Fabregas the answer to solving Mourinho's attacking rigidity

Cesc Fabregas joined Arsenal in September 2003 - aged just 16, and was thrust into the first team by Arsene Wenger within two months of his arrival to become Arsenal’s youngest ever first team debutant.

By the age of 21, Fabregas had been made Arsenal’s captain and the Spanish youngster spent eight years at the club in total. His technical brilliance, allied to his agile, light frame created a ticking metronome at the heart of Arsenal’s midfield. An assist machine, with a steely determination to win, he soon become one of the Premier League’s hottest imports and most sought after talents in European football.

Arsenal had repeatedly rejected advances for Fabregas to rejoin his boyhood club, but the Spanish club’s unsettling tactics, combined with Fabregas’ clear desire to move, resulted in a bid of approximately £30m being accepted by Arsenal in August 2011.

When Fabregas joined Barcelona, the assumption was that he would be on the bench acting as understudy to Xavi before gradually taking over his role in the first team. However, Pep Guardiola had other ideas. Despite 212 appearances in the Premier League and 61 in Europe, and although Fabregas was considered by Pep Guardiola to be far from the finished article, the plan was to convert Fabregas into a ‘False 9’ striker - not to replace Lionel Messi, but to give the manager another option.

For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘False 9’, the role is similar to that of the central attacking midfielder, but perhaps more difficult to fulfill. The idea is that the False 9 acts primarily as a lone striker but drops deep into midfield where defenders can be dragged out of position, allowing the exploitation of space in behind via through balls to onrushing wingers or late runners from midfield. However, apart from having to be able to create in an instant, the False 9 also has to have the adaptability to be assertive in the final third, and be able to score goals too. Successfully adapting to the position requires tactical intelligence; intelligence that Guardiola believed Fabregas either possessed or could be honed to possess.

Having broken his tibia and with little hope of participating in the 2011/12 season, David Villa’s loss was Fabregas’ gain, with Guardiola deeming the Spaniard ready to fulfil the False 9 role – albeit ahead of time. Alexis Sanchez was recruited to play on the left flank, with Lionel Messi on the right and Fabregas rotating in-between. 

Few people really understand the level of detail, intelligence, focus and exertion required for a manager like Guardiola to create his brand of attacking football. Every run and movement has to be strategised and tirelessly rehearsed in training. There is a reason that Guardiola has become one of the most revered, successful and tactically disciplined managers of his era – and, like all managers, it stems from detailed work on the training ground.

Indeed, Fabregas commented on his period of adaptation, “I was free to do whatever on the pitch at Arsenal, and I wasn't tactically good," he said. "I was playing wherever I wanted, up and down. Here I have to work much more for the team, individually, and think about the team tactically.”

This is not a position that any player could easily adapt to, and make no mistake, Fabregas did struggle to adapt. He no longer had the naive freedom offered to him at Arsenal, and his tendency to play a more direct style, which had almost become part of his DNA, tended to upset the fragile balance of Guardiola’s precise choreography.

As Barcelona lost grip of the title in 2011/12 to Real Madrid, Guardiola grew impatient and started to lose faith in Fabregas’ ability to fully adapt. Despite putting in some impressive performances, Fabregas struggled to fit convincingly into the manager’s jigsaw.

When Man Utd came forward with a £40m bid in the summer of 2013, Barcelona were keen to sell, but Fabregas was not keen to give up his dream so easily, or move to Manchester. However, two months later, a change of heart. In an interview with The Guardian, shortly after the dawn of a new season, Fabregas opened the door to a return to Arsenal with a thinly disguised patronage of his former club.

The interview also made interesting reading for another reason, with Fabregas offering a reasoned analysis of why it was easier for him to flourish in the Premier League, but not Spain. On English football, Fabregas stated: “It's much more crazy, out of control, everyone attacking, pouring forward” The crowd plays a part. The crowd roar and the full-back bombs forward and then the other full-back goes forward… sometimes in England it feels like you don't have time to think, but that's more a mental question; it's more about your own aggressive intuition, the atmosphere. It motivates you but it means you lose control.”

