Requiem for a Dream – How Barcelona’s Prodigal Son Became Their Most Damaging Signing in a Generation

Cesc Fabregas

To all intents and purposes, the time of Cesc Fabregas at Barcelona is now up. While nothing has yet been signed, nor even officially agreed, he is expected to move to Chelsea in the very near future. And, if that falls through, it is no secret that the club are willing to ship him off to any club that can give them in excess of 30 million euros and agree terms with the player.

This is Cesc Fabregas, a Catalan born and bred. A product of Barcelona’s La Masia academy, signed by their greatest-ever coach in an act the sheer inevitability of which had seen it expected for half a decade. A world class midfielder and Spanish international, with La Liga, the Copa del Rey and both the World Cup and two European Championships on his CV. It would seem fair that people are asking just why the club would want to sell him.

They should not be asking that at all. Instead they should be asking why he was ever signed in the first place and why it has taken the club so long to part ways with him, because Cesc Fabregas is arguably the most damaging signing that Barcelona have made in living memory.

When considering a claim such as that, one needs to draw the distinction between a bad player and a bad signing. Cesc is far from a bad player. In fact, he is world-class. There have been players far worse than he recruited to play at the Nou Camp. What made him so damaging to what was, at the time, the best team in the world is a matter of complex contextual considerations, as much about the team making the signing as about the player himself. Many clubs have made big, unnecessary signings in the past and will do so in the future, without doing the damage that Barcelona did to themselves with this deal. So what made it so different?

This is a detailing of just how the signing of Cesc Fabregas disrupted the best parts of Barcelona, hampered improvement of the worst, left three successive coaches with the almost impossible task of either integrating or dropping him without further damaging the side and, in the end, precipitated the fall of Barcelona from the greatest team in the world, to mere also-rans.

It all began eleven years ago.

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The First Goodbye

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When Cesc moved to Arsenal as a youngster in 2003 he was leaving behind the club that he loved, for financial and footballing reasons. Barcelona were on a run of four seasons without a trophy and everything within the club was in a state of flux. They had just removed what was at that time the most ruinous board in their history and had a mismatched hotchpotch of a squad. Further, contrary to romantic revisionism, Barcelona has not always been a club devoted to promoting youth as a first and most-loved measure. They had spent years making disastrous signings and the only two La Masia products who had become first team regulars under the previous regime were Xavi and Puyol.

Meanwhile, over in North London, Arsenal were one of the most successful, entertaining and popular sides in Europe, with a superb reputation for developing youngsters. They were also, due to differences between the contract laws in Spain and England, able to offer the young Fabregas far, far more money. At the time no-one could have foreseen the success and focus upon youth that Joan Laporta’s new board would bring to Barcelona, so logic suggested that Cesc would have to be insane to stay at Barcelona merely for love of the club. That battle was won by logic. His next move was pure emotion for all parties.

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Return of the Prodigal

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After years of private discussions, dressing room pranks from international team-mates and outright public flirtation from both parties in the press, Cesc finally returned in the summer of 2011 and even then it was not straightforward. The then manager and Cesc’s all-time idol, Pep Guardiola, made Fabregas his project. This was the man whom he and his whole squad wanted. Guardiola pushed the board to make the move, reserved his old squad number for him and then, when it looked like things were going to fall apart for yet another summer, convinced Cesc to submit a formal transfer request to Arsenal, thereby forfeiting millions of euros in loyalty bonuses. It was not merely the money though that kept Fabregas from submitting that request sooner. As much as he loves Barcelona, he had also come to love Arsenal. In a faltering, trophy-starved side without other real stars, the club had built their team around him and he was their most-loved player. He had also come to view coach Arsene Wenger as a father figure. Leaving, even to go home, was to be a tremendous wrench. For their part, Arsenal and their fans adored him right back and did not want to see him go. However, Fabregas and Arsenal were not the only parties influenced by emotion.

At the time of the move, Barcelona were the newly crowned champions of Europe and acclaimed as indisputably the best team in the world, while some even went so far as to call them the best ever. The engine room of this footballing masterpiece was a midfield made up of the ruthless and clinical Sergio Busquets, the quietly ingenious Andres Iniesta and the relentlessly dominating Xavi Hernandez. Ahead of, and often amongst them, was the best player in the world: Lionel Messi. This diamond formed a perfectly balanced machine in which every cog was essential to keep it all running smoothly. The question that many outside of the club were asking was ‘Just where does Fabregas fit into this?’ The carping commentary from Arsenal fans was that they did not understand why he was leaving them to be dumped onto the Barcelona bench.

