’s mooted arrivals increase optimism at Arsenal

News that Arsenal are working hard and drawing closer to deals that would bring Nuri Sahin and Santi Cazorla to the club should be encouraging to its supporters. Along with Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski, Arsenal’s four signings this summer represent a change in approach to the transfer market that has every chance of bearing fruit on the pitch – even if Robin van Persie is granted his wish to leave.

Of the two names, it is Cazorla’s who sparks the most interest. Arsenal have never been short of a fine player, but it is exciting to imagine that they are on the verge of acquiring one whose ball-skills are complemented by deep pride and fierce caring for his career. How else to explain his decision to turn down a move to Real Madrid in 2008 because “there are many things in football besides Real Madrid and…he already felt very satisfied and valued at [Villarreal]?” Such surety and individualism in his decision-making bears the mark of a man who does not make his decisions lightly, gives his all once he has committed to a project and is the kind of football-loving professional that Arsenal have been in desperate need of over the last few years. The value of having a player who cares deeply about his football and seeks to build a bond with his club can never be approximated, but when Thierry Henry returned to Arsenal last season in the twilight of his career with his mind uncluttered by thoughts of money and glory at the Barcelonas of this world, he somehow found the right mix of talent and love to score a last-minute winner against Sunderland that led to the point advantage to Tottenham that kept Arsenal in the Champions League. Cazorla’s talent, hunger and actions suggest he can play a similarly inspiring role for the club once he settles in, and help move Arsenal’s young players on from the kind of complacency that has seen them lose countless games in silly fashion over the last few seasons.

Changing circumstances should give cause for hope that Arsenal’s youthful squad are already beginning to locate that missing sense of urgency and pride for their club’s fate and grow into their roles and responsibilities for the team. The prospect of van Persie, their talisman and a player whom they relied upon to get through most of last season departing, comes as a timely shock that should spur on those in need of a push to greater competiveness and maturity on the pitch (particularly Theo Walcott and Gervinho). The growing competition in the Premier League – and particularly the way Manchester City have gorged on Arsenal – would have alerted the players to the fact that the oncoming season will require consistently better performances than they have yet produced, whilst pricking their pride could also yield positive results. Indeed, there have already been hints in stirring performances enroute to beating Chelsea (5-3), Manchester City (1-0) and Barcelona (2-1) over the last two seasons that Arsenal find release in their relatively new casting as underdogs among the Premier League’s elite. Add to this the elevation of a stern defensive taskmaster in Steve Bould, Cazorla’s personal and football qualities, and the likely arrival of a highly determined young player in Nuri Sahin desperate to make up for lost time and prove his worth to Real Madrid, and Arsenal will have set themselves up for the post-van Persie era with a fighting chance.

Arsenal’s “mystery injuries”

There are few clubs whose fate in recent seasons can be tied as strongly to their management of player injuries as Arsenal. It remains a bittersweet proposition to imagine how Arsenal might have fared in 2009-10 if they had managed to field a team containing Thomas Vermaelen, Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri, Jack Wilshere and Andrey Arshavin on a consistent basis. On one of the few occasions that they did, Arsenal produced one of the games of the season enroute to beating Barcelona 2-1 in a thrilling contest at the Emirates. It appeared the sky was the limit, but by the time of the second leg, Vermaelen, Walcott and Arshavin were injured, van Persie barely made it and Fabregas started the match in such a bad state that he later admitted he could barely run.

Alongside the well-documented defensive lapses, and inability to adapt to games of attrition that hamper their fluid passing style, it can be argued that failing to keep his best players fit has had an equally important role to play in the deconstruction of Arsene Wenger’s work over the last few years. Fabregas and van Persie, the club’s fulcrums in midfield and attack, were constantly prevented by injury from developing a partnership that might have led to titles and them reconsidering their hastiness in wanting to leave. Many of these injuries were the result of tough tackles tailored for Arsenal’s perceived flimsiness (Diaby, Eduardo) or natural wear and tear (Fabregas’s hamstrings have all the makings of a chronic problem ).

However, more worrying have been the “mystery injuries” that have claimed large chunks of Tomas Rosicky’s, Thomas Vermaelen’s and Jack Wilshere’s careers; in each case, a standard and relatively minor initial diagnosis was somehow enlarged under the care of Arsenal’s medical staff into a head-scratching situation that required multiples surgeries and incredulously long absences. Rosicky’s simple hamstring injury ended up keeping him out for eighteen months, and Vermaelen’s three-month Achilles injury prevented him from playing for an entire season. In Wilshere’s case, Arsenal initially failed to determine that he needed surgery and confidently predicted his stress fracture would heal within six weeks. Who can tell whether their tardiness in sending him for the surgery he eventually had to undergo in October led to the further complications that arose in January and April, and that eventually required a second surgery on his knee? Wenger has now predicted his return in October (almost a year later), but given Arsenal’s incompetency or deliberately misleading information thus far, there should be no guarantee attached to his words.

The apparent misdiagnosis of Jack Wilshere’s injury by the Arsenal medical staff, coupled with the infuriating fact that it is only at Arsenal that so many injury situations seem to develop into career-threatening crises harming both player and team, should at the very least be prompting internal scrutiny. It is understandable that Arsene Wenger wants to protect his players and staff by presenting a unified front to the outside world, but that shouldn’t preclude him from conducting the urgent review of Arsenal’s set-up that is required to maintain excellence and is often dependent on the pressure exerted by external opinion. Wenger stoutly defended Pat Rice for many years, and frequently laments how “everyone has an opinion and everyone thinks they’re right”, but a thorough inquiry would be the only way to clear the suspicion hanging over yet another facet of the club’s operations.

Manchester City recently conducted a fascinatingly detailed feature with BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/18887653) about their methodology for player injuries and injury prevention. That kind of open and accountable ethos has not existed around Arsenal’s communication of Rosicky, Vermaelen and Wilshere’s injuries, and one can only hope that is not because they were either in the dark about the problem or unwittingly guilty of mistakes they’d rather not disclose.

One thing is for sure: if any more of Arsenal’s players disappear for a similarly unfathomable length of time, it will be increasingly hard to put it down to coincidence.