In England, the aggression and high tempo was not a detriment to Fabregas’ ability to spot a pass or control a game from midfield, but an asset. Unlike Spain, players get caught up in the atmosphere of a match, move out of position, lose possession easily in the searing pace, thus creating more space for the likes of Fabregas to operate, not less.

Fabregas continued: “In Spain, teams work much more on shape; they're more tactical, more positional. A Spanish-style footballer, like [David] Silva or Özil, if they can find two seconds to think, will see the pass because there'll be space. In Spain, you're up against a Mario Suárez or a Gabi and what a pain they are! In Spain, reducing space is worked on more.”

Real Madrid midfielder Xabi Alonso once mocked the English mentality towards aggressive football: 'Tackling is not really a quality, it's more something you are forced to resort to when you don't have the ball…I can't get into my head that footballing development would educate tackling as a quality.’’ Fabregas agreed, “That's how we tend to see it in Spain: defenders don't swallow the dummies as quickly. In England the attacker goes, ping! and the defender dives in quickly, flying by, wheeee! In Spain the defender stays on his feet longer. “

For all the criticism of Fabregas’ perceived failure to adapt to Spanish football – or the Barcelona way, in his final season, the Spaniard's stats as a creator were only bettered in the whole of Europe by Real Madrid’s Angel di Maria. It is true that Fabregas’ goalscoring did show a trend of dropping off towards the ends of each season, but 42 goals in 151 matches can hardly be described as a poor return. Indeed the ratio was far better than he managed at Arsenal.

Throughout 2013/14 Fabregas’ was Barcelona’s third most used player behind Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano – but then, for Barcelona it was never about goals scored and assists provided, but adapting to a philosophy where anything other than perfection was dissected. At Barcelona, if a cog has a blunt edge and cannot be quickly polished, it's just as quickly discarded. 

From a winning perspective, Fabregas’ time spent at Barcelona could not be considered a failure; he got the domestic trophies he wanted, including La Liga, plus the Copa Del Rey and two Spanish Supercups. With Fabregas feeling he was being forced out, and Barcelona keen to sell, it was Arsenal that had first refusal, yet Wenger declined, preferring to stand by Mesut Özil and the emerging Aaron Ramsey.

Instead, Fabregas made his return to the Premier League at Chelsea in June for £30m, where once again he is likely to find the space to terrorise defences as he had done at Arsenal three years earlier. He might not fit into Barcelona's system, but back in England it will be like hand in glove. Indeed, Fabregas is perhaps even more dangerous now than before, operating under one of the most tactically astute managers in Europe whilst still coveting Guardiola’s principles in his memory bank - Fabregas could be the key to unlocking Mourinho's Chelsea potential, particularly their stilted attack.


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Chelsea is my tip for the title

I’m tipping Chelsea for the Premier League title.

I thought Mourinho did a good job on his return to the club last season, but he was clearly hampered by a strike force of collective duds. Therefore the £32m signing of Diego Costa is likely to be an upgrade, and while Didier Drogba is unlikely to terrify defences the way he used to, he will still be a good addition if used intelligently.

Cesc Fabregas is an inspired signing. Still only 27, we all know of his creative quality, but Fabregas could get double figures from midfield too. However, I am very surprised that Fernando Torres is still at the club. His goal record is poor and he’s lost a yard of pace since his Liverpool days – I can only imagine his wages are too high to provoke an offer.

Chelsea had the best defence by a mile last season, so Mourinho’s focus will be on the attacking end, and with Costa, Drogba and Fabregas supplying additional firepower - and the rapidly improving Andre Schurrle pushing on, I can see them getting close to the 90 point mark.

Fighting Chelsea for the title will be Man City. They have too much talent to fade away, but will need to start better than they did last season and be more focused throughout. Despite being Premier League champions, they were sloppy at times and a mess at the back whenever Vincent Kompany was absent. But the £32m signing of centre back Eliaquim Mangala and addition of defensive midfielders Fernando and Bruno Zuculini provide evidence that manager Manuel Pellegrini is looking to address these defensive concerns.

With Louis Van Gaal in charge, I would be astounded if Man Utd did not make the top four this season. Obviously, he has an aura about him that David Moyes did not, and that, married to his experience and the fact that United do not have the distraction of European football should make a big difference to them.

