‘He is a fucking great player. And you’re all fucking idiots’.
It was 9 and a half years ago when Sir Alex Ferguson rounded on a roomful of journalists who questioned the record-breaking purchase of Juan Sebastian Veron the previous summer.
La Brujita, or The Little Witch had suffered through his first season in English football, frustrating supporters with his inconsistency. Somedays, like against Spurs in that famous 5-3 comeback, he thrived on the space.
Europe was a playground at times with the Argentine relishing the attention. Like Cantona before him, Veron was capable of things his team-mates could only dream of. Somedays, he was just a show-off.
But, Veron lasted just two seasons at Old Trafford before being shipped off to Chelsea for half of what he cost United. Though no-one disputed his ability, he simply didn’t fit.
Partnering Roy Keane in central midfield meant Paul Scholes was uprooted and pushed into the unknown. And Scholes likes familiarity. His form dipped. He couldn’t score.
He didn’t want to get on a bus filled with kids to play a Worthington Cup game against Arsenal. He wanted to go home. Back to the middle. So Fergie relented and after flirting with a cosmopolitan style, he went back to the drawing board. Back to what he knew best.
What followed was United’s lost weekend which lasted for four seasons. The club’s signings were a mixture of the ill-advised (Liam Miller) and the misfortunate (Louis Saha/Alan Smith).
But for every Kleberson and Djemba-Djemba, there was a Ronaldo and Rooney. Football-people questioned Ferguson. Maybe United should sack him. Maybe he’d lost it. He was too old now. Doddery. Forgetful.
How could he compete with the new-age machismo of Jose?
Or that wily academic Wenger?
But, Ferguson had faith in his age-old philosophy. A basic system based around a quick tempo. When you counter, make it count. Get a ball wide. Allow your best players take control. And always have a talisman.
Robson, Cantona, Keane, Ronaldo, Rooney.
Arsene Wenger thought he’d found the perfect talisman in 2003. He prised Cesc Fabregas from the Barcelona academy in September.
A month later, the 16 year-old made his debut in a League Cup game. The following May, Arsenal finished the Premier League season unbeaten.
And the team had just reached its peak. Well, almost. Thierry Henry scored 30 league goals, Robert Pires chipped in with 14.
But the following season, Arsenal were better. Henry with 25 in the league, Pires again with 14, Freddie Ljungberg hit double-figures.
Even Patrick Vieira scored 6 times. Wenger’s side racked up 87 league goals and still finished second.
Jose Mourinho’s miserly Chelsea conceded just 15 goals all season. But Arsenal were the real champions.
There was a problem though. Despite Fabregas racking up 24 league starts in his break-through season (owing to a long-term injury to Gilberto Silva), he wasn’t made for Arsenal’s traditional 4-4-1-1.
From the side’s 5 losses that year, the Spaniard played in the middle for three of them. On the rare occasion that the formation changed to one up top and a busier midfield, the Catalan flourished.
His 5-goal haul at the ’03 Under 17 World Cup came from an advanced midfield position but with Bergkamp still around, Fabregas was playing much deeper and was asked to scamper, harass, defend, challenge. This was different.
In the summer of ’05, Patrick Vieira left Arsenal. Wenger never replaced him. The following May, the club finished fourth in the league and trailed Mourinho’s upstarts by an incredible 24 points. They’d lost 11 games.
But, there was a paradox. A Champions League campaign that saw Arsenal reach a final. They lost. But, Wenger had seen the merits of setting his side up differently and he had pinpointed Fabregas as the key.
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