At £40 million, it was obvious that he was not being signed to be a substitute. Further, in their ranks they had the capable Seydou Keita and one of the most exciting and versatile young midfielders in the world, Thiago Alcantara, who had all the attributes to be a capable deputy in all of the three Barcelona midfield positions. Not only did they already have the perfect midfield, but they had the perfect cover, so just how would Cesc fit in?

The received narrative was that he was being signed to rotate with, and eventually replace, Xavi. This though seemed an odd fit. At Arsenal Fabregas had a free role. He could go anywhere, do anything. He bombed forward with merry abandon, in the classic mould of a Premiership attacking midfielder: Fast, furious and unconcerned with what lay behind. Other players had to fit in around and cover for him. This is the antithesis of the disciplined, controlled Xavi. To truly become the heir to Barcelona’s vice-captain, Cesc’s game would have to change dramatically, so why was his signing so essential to the club? In a footballing sense, it was not at all. Barcelona’s desire for Fabregas was purely, decisively emotional.

The club’s recovery from an abject mess to become the best in the world coincided with Fabregas’ rise to top Premiership midfielder. They even faced each other across the pitch in the 2006 Champions League final. This grated with the Nou Camp hierarchy, as well as with the players who had either grown up with him at La Masia, such as Gerard Pique and Lionel Messi, or who came to know him through the Spanish national side. In the public proclamations of the club and its players it was clear that all of them considered him to be a player who was ‘stolen’ from them. During the Spanish national team’s celebrations after winning the World Cup in 2010, Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique publicly forced a Barcelona shirt onto Fabregas. Then a year later the same two posed with a picture of him while enjoying the hospitality of Arsenal’s training ground ahead of another Champions League final. This sense of inevitability and expectation extended beyond the dressing room and into the boardroom. Speaking in February 2011, former Chairman Joan Laporta said “The English come here to do fishing. They came to fish for Gerard Pique and Cesc. It’s an issue of justice, we now want to recover them.

These words and actions clearly demonstrate a sense of entitlement. The signing of Fabregas was not something being rationalised as a football decision. It was, as Laporta said, about what they considered to be justice. They saw Cesc as theirs and intended to take him back. To them it was righting a wrong. Indeed, in the same interview Laporta also made it plain that it was fully understood to be a non-essential transfer from a footballing perspective, saying “Cesc is not urgent while we have Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets and Keita.”

This emotional and unprofessional approach to a £40 million signing was to cost Barcelona far more than money in the years to come.

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2011/12: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Cesc?

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Fabregas’ first two appearances were as a late substitute and each saw him contribute to a trophy-winning victory. First, in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup, he linked up with Messi and Alexis Sanchez, with the former scoring a dramatic 3-2 winner against Real Madrid, to seal an aggregate victory of 5-4. Then, during a tense UEFA Super Cup match against Porto, he latched onto a Messi through-ball to brilliantly control and volley home the second goal. When he subsequently added strikes in each of his first four league games, what criticisms of the move there had been fell almost silent. Almost.

Guardiola, faced with the question of how to accommodate Fabregas into the side without dropping any of his midfield maestros, chose mainly to move Iniesta into the forward line, playing on the inside left channel. This kept all of the key stars in play and put Fabregas into the closest approximation of the attacking midfield role that he had enjoyed at Arsenal. He was scoring and creating for fun. The problem was that Barcelona looked shaky. While Cesc scored away to both Real Sociedad and Valencia, Barcelona did not win either game, drawing each 2-2. In what was to become a 100 point league, dropping four points in their first four games was a near disastrous start.

It is of course to be noted that Barcelona’s defence was already in need of a new centre back. However, with Pique, Puyol, Abidal and the newly repositioned Mascherano at the back, they were in relatively strong shape. The big problem lay ahead of them. With Fabregas in and Iniesta moved or, as was the case against Valencia, not played, Barcelona’s shape would warp during matches. Cesc, being used to having the freedom of the pitch, would concentrate upon interplay with Messi and advancing into and beyond the forward line. This meant that when the opposition recovered the ball, they could find space to work where in previous seasons the more conservative Iniesta would still be positioned. Barcelona, never exactly world class at the back, are reliant upon shape and possession to keep goals out. The erratic positioning and aggressive runs of Fabregas negatively affected both and, to compound the problem, it is arguable that the goals that he was adding were not worth the cost. While he scored in the two draws, the shape issues contributed to the failure to turn those into wins. Meanwhile his goals in the other two games were non-essential stat padders in two comprehensive routs (5-0 and 8-0) of far weaker teams.

