Dr Saintlove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Trust the Liebherrs

Benjamin Franklin was not quite right. While death and taxes are certain, there is one other certainty that stands alongside them: Southampton Football Club will be relegated at the end of the 2014/15 season. They’ve sold all their star players and may not even be able field a full squad of senior players, instead relying upon untried kids to fill their shirts, while the unscrupulous owners shamelessly strip the club of its assets ahead of a cut-price sale and ignominious decline and fall on the pitch.

At least, that’s the story that we’re being told in the media. The truth is that Southampton, while being forced to part with many of their stars by player power and ruthlessly exploitative larger clubs, are actually engaging in an inventive, brave and intelligent rescue strategy which sees them forcing the buying clubs to overpay for almost every player, while at the same time doing smart business in bringing players in.

The following is an exploration of why the narrative of the falling stars of the south coast was constructed and how Southampton FC are quietly and confidently defying it at every turn. It starts, as most such stories do, with lazy journalists.

A Summer of Discontent

The summer is a curious time in football journalism. On the one hand there is typically very little happening, yet on the other there is always a buzz of ceaseless activity. Newspapers are crammed with stories about big glamour moves and exciting newcomers to the Premier League, as the giants of the English game strive to rule both domestically and in Europe. Of course, the back pages of the newspapers are actually a smokescreen; a deceitful blend of educated guesses, hopeful speculation and outright lies, going uncontested and with narratives switching from day to day without anyone ever taking the time to query source or substance. One day a player may be destined for Manchester United, the next he is a certainty to join Chelsea. Spin upon spin, lies on top of lies. No-one complains, largely because it’s mostly taken with a pinch of salt and, importantly, it’s actually rather fun. This summer though has been somewhat different.

Every four years the World Cup is good for filling five months of back pages, or rather as many weeks as England last, after which the pages are only half-full and the transfer speculation rumour mills kicks into action to fill the rest, eventually taking over the whole when the tournament ends. After spending the entire qualification stage justifiably playing down England’s chances of accomplishing anything at the World Cup, the press did what it always does and turned up the pressure just before England kicked a ball. The reasoning behind this is depressingly pragmatic and obvious: Newspapers have to fill pages and a double-page spread of ‘Uruguay are probably going to fist us’ is not going to sell copies. So the optimistic cheerleading began and then turned inevitably into recrimination when England proved to be as turgid as was originally predicted. This was exacerbated by the surprise showing of Costa Rica, who also proved better than England.

The press’ post-World Cup tradition of a ‘Sack the Manager’ campaign reared its head in a minor way, but fell flat and was quietly swept away without further comment when it received zero support due to not even the most bellicose of bar stool Ron Managers being able to come up with a master plan that would have seen England do any better. So, pretty much every World Cup avenue for filling pages was done, except for one: The post-World Cup transfer bonanza.

After every World Cup it seems that sanity vacates the building and every previously little-known player who did well until their nation’s inevitable quarter final exit is suddenly on the brink of a mega-money move to England or one of the two Spanish giants. This time though, the World Cup did not really fuel any serious increases in profile, other than that of James Rodriguez and he immediately made it plain that it was Real Madrid or nowhere for him. To compound this problem for journalists, the next big move, that of Luis Suarez, was outgoing. Having helpfully repaid the Football Writers Association for their Player of the Year award by providing a good week or so of easy copy by picking up the third ban of his career for biting an opponent, Suarez upped sticks for Barcelona without looking back. And, to date, that has essentially been it for big transfer stories.

That is not to say that there have been no incoming signings at all. There have been and some of them have been expensive, with Fabregas to Chelsea and Lukaku to Everton, but no truly inspiring incoming deals have gone beyond the fantasy speculation stage. The men paid to cover the ‘Best League in the World’ (© Sky Sports), so used to summers of huge transfer deals and star signings, have been starved of any morale boosting, copy-shifting incoming moves.

When a summer is going as badly for journalists as this one, there is only one solution and that is to find a narrative. This is where Southampton enter the story.

