Sports

EPL Analysis: Trying to Understand Cesc Fabregas

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Let's talk about Cesc.

As discussed numerous times on this little ol' slice of the Interwebs and elsewhere, it's very difficult to quantify and access soccer players analytically and determine their actual value in winning and losing games. With so many players and leagues around the globe and precious few statistical metrics there's no way to assign a handy-dandy baseball term like WAR (wins above replacement).

Soccer arguments and debates seldom use stats. If they did a guy like Zlatan Ibrahimovic might be bandied about as one of the best of all-time. No, soccer debates tend to take a more "blood-and-guts" approach.

It's an empirical debate, with your own passions tending to cloud something. You can't just pull up www.soccer-reference.com and access how Pele's 1965 club season at Santos -- 49 goals in 30 league games, FYI -- compares to what Lionel Messi did at last season at Barcelona -- 54 goals in 55 games across all competitions(*). Again, there are too many variables in play, before you can calculate a standard deviation.

(*) Hypothetically, the 2010 version of Messi would wreak more havoc in 1965 than that year's Pele in the modern day, right?

So, after being plucked away from the Barcelona youth academy in 2003 as a scraggly-haired 16-year-old this is what we know for sure about Cesc Fabregas' career at Arsenal.

303 games played.
57 goals.
100 assists.
2 PFA Team of the Year selections (2007-08, 2009-10)
1 major trophy (2004-05 FA Cup)
1 Champions League runner-up (2006, incidentally losing to Barcelona.)
1 PFA Young Player of the Year (2007-08)

Those are the cold, hard indelible facts.

How do we assess those eight seasons in North London, especially from a nice comfy perch from across the Atlantic?

Do we think about all the breathless words written about Fabregas' talent and how he'd usher in a new, era of club football in the Premier League? Or do we remember his utter lack of success in the trophy department for Arsenal?

Should Arsenal fans be gnashing their teeth, cursing Arsene Wenger for selling the club's best player -- for a financial windfall it must be said? Or should they scorn Fabregas for his constant, school-girl level flirtation with Barcelona seemingly for the last four seasons?

The bitter irony for Arsenal today is that Wenger's grand design for the club in the post-Invcibles seasons, in slowly allowing the Dennis Berkamp's to retire, the Patrick Vieira's to move to greener pastures, etc. was actually in a way quite noble. The Frenchman, amazingly and against the entire tide of the cash-rich Premier League, didn't want to outlay huge sums of cash on individual players. Instead Wenger wanted to develop a young, cohesive, free-flowing core of players who would play, "the right way" and win titles in the process with Fabregas as the cornerstone.

Does this sound vaguely familiar?

Sort of like what Barcelona has done the last half-decade, although, the comparison takes a hit when the Catalans outlay gigantic sums of cash for guys like Fabregas, David Villa, Alexis Sanchez, Ibrahimovic, etc. Barcelona, of course, has won trophy after trophy in the last 24 months and have been hailed as the best club side in the last 20 years.

In that regard, you can't fault Fabregas for wanting to go back home, grow a perma-3/4 length beard and bro-out with his Catalan pals. When given the easy option: join a established winner as a surplus part, or toil futility against a rising tide of competition, almost all modern-day athletes are going to chose the first option.

Two syllables: LeBron.

Okay, that his plan in theory heading to South Beach with his buds.

Where I'd be upset today if I'm an Arsenal fan was Fabregas was the key cog, the prototypical new-century, two-way midfield dynamo that Wenger pinned his fortunes on -- In Cesc, We Trust. Did the Spaniard ever repay that trust? Every time it seemed Arsenal was ready to take that next step, something would go wrong -- often Fabregas getting injured (less than 30 League games the last three seasons) -- producing another false spring. Should the club's misfortunes, well specifically lack of trophies, all be pinned on Fabregas? Did Fabregas -- even though you can say he scored that penalty on a broken leg -- somehow contribute to the club capitulating at every key juncture?

Is Fabregas, for the all the platitudes, the Premier League version of Dan Marino or Karl Malone -- great players to never win?(*) (On the club level, since we all know Fabregas was a squad member on Spain's Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 winning sides.)

(*) Is this a fair argument to apply to soccer players? Does winning go hand-in-hand with greatness? Or is this the inane stuff of tiresome sports talk radio debates?

At some point, he does have to shoulder some of the responsibility for Arsenal's shortcomings after becoming a regular in the 2004-05 season. He was (eventually) the captain from 2008 onward, the man in the middle, the key player ... yet every single time the Gunners came up empty. To quote David Brent, "I'm not saying he's unlucky, but if he fell into a barrel of tits he'd come up sucking his own thumb."

Thinking, though, that one player and one player alone can win titles is a little foolhardy. In the 2006 Champions League final Arsenal against Barcelona the Gunners still had Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Sol Campbell, Freddy Ljungberg, yet Barca had Samuel Eto'o, Ronaldinho, Deco, Mark van Bommel, Carlos Puyol, etc. (Fabregas was injured for the 2011 Carling Cup final, as Arsenal lost to a soon-to-be relegated Birmingham City.)

Perhaps some of this is revisionist history, or at least 20/20 hindsight perspective but it's worth throwing in the stew of Fabregas' career and it's not necessarily his fault.

As far as it goes in England right now, Spain can do no wrong. The English wish they could be Spain, but they can't, hence having a young, dynamic Spanish midfielder at one of the Premier League's marquee clubs was the next best thing. So everything Fabregas did, every touch was amplified by having that "continental magic" and special "tactical nous." That's not to say this wasn't true, but a lot of times it felt like there was a lot of projecting of what Arsenal's game was supposed to look like(*), to enter that rarefied air where some unwashed clubs like Stoke or whomever Sam Allardyce was coaching shouldn't even be allowed on the same field as the Gunners.

(*) Isn't this part of the beauty of soccer. You can try to play "champagne football" like Arsenal, but three points end up being three points regardless of how they're achieved?

In short, Fabregas was anointed and hailed universally as a great player (myself included), but his individual greatness wasn't enough for Arsenal to hang with Chelsea, Manchester United and now Manchester City. As the keystone for Wenger's plans for the last six years, Fabregas fairly or not, comes up short. He was supposed to be this transcendent, great player, but what do we have to prove this outside the platitudes? (Again, this is the soccer is art, other sports are math, argument.)

Or look at it this way: our eyes saw a great player, but what do we have tangibly to prove this?

And now in leaving the North London club for greener pastures in Catalonia, he diminishes Arsenal's stature in the process, though the big fat paycheck from Barca -- assuming it clears -- should help Wenger & Co. start a new era at the club after six trophy-less Cesc-era years.

Fabregas is a great talent and probably an elite player -- the trophies will come at Barcelona.

But for as good as Fabregas was -- or was was supposed to be in our minds -- wasn't enough to rub off on the rest of the Young Gunners.

And with that in mind, don't weep for him, a club like Arsenal should -- in the end -- demand to do better. Time to move on.