Throughout the season Guardiola tried other tricks to combat this problem, including a new 3-4-3 formation, having Iniesta and Fabregas interchange position and, eventually, playing Cesc in one of the wide forward positions. Far from solving issues, these changes simply added confusion to the mix and heat maps taken throughout the season would show exactly where the problem lay, with a big red blotch on Barcelona’s left channel. When they were paired together, Fabregas and Iniesta were practically on top of one-another. When Iniesta was up front, Cesc was clipping his heels; when the former was in midfield, the latter was stood on his toes.

The individual and team form of all but Messi suffered. Barcelona continued to win far more than they lost, due largely to individual quality and the record-breaking brilliance of the Argentine, but they did not look remotely as in control as a team as they had in the previous three seasons and questions were being asked about whether it was worth the upheaval to a world-beating system just to accommodate a new star. By the start of December they had already dropped eleven points. Then things took a turn for the worse for Fabregas personally. On the 8th of February 2012 he scored the opener in a Copa del Rey semi-final win over Valencia. He did not score again that season.

Fabregas was by no means the only out-of-form attacking player at Barcelona, but his decline was by far the most stark, to the point at which Pep Guardiola, having taken him off after a string of misses in a league win at home to Valencia, physically shoved him away from the pitch. It was written off as playful banter in the post-match discussion, but there was nothing playful about Guardiola’s expression. He looked like a man who had momentarily lost his temper.

Worse was to come two months later, when Cesc squandered three glorious opportunities that could have put their Champions League semi-final against Chelsea to bed in the first leg at Stamford Bridge. Instead they went on to lose the game 1-0 and the tie 3-2. In the league they lost their title to Real Madrid by nine points. Their only consolation was a Copa del Rey triumph over Athletic Bilbao, but it was not enough. Leaks from within the club alleged that Guardiola had told the board that certain players needed to be ejected from the club. One of them, before his first season was yet complete, was Cesc Fabregas. In the end though, Fabregas would outlast his coach. Exasperated and exhausted, Guardiola resigned his position as coach to take a year-long sabbatical. Barcelona had lost their greatest coach of all time.

It would be ludicrous to lay the blame for Guardiola’s departure at Cesc’s door. There were many factors involved, most especially the presence of a new board with whom Guardiola did not see eye-to-eye at all. Further, Guardiola himself was instrumental in Fabregas’ signing and made the changes that affected everything. All that said though, before Cesc’s arrival Barcelona were unquestionably the best team in the world and after it they were no longer even the best team in Spain. Had it not been for a season of unprecedented brilliance from Messi, they could have faced absolute disaster. The upheaval to team and system, its negative effect upon results and the loss of titles that came along with them, could have been avoided if Fabregas had shown even the slightest sign of being willing, or even able, to adapt his game, learn tactical discipline and stop leaving space for the opposition in every position that he occupied. That would have enabled him to fit the winning system, instead of forcing Guardiola to repeatedly rework it to fit the system to him. If the icy calm and composure of Barcelona at their best was a still lake, Fabregas was a rock thrown right into the heart of it.

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2012/13: Hollow Victories and Crushing Defeats

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With Guardiola gone, the board promoted his assistant, Tito Vilanova. This was a hugely popular move. Not only had Vilanova been a crucial tactical architect under Guardiola, but he was was loved and respected by the whole squad. With many of those players having just returned from having won the European Championships with Spain, spirits and confidence were very high and the team was set upon overhauling Real Madrid and once again becoming kings of Spain and Europe.

Vilanova’s plan was to make things more direct. The core concept of Barcelona’s famous passing game was not to be swept away, but instead it was to be adapted, placing less focus upon ball retention and more upon quicker attacking. The ball would go forward more often than the frequently lateral passing that had been favoured under Guardiola. This, it was envisioned, would get the best out of players like Messi and Sanchez, while playing very much to the strengths of Fabregas. On the surface, it was very effective. Barcelona went on an unbeaten run in the league that stretched into the middle of January, when they eventually lost 3-2 away to Real Sociedad. There was though something in the way the team was playing that set seasoned observers of the club on edge: Opposing teams were getting chances. Lots of them.