Slaughtering Saints

It is frequently said that in England we like to ‘build them up so we can knock them down’. Southampton FC is a case in point. Aside from the resurgence of Liverpool and the collapse of Manchester United, Southampton were the story of the Premier League in the 2013/14 season. A side in only their second season back in the top flight took everyone by storm, with a style of play that bore comparison to some of the very best in Europe. They were attractive, fearless and did their business in what is universally declared to be ‘the right way’, by making comparatively few expensive signings, investing large sums in their training and youth academy infrastructures and giving young talent the chance to star in the Premiership at ages at which other clubs would have been loaning them out to mediocre Championship sides. The press adored Southampton and never more so of course than when the first crack appeared in the veneer and the stories could begin in earnest.

In January, Chief Executive Nicola Cortese resigned from Southampton, having led the club from League One to near guaranteed safety in the Premier League in the space of just three and a half seasons. The reason behind this departure was cited as his inability to convince club owner Katharina Liebherr (daughter of Saints’ saviour, the late Markus Liebherr) to back his vision of pushing Southampton into the upper echelons of the Premiership and into the Champions League. The press pack was furious in his defence. This was a man daring to dream, building a club for sustained success and here was the unscrupulous landlady crushing his aspirations beneath her heel. There were though a few things that the press conveniently forgot in their campaign on behalf of the outgoing Cortese:

  1. They themselves had slated him as a foreign banker ignorant of the sacred ways of English football, right after he sacked tabloid favourite Alan Pardew and replaced him with Nigel Adkins.
  2. They did it again after he sacked Nigel Adkins and replaced him with Mauricio Pochettino.
  3. Cortese’s grand vision involved, as it always had in the past, spending a vast sum of Katharina Liebherr’s money.

The smirkingly obvious cynicism of this rewriting of the press relationship with Cortese (who was extremely unpopular with them until about three months before he left) was compounded by another trait that they demonstrate with casual assurance: Barely-concealed sexism. With Cortese now gone and the alleged fire sale in effect, this unsavory trend is now in full swing.

The attitude of the English media to women in football is complex, but only in so far as they try, and usually fail, to disguise their hostility toward them, which is only ever toned down when there is an opportunity to cynically exploit them. In brief, women can be WAGs (handy for bikini shoots and blaming for poor international performances), they can be the ‘hot club doctor’, like Chelsea’s Eva Carneiro (useful for myriad ‘amusing’ jokes about groin strain), and they can occasionally be the patronised lineswoman like Sian Massey (when she’s in the right and the press want to finally get rid of a pair like Keys and Grey), but god forbid they actually have power at a football club.

Liebherr is the third major high-powered woman to come under serious spotlight from the English media. The other two, Delia Smith and Karren Brady, received varying degrees of scorn, contempt and withering sneers dependent upon the mood and requirements of the back pages at the time. Brady is frequently characterised as hard and cold, as well as having her appearance criticised and has never been allowed to fully live down an investigation into corruption in which she was implicated, even though she was never subsequently charged. Delia Smith largely escaped the outright attacks, due mainly to her celebrity status as the nation’s unofficial cookery teacher, but also thanks to her famous instance of drunken cheerleading:

The press grabbed that opportunity to pat a woman in football on the head and dismiss her with gleeful mockery. They will get no such opportunities with the inscrutable Liebherr and that is a major part of why they dislike her to the point at which they, even as Southampton embark upon their signing campaign, are still openly attacking her leadership. In a Daily Mail article by Sam Cunningham (the same paper whose Neil Ashton dubbed her a ‘dream wrecker’ in January), an unnamed source claims that “Getting Katharina to stabilise the club after Cortese left is like getting a lunatic to run an asylum.” For those who are not aware, ‘unnamed sources’ are very frequently examples of journalists making up quotes and insuring themselves against being sued.

The most common complaint levelled at Liebherr is that she does not ‘communicate with the fans’. It is certainly true that she is not one for giving interviews, but let us make a couple of things perfectly clear. Firstly, the press complaint about not being forthcoming with fans is a nauseating smokescreen. They do not give a tenth of a damn about the club’s fans. Their grievance is that Liebherr has not been giving them stories to fill out their column inches and help them coast their way to another early lunch. The second point is that exactly the same complaint could have been levelled at Liebherr’s late father when he was owner of the club. Just as she leaves communications to the likes of Les Reed and Ralph Kruger, her father left it all to Cortese. In fact, Markus Liebherr was almost universally praised for his silence, with the press stating that he was admirably keeping out of the limelight and letting the football men work unencumbered. So, if Katharina Liebherr is just following her father’s style of ownership, why was he praised while she is castigated? I think we all know the answer.

