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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