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Eoin O'Callaghan

Eoin O'Callaghan

Eoin has worked in sports broadcasting in Ireland as a researcher, reporter, presenter and producer. He is currently a soccer reporter/anchor with the Fox Soccer Report


Cesc Fabregas and Arsenal – Promise Unfulfilled (Part 2 of 2)

Written by on October 14, 2011 | 15 Comments »
Posted in General

For the new campaign, the explosiveness was gone. It was replaced by a meticulous, careful build-up and then a cutting pass. The goal-scoring contributions from midfield waned. The attack-mindedness of the full-backs relaxed. The side became narrow, rigid.

At times, the new look worked perfectly, like at Old Trafford early in the season. Fabregas occupied a position higher up the pitch where he could be a constant threat and menace, usually sitting 30 yards from goal when Arsenal attacked.

On other occasions though, because his ball retention was so valuable, Wenger would still play him in a deeper role, stationed between the bottom third and half-way line.

But having Fabregas so far from goal ensured the side’s creativity suffered. In this highlighted away defeat to Liverpool from the same season, Arsenal managed just 2 shots on target for the whole game.

Arsenal once again finished the season in fourth, this time 21 points behind champions Manchester United. Most worryingly of all though was their goal tally – 63.

Their lowest total in six years. Fabregas had tried hard. He finished with the joint-highest number of assists in the league. He had doubled his shots on goal stats. But he was a creator first.

If goals came about, that was merely a bonus. His nous at unlocking defences from the edge of the box, QB-like, was made in Barcelona.

Culturally, the style of play Fabregas desired was out of sync with the Premier League. The pace, physicality and ignorance to the restrained continental approach meant there were as many good days as bad ones for Arsenal.

But Fabregas remained the focal-point of the side. In 2008, he was made captain. More responsibility. But Fabregas was too young. The lime-light was uncomfortable. He missed the clan-like mentality of Catalonia.

On the pitch, he had been educated on the perils of individualism. This was a team-game and the reason why the following summer Fabregas was a European champion. The reason why Fabregas fits so snugly in the current Barca side.

His influence at Arsenal remains for all to see. Against Swansea earlier this season, the home side’s full-backs were well-drilled in checking back when occupying an attacking position.

Both Sagna and Gibbs weren’t interested in overlaps but more concerned with bulking up the numbers in the final third, creating an extra outlet for a pass. It was controlled, patient, boring.

The system allowed a side already with a defensive setup to get more men behind the ball. Perhaps the most dangerous element to all of this is a clear lack of alternative. Arsenal don’t utilize their full-backs as offensive weapons anymore (and subsequently don’t score goals like this anymore).

When both Gibbs and Sagna are asked to contribute going forward, their inability to hit targets becomes a real liability, like against Spurs a couple of weeks  ago. But it’s also worth remembering that Arsenal usually don’t have many targets to hit in the box.

Now, without their main creative force sitting 30 yards from goal, there’s a distinct lack of urgency and, more importantly, a key pass. The team now find themselves playing for a ghost.

Between the summers of 2005 and 2011, Arsenal lost 45 league games. Between the years 1999 and 2004, that figure stood at 31. So, what happened?

Wenger changed what made Arsenal so potent. By placing such hope in Cesc Fabregas, he disrupted what had been a successful style – a way of playing that was much better suited to the Premier League.

He flirted with the idea of playing Fabregas in his best position but usually sacrificed the Catalan’s attacking skills by instead utilizing his ball retention capabilities closer to the Arsenal penalty area.

Wenger acknowledged the difficulties Fabregas had in adapting to a two-man central midfield and began playing with one striker.

But the change in formation arrived at a fragile time – just after Arsenal and their golden generation had reached their peak.

Quite quickly, the Invincible side was no more. Vieira left, Cole left, Pires left, Henry left. Injuries began to take their toll and the good fortune experienced by Wenger during his last title success (the first-choice back five missed just 15 league games between them all season) suddenly dried up.

The squad’s depth was a problem. The club’s rigid financial structure was the problem. They needed more money. More players. Better players. All sounds so simple.

For Wenger though, it’s difficult.

Because he lost his way.

He put his faith in a flawed system and though individualism pushed the side to remain competitive, the gritty but glorious team ethic of the 1998 and 2004 sides no longer exists.

To figure out his future, Wenger needs to re-visit his past.

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15 responses to “Cesc Fabregas and Arsenal – Promise Unfulfilled (Part 2 of 2)”

  1. john says:

    When arsenal were at there best they had very good defenders, as well as well as some top attackers. Wenger obviously knows more than l do, but , does he think that the guys in back now are even close to what he had ten or twelve years ago? He also had a few world cup winners when the English league was maybe not as en vogue as it is now. I think the fact that there is so much money around the premier league now, expecting any team to have a run like arsenal did would require an enormous outlay of funds that, arsene needs to either spend like the big boys or be content to be an also ran.