Burning Down the House

If the motivations behind the press interpretation of Southampton’s situation are murky, the situation itself would appear rather less so. They are shedding their most talented players and losing them to clubs who are direct impediments to any advance from their eighth place finish from last season. This has the appearance of a kamikaze approach to football administration and all the hallmarks of the ‘fire sale to be followed by club sale’ that the print media envisage. However, if you start asking questions and applying logic to the situation, the story begins to fall apart.

Southampton are in a no-win situation with regard to keeping their squad intact. Players have been tapped up, transfer requests have been filed and some players have threatened to go on strike if they do not get their move. If Saints keep them against their wishes, they will likely wind up with a miserable player in their team, underperforming on the pitch and hamstringing them, as well as sowing dissent and ill-feeling in the dressing room, before finally and desperately the club sells them off next January for half of what they could have had this summer. The days of ‘Let him rot in the reserves!’ platitudes are long gone (or at least they should be). Players are now assets worth tens of millions of pounds. No-one can write off that kind of money on a point of obtuse pride that belongs to an era when players were worth a tiny fraction of their present value.

So, if the Saints are over a barrel and have to sell the players who are demanding to leave, the only way in which they can come out at least level in the deal is if they force the buying club to pay over the odds to get them. Unsurprisingly from an intelligent and experienced businesswoman, this is exactly what Katharina Liebherr’s club are doing. Liverpool and Manchester United have already paid king’s ransoms to get their men and the message is out: Southampton may be a selling club, but they are not a club who sell cheap. If you want to buy from them, bring the big money or stay at home. Here I will examine exactly what Southampton have lost, are likely to lose and what they have been getting in return. It begins with the loss that started the collapse.

Mauricio Pochettino

In terms of managerial impact, Pochettino’s upon Southampton was arguably as decisive and revolutionary as the Premiership has seen from a new manager since the arrival of Arsene Wenger. At the time of his arrival, Southampton were on a minor undefeated run, but still looked very much like a team destined for the bottom three. They were great fun to watch, with a cavalier, creative attack, but through the centre of their midfield and defence they were soft and flabby; easy prey for all the Premiership’s aggressive attackers. Almost immediately, Pochettino changed this. With a combination of a high defensive line and relentless full-team pressing, Pochettino brought the Bielsa/Guardiola model of play to the Saints: A system that made up for defensive deficiencies in key areas by adding defensive work all over the pitch and lessening exposure at the back. Southampton not only stayed up, they did so comfortably.

The following season, Saints continued in much the same vein, only with strong defence-minded additions like Dejan Lovren and Victor Wanyama, plus a significant showing from the youth prospects whom the manager pushed to the fore more than ever. It worked like a charm and Southampton became the darlings of the media on their way to achieving their best-ever Premiership points finish and that was enough to earn Pochettino a move to Tottenham, with a massive pay rise. Overall, he would appear to be a fantastic signing for Spurs. However, there are question marks over him that, while never likely to be considered at a smaller club like Southampton, could well see Tottenham’s dream managerial signing become yet another in a long line of Levy casualties: He does not actually seem to be a winner.

If goes without saying that Pochettino’s Southampton won a lot of games, but for those watching the side regularly it was clear that something was not quite right there. For every time they excelled, such as away to Liverpool, an opposite performance can be found, such as the defeats away to Norwich and at home to Aston Villa, plus two notable collapses against Tottenham (in the away fixture they went 2-0 ahead, should have been four or more up by half time, and then lost 3-2). They could be by turns unplayable in one game and then unwatchable in the next. It would seem excessively harsh to criticise the team or the manager for this, given that it was still their best season in Premier League history, but a crucial factor is that Pochettino’s own words seem to indicate that he himself did not want Southampton to make the next logical step up and qualify for Europe.

When asked about the prospect of playing in continental competition, the Argentine claimed that the Europa League ‘kills clubs’ with its pressure upon squads and the imposition of Thursday-Sunday match rotations. While there is a case for this position, it betrays a lack of ambition for the club on the part of its manager. Manchester United and Tottenham were both extremely erratic all season and were surely there for the taking if Southampton really pushed to claim their league positions, but in the end they respectively finished eight and thirteen points clear of the Saints. Considering that all at the club spoke of ambitions to push the club forward, one is left wondering just what Pochettino was envisioning. Did he want to make the quantum leap from eighth to the Champions League? If so, did he want to do it in a single season, bypassing the upper midtable of the Premiership at a stroke?