Even looking for the faster ball forward, Barcelona maintained their usual dominance of possession and were winning games. However, the number of shots being taken by their opposition was worrying. Sevilla and Celta took eight each and Deportivo thirteen. In Pamplona, Osasuna took an astonishing fifteen shots. Victor Valdes was being worked hard and it would not be excessive praise to say that he was saving as many points as the forwards were winning. There were two factors at work here and both related in some way to the transfer of Fabregas.

It was no secret in 2011 that Barcelona needed to reinforce their back line. Abidal had been ill and was to be so again. Puyol’s all-action playing style was taking its toll upon his body. This usually left Mascherano and Pique as the centre back pairing. The former is a short defensive midfielder, while the latter is frequently erratic. The pairing worked more or less, but would eventually be found wanting and the question had to be asked: Was it really a wise idea to spend £40m reinforcing the strongest area of the team, when that money could have been spent on the defence or saved to do so the following year? The summer after Fabregas joined, Thiago Silva was targeted, but Barcelona were blown out of the water by Paris Saint-Germain, who spent £35m on him. Instead the Catalans were left signing the completely unsuitable Alex Song for £15m and on far lower wages.

The second factor was that tactical switch. Going more direct was conceivably of benefit to multiple players at the club. Messi, Sanchez, Pedro and Tello are all quick and Fabregas, who plays like a Premiership attacking midfielder rather than in the mould of a Barcelona product, was to be key to freeing them. The problem though was that while this switch made sense in many ways, in others it made absolutely none. Pedro, Messi and Sanchez had hardly struggled in the old, wildly successful system and that system was a far better fit for Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. The switch also further drained the control that Barcelona was built upon. As well as the positional issues from the previous season, they now had to deal with fast turnovers due to longer, more speculative passing. Teams could break on them faster and more often.

Naturally these concerns were not expressed particularly loudly. It’s hard to criticise a team who are winning almost all their games, even if they are doing so by the seat of their pants, and the recurrence of Tito Vilanova’s cancer, coming so soon Eric Abidal’s relapse, put concerns about football into perspective. However, the issues ran deeper than was at first realised, as results were disguising another problem, it that it was not merely defensively that the systemic changes had negatively affected the side: The attack suffered too.

The use of the low block defence against Barcelona had become the default setting for their opponents over recent seasons. Faced with overwhelming technical superiority in the centre and little hope of seeing the ball for much of the game, teams arrayed their defensive line across the width of their own penalty area, with midfielders screening deep in front of them and the whole team almost entirely disregarding the wide channels as there was little or no chance of the short Barcelona side converting via a header from a cross. The idea was to put a wall where Barcelona are strongest and thus present Messi and co. with five, six, even more bodies to get past.

The team’s route through this defensive blockage had always been the use of quick, incisive passing: One-twos in and around the box, isolating and eliminating a defender at a time, before a cobra-quick finish. Now, with greater emphasis upon direct attacks and a single incisive ball to split the defence, that razor-blade of a style was blunted. The team was reduced to relying upon displays of individual brilliance, either in one of those Hollywood through-balls or in dribbling past multiple players. Individual technical brilliance got them so far, but then the most brilliant of all, Messi, pulled up with a hamstring injury against PSG and the folly of the changes was swiftly highlighted.

With Messi out, Barcelona fielded Cesc Fabregas in his ‘false 9′ role. There was a compelling logic in this: Firstly, he had played there before in the league with some success and secondly, it is the closest approximation of the role that he played brilliantly at Arsenal: Free, with cover behind and support around him. With big games coming, Fabregas had his best chance ever to show just what he could do in blaugrana. In the league, everything went well. He netted a hat trick against Mallorca and scored the winner in a 1-0 win over Levante. In the Champions League second leg though, he was substituted just after the hour, as a hapless and blunt Barcelona were struggling not to be overwhelmed on their own turf. Messi’s inspiration as substitute saw them through, even though he was not remotely fit. Weeks later he had to be brought on again away to Athletic Bilbao. The situation was clear: Cesc could play Messi’s role, but never in a truly tough match. Messi, barely even half fit, was fielded against Bayern Munich. The rest is history. Barcelona, who had been acclaimed as the best in the world less than two years before, were annihilated 4-0 on the night. Cesc came back in for the home leg, but without their talisman the demoralised Catalans rolled over lamely to eventually go down 7-0 on aggregate.