  2. Soccerlogical says:

    We have 2 Billionaire shareholders yet Wenger penny pinches a few million for an established EPL defender like Samba, Cahill or Jagielka… HUBRIS!!!!!!

  3. John Bladen says:

    Eoin: I’m not sure I’d agree that Wenger’s plan is flawed in itself. It is perfectly accurate to say that he no longer has the players to make it work, however.

    Do you think he sticks to this plan because he believes his current squad (or, at least, the younger members) can adapt their game to fit the system? Or because he simply doesn’t know what else to do?

  4. John Bladen says:


    If you think billionaires got to be billionaires by investing in businesses that do not earn returns then you misunderstand investing completely. Everton has at least one billionaire shareholder and they spend about half what our club does. Sunderland, Southampton, Tottenham, Celtic, Doncaster Rovers (!), Watford and Fulham all have billionaire shareholders too.

    What the billionaire shareholders want is to earn money – as high a percentage as possible on their equity investments. You and I may not like the on pitch result, but Arsenal is earning them far more money than investment in other premiership clubs would do (Abramovich, Mansour & co aren’t investing for business reasons, these clubs are just toys for those men. It’s different for Usmanov & Kroenke – it’s a business for them. And for Lerner, Lord Grantchester and others as well).

    According to the last transfer rumour I heard, Cahill will cost something like 18m… plus whatever insane wage increase he demands in order to agree to the deal. Perhaps you can explain how acquiring Cahill will increase the Gunners revenue by 20m a season?

    Perhaps if you are really stroppy about what you believe is ownership’s miserly ways, you should start writing checks to cover the transfer budget you’d like to see yourself?

    It’s different when it’s “your” money, isn’t it?

  5. Soccerlogical says:

    Bladen – I congratulate you on yet another response where you go off on a tangent and miss the point!

    Gazidis said there is ample cash in the transfer kitty and your reply has nothing to do with a pig headed manager unwilling to admit that his system has failed and is not competitive with the EPL’s top teams.

    Song is inconsistent and unimposing at DMC and is a better CB. Djourou and Kocielny are inconsistent and mostly crap, while Gibbs has a long way to go and Sczesny (while a very good prospect) has played under 25 league matches. No one told Wenger to buy a weak Brazilian LB and unproven 18 yr old in Chamberlaine when we clearly needed to address our defense with some proper and proven players which has obviously cost us any chance of silverware and perhaps even a CL spot (which brings in around 40M in revenue).

    I guess Kroenke and Uzmanov expect to make a hefty ROI and some nice dividends upon reselling a slow and past his prime Mertesecker who is 28 years of age eh?

    I suggest you actually follow your club’s dealings and what shareholders and board have stated before spewing irrelevant “Invisible Hand” and “Donald Trump & Milton Friedman Economics” cliches.

    PS Not having the funds to address your team’s flaws is one thing but having the funds yet sticking to your failed ways is plain HUBRIS.

  6. John Bladen says:

    Return on investment is irrelevant?

    Getting value for transfer spending (rather than just spending it because you have it) is irrelevant?

    If you think Cahill will be the difference in earning a CL spot, you are dead wrong – again. Your points are consistently wide of the mark and offer no real insight into Arsenal’s present state or how to correct it.

    You are simply whining because you haven’t gotten what you want. That is not strategy, no matter how proud you may be of your limited understanding of the situation at Arsenal.

  7. Soccerlogical says:

    OK, First off. No top European club buys a talented key player with its main priority being selling him off for a proper ROI. You need to follow the game.

    Secondly, I don’t know how much simpler I can state it than:

    Compare MU’s, MC’s and CHE’s defensive talent and depth to Arsenal’s. Wenger went into the season without a shot in hell for any silverware and probably even out of CL. Yet he sold you and a few others on the “young, talented, need time to mature yet lack concentration, title contenders, etc” BS.

    Spending another 20-30M this past transfer window on 2-3 key players wouldn’t have put a dent in Arsenal’s pocket or P&L sheet.

    In order to compete with top teams (and I assume Arsenal are still in that category), first priority isn’t a few million ROI on players but making CL money, marketing rev and other creative finances. Otherwise, lets keep selling the likes of RVP, Vermaellen and Szcesny and try fighting for a Europa League spot and change our name to Udinese or Villareal.

    Wenger will NEVER make Arsenal a Barcelona and his youth prospects are no Piques, Iniestas, Xavis or even Pedros.

    And all that Wenger nonsense about European soccer being the next domino in the financial crisis and FIFA fair play is delusion. Look at the steady increase in UEFA/FIFA/CL revenues. Last I checked, MU and CHE aren’t going into administration after buying some proper defenders like Smalling, Jones, Ivanovic, Luiz, Alex etc.