While talk of the Champions League seems outlandish, what was and still is not so is the possibility of winning a cup. Southampton are a club with only one major trophy, the FA Cup, to their name and that was won thirty-eight years ago. With the Saints one of the obvious form teams in England and all the top clubs looking erratic and beatable in ways that had not been seen in many years in the Premiership, the chances of Southampton adding an FA or League Cup to their sparse trophy cabinet was a real possibility, especially given that they were effectively safe from relegation by February. The only problem was that Mauricio Pochettino clearly had no interest in winning either. He fielded weakened teams in both competitions until they were eliminated from each by a dreadfully mediocre Sunderland side. Not only were the teams weakened, but they also seemed undermotivated. The verve and aggression of the Premiership Saints was a country mile ahead of the tired, disinterested performances of the cup side. Of course, cup wins (and often even losing finals) come with Europa League qualification. The natural assumption is that Pochettino disregarded the football fans’ natural desire for trophies in order to consolidate their safe, if uninspiring, league position.

Of course, now that he’s at Tottenham, Pochettino will be required to compete for trophies. Unlike the Southampton fans, who are traditionally so starved of success that they don’t even notice when the chance of it passes them by, Tottenham’s fans feel the absence of a trophy deeply and consider a failure to qualify for Europe to be a disastrous end to a season. Then one must also consider that they actually are in Europe this season. With all this, plus last season’s shortcomings in mind, one can only wonder just how much commitment he will bring to the Europa League and the domestic cups. Surely the pressure from within the club will be too great for him to just let them fall by the wayside and yet he’s already proven that he does not himself care at all for any of those winnable competitions. That will be the question mark over Mauricio Pochettino next season: Now that he’s at a club that actively wants to take the next step up football’s ladder, is he the man who can guide them to it, or was Southampton’s inability to do so actually down to a critical flaw in his management.

Rickie Lambert

Transfer fee: £4m.
Realistic value: £4m.

Of all the players leaving Southampton, Rickie Lambert is by far the most loved and will remain so. Lambert was the catalyst for Southampton’s charge up the leagues, scoring the goals that turned them from a League One side into a Premiership club once more. He was a great servant to Saints and no-one begrudges his move to Liverpool, for two reasons: Firstly, because it’s his boyhood club and he is fulfilling a dream by moving there. Secondly, because Southampton were actually going to sell him to West Ham last January, only to have to ice the deal when Osvaldo headbutted Jose Fonte in training.

The truth is that while Super Rickie is a club legend for Southampton, he is no longer someone who can be relied upon to be the main man at a Premiership club. His link-play and set pieces are still very good, plus his penalties are as good as scored from the second he spots up the ball. However, his lack of pace frequently holds the team up (and was a major factor in the inability of playmaker Gaston Ramirez to make an impression for Saints) and he does not score enough in free play. A season or two as a squad player at Liverpool fulfils his dream, allows him to play with little pressure to be a main threat and sees him leave Southampton via the front door, always welcomed back with affection.

Adam Lallana

Transfer fee: £25m.
Realistic value: £12-15m.

In contrast to Lambert, Lallana will be lucky to if he gets through his first visit to St. Mary’s in a Liverpool shirt without having it doused by a bottle full of urine thrown from the crowd. Having frequently waxed lyrical about his love of the club, it took little more than a flirtatious wink from Brendan Rodgers for Lallana to immediately demand the move. While he took out a full page advert in Southampton’s local paper, it was no secret at all that his response to being told that the club were not willing to sell him was to threaten to go on strike. Saints, caught between a rock and a hard place, made the decision to be rid of a potential trouble-maker, even if he was still officially their captain. What they made sure to do though was ensure that, unlike the Lambert deal, Liverpool had to pay through the nose to get their man.