Outsiders and more casual fans gasped, but while the scoreline shocked everyone, the performances and results had been coming for a long time and many were expecting them to lose that tie. The direct system that had been invented to get the best out of multiple players, most especially Cesc, had actually diminished the whole team. The Liga BBVA league table, considered in isolation, refutes that statement, but observation confirms it. Barcelona finished 15 points clear at the top of the league, but it was a one-team competition. The champions, Real Madrid, were in a state of utter disarray that made Barcelona look like an oasis of calm. Manager Jose Mourinho had dropped, alienated and isolated club captain Iker Casillas, splitting the dressing room into multiple factions. Arguments were conducted publicly, via press and agent leaks. The atmosphere was bad and the results no better. Before the turn of the year, Real Madrid had already dropped an incredible 18 points. In January they effectively gave up on the league, focusing upon their dream of a tenth European Cup. From that time on, Barcelona’s run to the title was little more than a procession, which was good for them because, while results were still favourable, they were stuttering noticeably on the pitch and seeming almost to blunder to many of their victories. A team can do that in a pressure-free league, but if Madrid had been in good shape and chasing hard, Barcelona were likely to have cracked.

In Europe they did crack. They had been lucky to get past PSG and it had taken a herculean second-leg effort from Messi and Villa to overhaul Milan even before that. Against Bayern there was no mercy and through the result was inflated by incredibly poor officiating, Barcelona deserved little better.

With Messi out, Fabregas continued in his slot as the club strolled to the league title, but convinced few. He lacks Messi’s pace, dribbling and goal-scoring prowess. In the end he finished the season with just fourteen goals, scoring in only ten matches. Most telling was the way that he, as in the previous campaign, seemed to collapse when the pressure was on in the key months of the season.

Under Guardiola in the pre-Cesc era, Barcelona had earned a reputation for struggling through December, January and February, before erupting in the crucial title-winning months toward the end of the season. Cesc had proven to be the reverse and in that seemed to have brought not only his style from Arsenal, but also that club’s propensity for implosion during the latter half of a season. This pattern was to continue once more.

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2013/14: The Beginning of the End

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The summer of 2013 was marked by three major departures. Eric Abidal and Tito Vilanova both left the club, with the latter being replaced by the Argentine, Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino. The third departure was the most costly of all for the club and the presence of Cesc Fabregas over the two seasons prior played a major part in it.

Thiago Alcantara, for so long the great prospect, had grown tired of being overlooked. He had just won the European U21 Championships, scoring a hat-trick in the final, and the previous summer his father had negotiated a new contract for him that specified a minimum amount of playing time. If this was not matched or exceeded during 2012/13 then the buy-out clause in his contract would drop down to less than £17m. His total appearance time had fallen well short and both Manchester United and Bayern Munich (now with Pep Guardiola in charge) were circling.

The relevance of Cesc in this is plain. Before his arrival, Thiago was the go-to substitute and rising star. With an extra star midfielder to rotate into the squad, instead of becoming more important to the team he became less so. Successive coaches had struggled to juggle all the midfielders at their disposal and Thiago’s progress was being stifled. As the most versatile midfielder at the club, by rights he should have been a regular starter by this stage, but instead he was still ever the back-up, starting when the game was considered an unimportant walk-over and, absurdly, the board actually considered him expendable and did not try to negotiate a new contract with him. Disillusioned, he made the move to Bayern and Barcelona had lost the most exciting young talent to come through their ranks since Messi and Iniesta.

At the same time as this was going on, Cesc was engaged in a semi-public flirtation with Manchester United, conducted through the press. No-one believes he was truly seeking a move, but rather confirmation from the club that they still wanted him. The sale of Thiago was that confirmation and with the youngster and David Villa gone, plus Xavi aging and suffering from a chronic achilles tendon problem, Cesc was now an essential part of the team and Tata Martino, while an admirer of the Guardiola system, was tactically far closer to Vilanova. Directness remained the name of the game. In fact, the team became the most direct they had been in many years, seeking to free the pacey and skilful new signing, Neymar. The same strengths and weaknesses were on display as during the previous season and Messi was struggling with his fitness, but the club was still racking up the results early on and Fabregas was playing his part, especially when covering Messi’s position. This time though, there was opposition. Real Madrid were reinvigorated by new manager Carlo Ancelotti and their cross-town rivals, cup-holders Atletico Madrid, were in relentless, seemingly unstoppable pursuit of their first league title in eighteen years. It was a war that was to rage until the very end of the season, but Cesc’s battle to remain a Barcelona player ended in April, after arguably the four worst performances of his career.