United had the joint best away record in the Premier League last season, keep that up and rectify their baffling home form and they’ll be right up there. However, my doubts about Utd’s ability to sustain a title challenge revolve around their defence; I’m really surprised they haven’t bought a centre back yet. Although there’s still time, it’s hardly ideal preparation for the new season.

Obviously this is a concern for Van Gaal, hence the 3-5-2 formation used in pre-season, and such doubts make me wonder whether United are capable of putting in a strong title challenge.

I expect the battle for fourth place to be between Arsenal and Liverpool, with Arsenal edging it. The effect of Luis Suarez’s departure, and the fact that Liverpool will be playing in Europe next season, cannot be underestimated. Suarez was a force of nature. The Uruguayan took all the pressure off the likes of Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Stirling; they excelled alongside him but will now have to step up and shoulder the burden of winning matches – a big ask.

Having said that, Brendan Rodgers is clearly a very intelligent and flexible manager. Rickie Lambert will give them another option, Adam Lallana further attacking threat – but for me they need to buy a world class striker capable of scoring 20+ a season, and so far their attempts appear to have hit a brick wall. Centre-back Dejan Lovren has joined Lallana from Southampton, but for me Liverpool are still weak at the back and for all his influence and ability to control a game I don’t see the ageing Steven Gerrard as the right man to shield the back four.

As for Arsenal, the signing of Alexis Sanchez is an excellent one. If the Chilean can duplicate his attacking prowess at Barcelona, he will certainly add goals from wide positions. When Theo Walcott is fit, Mesut Ozil will have multiple angles to hit, which should make him more effective following a dismal debut season.

Still, Arsenal’s problems remain much the same, notably Wenger’s tactical inflexibility and a squad that is blunt at both ends. Olivier Giroud doesn’t cut it against the top sides, and if he gets injured for a long spell there is no one that can be relied upon to deputise. Arsenal’s defence has the same problem, threadbare with only Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker as trusted centre backs, while there is a question mark over whether new signing Mathieu Debuchy has the same defensive quality as the departed Bacary Sagna.

Then of course there’s the defensive midfield role, still occupied by Mikael Arteta, who is inadequate at shielding the defence in key games. Following the departure of Sagna and Thomas Vermaelen, Arsenal’s defence appears to have gone backwards, and asking 19-year-old Calum Chambers (£16m) to fill the void and provide the quality required to compete for major trophies is a typical Wenger gamble that could backfire.

Finally, Everton and Spurs are likely to provide stubborn opposition. Everton have blown £28m on Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry has joined on a free from Man City, but these players were already at the club last season, so the Toffees have not upgraded anything yet.

Tottenham have also been slow to make additions, but do have a bright managerial prospect in Mauricio Pochettino. This could make Spurs the surprise package next season in the battle for fourth, but I wouldn’t’ hold my breath, or open my wallet and bet on it.

Of course, we still have the mad scramble known as ‘Deadline Day’ on August 31 to look forward to, but at present this is how I see the top 7 finishing:

1.       Chelsea
2.       Man City
3.       Man Utd
4.       Arsenal
5.       Liverpool
6.       Tottenham
7.       Everton


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Damning verdict four years ago still stands today!

It's not often I look at posts I've previously written, but today I travelled back in time to April 2010 - four years ago, and read the content of my own Arsenal 2 Barcelona 2 match report.

The purpose of this blog piece is not to big myself up, but to try to gauge how I could foresee four years ago what so many Arsenal fans still cannot see today. And wonder what makes them think that if Wenger continued, things would be any different four years from now.

Here are some excerpts from that match report:

31/03/2010: Champions League Quarter Final Leg 1: Arsenal 2 Barcelona 2

"It was only a miracle that the Gunners were not a handful down as Wenger’s tactical ineptness was brutally exposed.

"For all Wenger’s genius in turning youth into world class talent and assembling teams capable of playing excellent pass and move football, I'm absolutely convinced that, tactically, he’s the worst top level manager in the business – and the first half proved that beyond any reasonable doubt.

"Yes, Barcelona are an excellent team, but for Arsenal to get utterly obliterated in this fashion on home turf is quite frankly a disgrace. Let's not forget, FK Rubin Kazan drew with and beat Barca in the group stages - but thanks to Wenger, they made Arsenal look a pub team.