Lallana’s 2013/14 season was impeccable. In fact, he bore entirely reasonable comparisons to the best in his position in Europe. He scored and created goals, advanced play, opened even the best defences up with clever passing and showed impressive guile and trickery on the ball. In short, he looked every bit a potential Champions League attacking midfielder. All that said though, we are still talking about a player with just sixty-eight appearances and twelve goals in top flight football. Liverpool could have had far better value for money had they spent their money abroad. It must be pointed out that Lallana brings assets that a foreign signing likely would not: He’s already shown his ability to perform in the Premiership, speaks English, knows many of his team-mates well from club and international duty and helps meet quotas for domestic players. All that said, the price remains massively inflated.

With Southampton owing 25% of any fee to Bournemouth, they forced the transfer higher and higher and, even with Lallana threatening to strike, would not relent. It was a game of transfer market Chicken and eventually Southampton won. They may have lost their player, but they got far more than he is actually worth as it stands. The player’s own petulance also helped the club’s hierarchy out, given that by the time he left few Southampton fans actually wanted him to stay.

Luke Shaw:

Transfer fee: £27m plus add-ons.
Realistic value: £15-20m.

On the Southampton residual love scale, Shaw falls between Lallana and Lambert, though far closer to the latter than the former. Realistic Saints fans knew that he was not going to stay. In spite of coming through the club’s system, he was never a Southampton fan and interest from both Manchester United and his boyhood club, Chelsea, was always going to draw him away. The reason why he’ll retain the affection of most though is that he did things the ‘right’ way. There were no strike threats, nor unprofessional outbursts. He maintained his composure, awaited his move and then got it. With that settled, the question is ‘Is he worth the money?’ Yes and no.

On the ‘No’ side, Manchester United could have picked up a senior pro of far more experience for much less money had they shopped abroad. He was also frequently caught out at the back last season, with his aggressive wing play and patchy defensive positioning opening space for opposing attackers. However, on the ‘Yes’ side, Shaw’s defensive game can be greatly improved with experience and top coaching and he is unquestionably the most promising teenage full-back in Europe, possibly the world. His attacking movement is exceptional, his crossing accurate and his fitness and mobility excellent. Also, being as young as he is, he could conceivably be United’s left back for the next fifteen years, so if all goes well they will never regret what is, at least for now, an excessive fee. This is a rare instance in which both the buying and the selling clubs will likely be delighted with the deal struck.

Dejan Lovren

Transfer fee: £20m.
Realistic value: £20m.

Lovren’s greatest accomplishment of this summer was not moving to Liverpool, but rather doing so in a manner that will make him even more despised than Adam Lallana. If the latter may have to endure some booing when running out onto the pitch at St Mary’s, Lovren could well be on the end of the kind of reception that Daphne & Celeste got at the Reading Festival.

The circumstances of this transfer are much the same as that of Lallana: Liverpool made a bid, Southampton turned it down, the player threw a temper tantrum, threatened a strike and then, crucially, went public with his disaffection. He accused the club of lacking ambition and claimed that his ‘head is already at Liverpool’. It goes without saying that if Saints fans had had their way, his head would have gone to Anfield and his body would have been thrown into the Solent. What made it hurt all the more was that he is by far the hardest outgoing player for them to replace.

While Southampton have made a profit of approximately £12m on Lovren, this is not a deal in which they have put the buying club through the wringer. Whereas in the past it was always prolific attacking players who were hard to find, yet you could shake five good centre backs out of any tree in the country, now talented central defenders are as rare as rocking horse manure. Just last week Barcelona paid €20m for Jeremy Mathieu, a 30 year-old full-back who can also play in the centre. With that in mind, paying £20m for a 25 year-old international with proven organisational capabilities in a Premiership defence. Liverpool could have picked up someone for significantly less, but they’d have been taking a gamble on their ability to adapt to the Premier League, much as Saints did on Lovren a year ago. Overall this deal is not bad business for either side, but it is Southampton’s least impressive piece of transfer market brinkmanship.

Callum Chambers


Transfer fee: £16m (including add-ons).
Realistic value: £8m.

This is probably the strangest deal of the window for Southampton and, indeed, Arsenal. Chambers is clearly a talented young player and has potential, but was not even a guaranteed first choice at right back for Saints. He was alternated with Nathaniel Clyne depending upon the circumstances, with Clyne the man for attacking from the back, while Chambers was chosen for more defence-minded duties. That said, for all the talk about his defensive solidity, he often proved equally as error-prone as Clyne, most notably in the three-goal collapse away to a truly atrocious Spurs side. In that match Clyne was at fault for a goal and was substituted for Chambers, only for the latter to then make exactly the same mistake for the equaliser. What makes the deal especially odd is that Arsenal have a youngster of their own in Carl Jenkinson and, while he’s assuredly not a prospect on a par with Chambers, he’s not so inferior that it becomes sensible to spend such a large sum on another player who is still also simply a talented prospect. They have also signed Mathieu Debuchy from Newcastle.