In the build-up to the crucial Clasico against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu, much of the talk among journalists and fans was that Barcelona needed to go with a pacey front-line that could push back Madrid on their home ground, just as they had in the halcyon days of Guardiola’s early reign, when a match against Madrid was far less fearful than had ever been the case before. Tata though faced the problem than had been familiar to he two predecessors: Where to put Cesc. One might ask why he and those before him had not chosen simply to drop Cesc or or one of the other midfielders in such circumstances, but it is never that simple. Xavi, even at the tail end of his career, offers a control that no-one else can provide, Busquets is irreplaceable and Iniesta is a genius. Then there is Fabregas himself: A big money star who is likeable and hugely popular with his team-mates. Martino, a man with little reputation in Europe, lacked either the strength of will to leave him out, or the insight to realise just what could go wrong if he did not.

In the end, Barcelona won. They should though have been decimated.

Cesc interchanged with Iniesta on the left hand side of central midfield and attack. Neither is particularly pacey and Messi was under medical and technical orders to limit his sprinting, so as not to risk a further aggravation of his troubled hamstring. Tata’s solution to this lack of pace was to play the lightning-quick Neymar on the right. At first it all worked. Iniesta scored the opener at the end of a move straight out of the classic Barcelona mould. Real Madrid were passed into the ground and coolly scythed open. Then the capital side stood back up and hit back where Barcelona were weakest.

While there was a confusion down the left, with Fabregas and Iniesta typically occupying similar spaces, on the right it would be fair to say that there was nothing. Neymar himself was on his way back from injury and was being played out of his preferred position. This was done to get more from Cesc, but it resulted in getting a lot less from Neymar. Even worse, it left the always defensively-suspect Dani Alves completely exposed, with no cover at all. Madrid and especially Angel Di Maria were rampant. They equalised, took the lead and could have extended it by two, three, however many goals. Barcelona were in absolute disarray and Martino did not seem to have an answer. Most of the viewers did though. Fabregas had to come off, with either Neymar moving to the left or also coming off, as both had been utterly anonymous.

Neymar was eventually taken off in the 67th minute, after having won the penalty that pulled Barcelona level at 3-3. Cesc was taken off ten minutes later and Messi converted another penalty to win a game which was acclaimed as one of the great Clasicos. The question that many Barcelona fans and observers were asking though was just how decisive a victory could they have achieved had Martino chosen the ‘right’ line-up from the start. The huge win though kept the inquisition to a minimum.

Then he made the same mistake again.

The Champions League quarter-final first leg against Atletico Madrid was always going to be a close affair; Barcelona had met them three times already during the first half of the season and all three games were drawn. Further, with Valdes ruled out for the season and Pique subbed off injured after ten minutes, they needed to take something from the game. In this, arguably the biggest game of the season thus far, Fabregas was once again a shadow. With his side trailing to a wonderful strike from Diego Ribas, Martino finally took off Fabregas and restored Neymar to the left wing, with Iniesta also dropping back into his true position in midfield. The effect was as quick as it was brilliant. Iniesta fed Neymar with a perfect pass and the Brazilian scored a stunning equaliser.

They kept on knocking at the door, but Atletico held firm. Amazingly though, just eight days after being taught the lesson, Martino had apparently forgotten it and chose exactly the same set of attackers for the second leg. What was going through his mind at the time only he can say, but with Barcelona needing to score away, he went with a team and system that had failed to do so at home. In spite of only losing 1-0, his side were ripped apart and knocked out of the Champions League. Fabregas was an empty shirt on the pitch and was eventually dragged off and replaced by Alexis Sanchez in the 61st minute.

77th , 67th , 61st. Those were the times in the three huge games that Martino chose finally to take Cesc off. Each time he was deciding sooner. It seemed plain that he had learned the lesson. But no. Astonishingly, again just eight days later in the Copa del Rey final against Real Madrid, Martino once more deployed him on the left to interchange with Iniesta and, once more, it did not work. He was substituted in the 60th minute and Barcelona lost. At this stage it did not matter if Tata Martino had learned the lesson. His chance of remaining in his job, if he even wished to, was in ruins. And, with yet another late season crash in form, so was Cesc’s reputation as a Barcelona player. They somehow managed to stay in the title race until the very last day, but in the end finished the season trophyless, Tata resigned and those four games, in which Cesc proved an abject shadow of the player whom the Catalans had thought they were signing in 2011, were pivotal.