    Sure let’s wait another 5 years for the likes of Chamberlain, WIlshire and Campbell to bloom so by that time RVP, Gervinho and Vermaellen depart due to lack of silverware and we are back at square 1… an unending failed cycle.

  8. LA says:


    I have always said that building a team around Fabregas in the EPL, is like sending schoolboys for trench warfare.

    The fact that Wenger persisted with it and won’t let go of the concept makes me wonder of his capability to succeed anymore in this league.

    This season will be important if he misses out of Champions league places.

  9. shmish says:

    Hi Eoin,

    I really enjoyed your two articles, thanks very much.

    “The system allowed a side already with a defensive setup to get more men behind the ball.” I agree, and would argue that Arsenal, prior to this year, were most dangerous on the counter-attack. The controlled build-up, with Fabregas not pushed up the field, led to constant stalemates.

    The conjecture that maybe RvP is the only person on this year’s squad that would have ever started for the Invincibles is also very hard to ignore in the post-Fabregas Arsenal.

  10. Roberto Manita says:


    Five scoreless matches in the Serie A on this Sunday. What a brilliant advertisement for the beautiful game that shambolic league has become.

    The Director of Marketing for the Serie A should diversify into selling a line of sedative Serie A pills. They would instruct cronic insomniacs to take two Serie A sedative tablets before every match. Unbeknownst to the target market insomniacs these pills would be placebos but their efficacy could not be questioned. Within thirty minutes after kickoff these magic tablets will put you under. Guaranteed or your money back, the label would read, if taken as directed.

  11. Ed Gomes says:

    Arsenal in a “Big” club that is living off its history. The club as its presently constituted just isn’t good enough. Frankly they weren’t good enough last season.

    ROI shouldn’t matter to Arsenal because they aren’t a selling club. If I was Arsenal or one of their fans, I would be more worried about Nasri departure than Cesc’s. You can explain away Cesc leaving to the football world/players. He was home sick and wanted to leave.
    Nasri on the other hand looks more like a player wanting out of a sinking ship. Other footballers will look at that. “Big” clubs need “big” players that want Champions League play. They know that’s where their history will be made, along with the money.

    If Arsenal finds itself out of CL play, they just might find it harder to get back. Frankly I think that the best thing going for Arsenal is Liverpool and Spurs faltering.
    Too many head scratchers coming out of those clubs.

    Oh, for all of those that said I was crazy for saying Chezesny (goalie whose name I can’t spell) had a lot of Almunia in him, did you see him run off his line. Horrific decision, that would of had everyone screaming if the shooter had any quality. Yes he makes some really big saves. But he also has made some crazy gaffes, that he’s gotten away with. Those will catch up with him, especially with that defense.

  12. John Bladen says:

    IF Arsenal misses out on CL play?

    I know a number of you asked/stated that… I think it’s a foregone conclusion that they will miss CL play. Frankly, the talent on this club is not good enough to even luck into a CL spot if others hit trouble.

    Arsenal’s best hope this year, in my view, is 6th or 7th.

    The problem with the idea of ‘getting the checkbook’ out to fix this is that the supporting cast isn’t there. Even if they spent $120m (and spent it wisely – not always possible in the present xfer market), they likely couldn’t improve the squad enough to get them where they need or want to be. AFC could spend that amount and get nothing more than three middling players (some are advocating just that…)

    Sure, right now it looks as though Wenger & co have been caught napping – significant loss of talent and little coming back but money. Perhaps he has. However, what we don’t (and can’t) know is who the club might have been chasing (unsuccessfully) in the past. Whenever you hear of club A signing someone for big money, you can be sure 2 or 3 others are cursing their luck after pursuing the same target and losing out. Sometimes, when the music ends, you’re left without a chair. That is Arsenal right now. Now is not forever.

  13. John Bladen says:

    Hope everyone had a great weekend.

    Ed: Szcz isn’t Almunia. He isn’t Tim Howard or Van Der Sar either.

    Your point about the defense is much more relevant. For every modest improvement (PM), there is a step or three backwards (Sagna injury, Jenkinson pressed into duty much sooner than Wenger expected, Vermaelen injuries, Koscielny playing out of position/badly, Song!!!! etc etc).

    It’s been a horror show for the last year +, really. While I’d like to say it will be different when the ‘top four’ can play together injury free for a while, it is more appropriate to say that no EPL club should leave themselves so thin at the back.

  14. John Bladen says:

    Roberto: that’s an idea that could really take off!

  15. Gervinho’s rise has filled up a few offensive gaps but Wilshire needs to come back to see how good arsenal can truly be and their defense is still not good enough to handle manchester red or blue, the london blue or liverpool

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