An idea being mooted is that Wenger sees Chambers as a future centre back and if that is the case then that would make more sense from the perspective of the squad as a whole, but still not financially when it comes down to spending so much money on a player who made just twenty-one appearances for Southampton. It is a big money gamble and another case of Southampton getting maximum return for the loss of their player, while actually not even needing a replacement, given that Clyne is already in situ.

Morgan Schneiderlin


Mooted transfer fee: £27m.
Realistic value: £15-18m

The case of Schneiderlin is an unusual one. The French international is at once one of the most talented players at Southampton, yet also by far the most expendable of all those either sold or angling for moves to date.

An excellent all-round midfielder, with a great work ethic, a solid range of passing and good physical stature, Schneiderlin is a model of the Premiership ideal in the centre of the park. What makes him expendable though is the sheer volume of talent that Southampton have at their disposal in that area of the pitch. Steven Davis, Jack Cork, Victor Wanyama and James Ward-Prowse offer a range of contrasting talents and tantalising potential combinations. Cork is an all-rounder from deep, Ward-Prowse an incredibly promising playmaker who can also play wide, Davis is creative and industrious and Wanyama is a powerful physical presence.

Schneiderlin’s great asset is that he combines elements of all of the aforementioned. His down side is that he’s not quite as outstanding in any of them as the specialists above. So, he’s a talent who will command a large fee and, in spite of his going the Lovren route to angling for a move, Saints will not let him go cheaply. However, they also probably will not need to spend any of the money received on a replacement. Now that is good business.

Jay Rodriguez


Mooted transfer fee: £15m.
Realistic value: £0-15m.

Of all the Saints deals of this summer, this one would be the craziest yet if it goes ahead. Jay Rodriguez had a superb season at Southampton, netting fifteen goals in thirty-three appearances, all while usually playing either a deep second striker role or, more often, wide on the left, cutting inside. Excellent numbers and his season could have been even more impressive had it not been cut short by a cruciate ligament injury against Sunderland. It is this injury that makes the deal such a bizarre prospect.

A torn cruciate ligament is no longer the guaranteed career-killer that it was not so long ago, but it is still major and leaves a question mark over any player who has suffered one. Rodriguez may come back and be as good as, or even better than ever; or he could come back and be a shadow of his former self, racked by further injuries, fear of being tackled (psychologically crippling for a Premier League player) and poor form. It’s absolutely impossible to predict.

What can be predicted though is that surely Rodriguez will not be able to pass a medical before the end of the transfer window. If that is the case, one would assume that the deal cannot happen regardless. If it does still go ahead though, one suspects that it may not only be Rodriguez who is gambling with his career in the games to come.

The Last Men Standing

Assuming that the worst comes to the worst and all of the aforementioned leave, we must now consider just what the relegation-doomed wreckage that the press have warned us about consists of. When we do that we see that actually things are not bad at all. In fact, things look really rather good. We’ll begin with the manager.

It is safe to say that Ronaldo Koeman’s managerial career has not been as glittering as his playing days; it could even be called patchy. He has not won a major trophy since his Copa del Rey triumph with Valencia in 2008 and, in spite of having managed all three of the traditional giants of Dutch football, the last of his three Eredivisie titles came in 2007. So, not a great record at all? Think about it for a moment: This is the new Southampton manager and he is a man who has won trophies in Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. If anyone is touting his signing as a step down from Pochettino then they should consider that the Argentine came to Southampton on the back of having had his contract ‘terminated by mutual consent’ (football-speak for a popular former player being given the chance to quit before being fired) by Espanyol, with just nine points from thirteen games for the season. Also, unlike Koeman, Pochettino has never won anything as a manager.

As well as a trophy-winning record, Koeman also brings a certain star quality, having been an extremely high profile player, as well as great connections in the game, especially in Spain and his native Holland. As steps go this would appear, on the surface at least, to be rather more up than down and that exposes the first major flaw in the press narrative of the crumbling Saints: Just how did they attract a manager like Ronald Koeman?