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The Last Goodbye

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It is not known who made the final decision. The rumour is that Luis Enrique, upon being offered the Barcelona job, told the board that he did not want Fabregas to be a part of his squad. While rumours in football are most often nonsense, it is to be noted that Guardiola did something similar when he took over, demanding the sales of Ronaldinho and Deco. Also worth considering is Luis Enrique’s formidable personality. Always full of passion, aggression and effort, it is perfectly reasonable to believe that he would find little use in a man as seemingly superfluous as Fabregas is in important matches.

In the end it does not matter who decided. The end result is the same: Cesc Fabregas has no future at Barcelona and will be sold. His dream is over.

History, so often perceived solely through numbers written in record books, may well remember him kindly. In three seasons he made 152 appearances, scored 42 goals and contributed 48 assists. That all looks impressive, especially as history will also remember him as a midfielder, rather than the myriad of free attacking positions that he was also given at the club. The stats though, as is so often the case, are misleading. If one considers the key goals (meaning those that either gave the team the lead, equalised or reduced a deficit), Fabregas scored just 14. That is only one more than the aging Xavi scored in that time, just four more than utility defender Adriano and fewer than than both Pedro (16) and Alexis Sanchez (27), both of whom were frequently dropped to make room for him. The truth is that Cesc’s record is inflated by annihilations of lesser teams and those watching him play did not see the kind of dominance that they imply. In contrast, the stats of Andres Iniesta are comparatively modest, yet he is utterly essential to the club.

There is always a blame game in football and the debate will hang over this saga, as it is one of pure theatre. The boy returning to his home club always makes good, wins them trophies and cries after scoring the winning goal in a final. That’s the narrative that everyone has been taught to believe. Certainly it can never, ever go as horribly wrong as this. He’s supposed to make them the best, not act as the catalyst for their astonishing decline from greatness to disjointed also-rans. But that is how it has worked out, and so the blame game begins.

The truth though is that there is no one culprit here. It was simply not to be. Guardiola and the Barcelona technical staff and board take their share of the blame. They are supposed to be the experts and thinkers who choose the right players for the club and balance the books accordingly. It was their decision to sign someone whose play clearly did not fit into the style and ethos of the club. It was their decision, guided more by emotion and sense of entitlement than by footballing logic, to spend the money that could have gone on a centre-back instead on Fabregas. It was their decision to break the old cautionary rule: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Their midfield was perfect, as solid as could be imagined, yet instead of capitalising upon that, they tried to improve it and wound up ruining it. They turned the engine room of their greatest-ever success into the nerve-centre of their unprecedented collapse, all by making the most damaging Barcelona signing in living memory.

That said, while the technical and administrative staff of the club made the decisions, Cesc himself is far from blameless. Other stars have arrived at Barcelona and failed. Some arguably more talented than he. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Juan Roman Riquelme are two world greats who have been chewed up and spat out at the Nou Camp. Fabregas though had advantages that no other failed star could call upon. He cannot point to linguistic barriers or integration problems. He was a product of their academy, personal friends with most of the squad and had played with many of them at either youth level or with the Spanish national side. There was no reason for him to fail. All he needed to do was learn tactical discipline and consistency. Had he learned to check and time his runs, he could have succeeded Xavi. Had he improved his finishing, he could have found a home in the forward line. Had he managed to play as well in the second half of a season as he usually does in the first, he could have forced the side to adapt to him. And had he managed all three, he could have become one of Barcelona’s all-time greats, just as he had always dreamed of being. Instead he managed none of them and he will be the one who suffers most for it.

In 2003, Cesc Fabregas left his great love, Barcelona, and then fell in love again with Arsenal. The decision to return home was about rejoining his first and greatest love. Now that he has been rejected, what he has found is that Arsenal do not want him back. Perhaps Arsene Wenger has watched the Barcelona saga closely and learned what it took the Nou Camp hierarchy far too long to. At Arsenal they now have Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere. While they may still love Cesc, they don’t need him any more than Barcelona did in 2011 and, unlike Barcelona, they have proven smart enough to make the practical decision, rather than the emotional one. They won’t disrupt what they have to get back what they had lost. This leaves Cesc in a kind of limbo. Neither of the clubs that he wants to play for want him, so he will wind up playing for Chelsea: A club for whom he has no love, and under Mourinho: a coach for whom he most likely has even less. Ironically, he will probably win more there than he ever did with his two loves, but somewhere deep down he may come to know the sad truth of the last three years: He should not have moved, because Arsenal were better off with him and Barcelona, the club of his dreams, were far, far better off without him.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

© 2014, Darryl Morris. All Rights Reserved.

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Posted on June 9, 2014, in Barcelona, Football, Transfers Out and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 69 Comments.

  1. Thanks for the good article. I agree with others that it’s a lot to throw on Cesc’s shoulders, but I think Barcelona’s disgraceful pursuit of Cesc and inability to figure him out point to the bigger issues there – arrogance, tactical rigidity, inability to integrate outside players, inability to get a decent defender, etc. I have to agree with Wegman above that it really pisses me off how Barca tapped him up for years, brought him back, screwed him up, and now he will be playing for Chelski and freaking Mourinho. I hope this episode and the purchase of Suarez will finally put paid to people thinking Barca are an ideal and “more than a club”. Their farewell statement to one of their prodigal sons being shipped off to play for Mourinho (of all people) speaks volumes about their lack of class – utterly disgraceful.
    Cesc isn’t blameless, of course, but I do feel sorry for him since he is paying the price while others can just shrug their shoulders and blame Cesc.
    On the up side, maybe Barca will finally learn their lesson to stop tapping up and buying Arsenal players. It’s pretty obvious that Wenger has always won in those trades and I expect us to profit again from the Sanchez purchase. I hope they have fun with Suarez whenever he isn’t banned.

    • I agree with most of what you said, but how in the world does selling a player to Mourinho show a “lack of class.” That’s totally irrelevant. And while I do agree that Barca were wrong to pursue him this way and buy him just because they felt he belongs to them, I disagree about the inability to integrate him. Like Darryl wrote, Barca’s system is so complicated and needs intelligence; Cesc didn’t have that and didn’t have the will/ability to learn/adapt. Alexis for example was clearly not fit in the beginning and was played out of position, but he worked his ass off to adapt and he did.

      • I agree that the sale to Mourinho is not the issue – it just irks me that he’ll be playing for Chelsea and Mourinho. However, I felt Barca’s farewell statement for Cesc lacked class. It was a needless jab to blame the player and try to save them face. I feel a club should be above that. Why not just cut your losses and wish the player well? That is my issue.
        I agree with your other point as well. I don’t see Cesc as blameless, but I don’t think he is alone. Again, their farewell statement was a bizarre attempt to cover their own guilt in the whole episode.

      • Yeah it’s true that the statement was classless tbh.

  2. What an article…such a good read! Explains the tactics well but he should never have left Arsenal.

  3. Was waiting for an article like this. Pure football genius represented by the words.
    Would want all the Wenger haters to read this.

  4. The faults are distributed across many shoulders as they should be, but the one to pay the highest price is Cesc. From one of the best midfielders in the game, he has been reduced to a discarded surplus who will probably never become the legend he deserved to become.

  5. Good post. I will be facing many of these issues as well..

  6. Woolwich Peripatetic

    While I think this is brilliant, it does skip over a few things.
    Firstly, in 2010-2011 if you had to pick a team as better out of possession, Arsenal or Barcelona, only the most deluded would say B. Arsenal had to be better because their passing was an order of magnitude more risky than Barca’s. Guardiola said as much on several occasions.
    Secondly, after three seasons of tiki-taka, the rest of Europe’s elite was starting to develop effective counters. Fabregas was brought into the side to provide the kind of passes that no-one else at the club could either see or attempt. Which he did.
    Thirdly, and this is almost stereotypical, in Spain you pass through defenders, in England you pass around defenders. The pace and the physicality are very different, as Özil pointed out. Since Cesc left Arsenal’s style has radically altered to produce a different kind of attack, more about movement than intricate passing, in part because of the additional defensive security it offers.

    Still a brilliant post though.

  7. It will be interesting to see how Cesc does under Mourinho if he has not tactical awareness and leaves huge gaps in his wake. I don’t care for Mourinho but you can’t say he does not do his research. He seems to think Cesc has some tactical awareness because he does not let his team maraud all over the pitch and not track back.

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