The most convenient explanation is that he wanted to get on the Premiership gravy train and Southampton offered an easy station at which he could jump aboard. The thing is though that sticking around in the Premiership is heavily driven by success. A manager who fails at a smaller club like Southampton has little chance of a second bite with another, so if he wants to move onto one of the more promising jobs in the league he’ll need to be successful. So, why would a manager who wants to show his worth in a big-money league go to a club that is obviously being asset-stripped and doomed to failure? He would not. Clearly he has been told something different by the club and when you look at the business that the Saints are doing, it appears that what he has been told is far more accurate than what the press has been telling us.

So far Southampton have added Ryan Bertrand on loan to fill their gap at left back, as well as the Serbian international Dusan Tadic and Italian striker Graziano Pelle. The latter two were each recruited from the Eredivisie, with Koeman pivotal in convincing them to join, so already the managerial decision is paying dividends and, importantly, the Southampton owners are paying money. Between them Pelle and Tadic cost almost £20m. As asset-stripping exercises go, this seems rather atypical.

So, if we do a positional comparison of who Saints have lost and who they have acquired, we see that Bertrand will replace Shaw, Tadic will step into Lallana’s slot (albeit as a more orthodox winger) and Pelle will go straight in as Rickie Lambert’s replacement. If we are to assume the completion of the doomsday scenario, that really only leaves Lovren and Rodriguez in significant need of replacement, given that Clyne is there as right back and a multitude of players can fill the centre of midfield. What we are left with is far from a relegation-certainty of a squad. Actually, other than a suspect central defence, it appears to be a mid-table side:

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Then we come around to the simple fact that this is far from what the club intend to start the season with. Already they have begun negotiations with Celtic for centre back Virgil van Dijk and goalkeeper Fraser Forster. In addition they are reported to be trying to secure Ezequiel Schelotto and Saphir Taider on loan, and have been strongly linked with Dutch international Ron Vlaar and the rather more ambitious and less likely signing of striker Javier Hernandez from Manchester United. It does not require a second squad image to make plain that if they get even half of those Southampton will have a very competitive squad indeed and will have spent a sizable chunk of their cash windfall on the team, rather than sucking it out so that Katharina Liebherr can swim in it like Scrooge McDuck, as the media would have us all believe.

There is definitely a profit being made here. Southampton have been wildly overpaid for most of the outdoing players and if you look at how much each of those players were brought to the south coast for, the profits are actually staggering. That they’re being replaced with quality at lower prices would be considered brilliance in most businesses, but football is generally a idiot’s passtime, with people believing that every penny that comes into the club should be pumped into the pockets of players and their agents in some way, or else the club and their fans are being robbed. As it stands, Southampton will likely go into the 2014/15 season with a squad potentially as good as their old one, possibly even better.

Naturally the counter-argument to this position is that the incoming players are mostly untried in the Premiership, which is a notoriously difficult league to which to adapt. The newcomers could all shine, collapse or fall anywhere between those two positions. There are no certainties. However, were there really any certainties with the squad as it was?

How many less famous sides similar to Southampton have had great seasons and then fallen by the wayside during the next campaign? It has happened plenty of times. Indeed, look at Manchester United. With all the experience and that their squad and manager brought to the table last season, they went from champions to seventh place. With regard to Southampton, for all the apparent certainty that the outgoing players are now Premiership stars, they in fact have all had at most two seasons in the top flight. Further, toward the end of the season, Southampton’s performances and results declined. Was this a lack of motivation to progress or had they, as have so many others before, been worked out? It could be either case, but neither can be classed as a good sign. Saints may soar with their new boys, or they may crash. That though would have been true with the old boys too. Others may have paid star money to get those players, but that does not mean that they are yet actual stars. That has been the genius of Southampton’s recovery plan. They have sold potential stars for superstar money and, in doing so, have turned a potentially disastrous exodus into a possible triumph. They have been forced by other clubs to gamble, but they have both financially profited and, in turn, forced that same circumstance upon the apex predators of the Premiership.

Disaster? Fire sale? Don’t believe the hype, especially when it’s coming from people who are truly desperate for a story.

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© 2014, Darryl Morris. All Rights Reserved.

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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.

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© 2014, Darryl Morris. All Rights Reserved.