"His choice to play injured players was selfish and detrimental; his team played too deep, and the man-marking was utterly shocking – both in open play and from set pieces. For some reason, players were closing down individually - not as a team, when one tackled, the others were standing 10 yards away so nobody was on hand to pick up the loose ball.

"As it happened, it didn't matter - for all their flair and technique, Barcelona won almost every tackle.

"The wide forwards did practically nothing to protect the full backs, there was no communication or leadership from anyone, anywhere on the pitch - and no organisation. Half the team was going one way, and half the other, meanwhile Barcelona were having a party in the space between.

"There were two or three occasions when three or four Barcelona players were left unmarked IN THE BOX!

"It seemed as if God was on Arsenal’s side at the Emirates last night as Arsenal were ripped to shreds by a rampant Barcelona, but through sheer good fortune – and good goalkeeping (for 15 minutes) – somehow clawed their way back into the match.

"The fact is, after watching last night’s game and despite the undoubted excellence of Barcelona, I have never been more mortified by Wenger’s tactical ineptitude. He sent that team out there utterly naked, reprehensibly clueless as to what to do with regard to team shape, marking, communication, gameplan – anything. It was an abomination.

"If Barcelona creates a similar volume of chances next Tuesday, they will pummel Arsenal into the ground. I simply can’t believe the Gunners will be able to get away with this sort of performance again – presuming you think a two goal home deficit is curable, and it will probably be even more painful to watch than last night.

"Good luck to these boys though. I feel sorry for them – and they stuck at it when they could have died of humiliation out there and completely surrendered to Wenger's worthless tactics."

 Arsenal lost 4-1 at the Nou Camp six days later. 


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Bayern was men against boys

Watched Bayern Munich vs Arsenal in a North London pub. The atmosphere inside was quiet, the fans’ confidence in short supply, replaced by blind optimism no doubt.

In the end, 1-1 was a creditable result although the 3-1 aggregate defeat is a fair reflection of Bayern’s superiority. Faultless effort from most of the Arsenal team, but technically their performance last night was not creditable or credible.

Bayern pretty much controlled the game from start to finish. The ease with which they won possession and moved the ball around the pitch was starkly contrasted by an Arsenal team that barely managed to string three consecutive passes together the entire evening.

Bayern played most of the game in second gear and took the lead on 54 minutes when Bastian Schweinsteiger made a late run from midfield and stroked past Fabianski. Arsenal equalised a few minutes later despite Podolski pushing Philipp Lahm over in the box and three Bayern defenders stopping play to appeal. The German lashed the ball into the roof of the net.

Following the equaliser, Arsenal gained confidence and tried to press and create but everything was off the cuff and Bayern quickly regained control.

Up the other end, Bayern created chances but were careful not to commit too many players forward. Their tactical game plan was spot on; the team balanced and players composed and professional. It was men against boys; disturbing when you consider that this is not an inexperienced Arsenal side, far from it.

Question marks need to be raised as to why the aggressive Flamini did not start. If the intention was to field players that retain possession it was an abject misunderstanding on Wenger's part of the qualities of his team or the opposition.

Vermaelen didn’t get the run around I expected, chiefly because Wenger dumped Ozil on the right and Podolski was ordered to work hard and cover on the left. Guardiola resisted using his full backs to overlap as he had in the first leg; there was little necessity in view of the scoreline.

Arjen Robben won a penalty late in the game following Koscielny’s moronic kick aimed at the feet of a player that everybody knows will fall at the slightest touch – or no touch at all taking into account his laughable dive earlier in the game. Regardless, Thomas Muller’s penalty was straight down the middle and Fabianski saved.

The 3-1 aggregate score flattered Arsenal, especially when you consider Podolski’s goal should never have been allowed and Bayern squandered two penalties over both ties.

And so Arsene Wenger’s 17th consecutive season in Europe ends with yet more underachievement. Wenger must have been grateful for the cheating Robben giving him a predictable alibi for his team’s deficiencies, but nothing can distract from the fact that Arsenal look as far away from competing in the Champions League as they’ve ever done.

Unable to retain the ball and play with any intelligence, conviction or confidence – they react to circumstance like hyperactive adolescents, a mirror of Wenger’s clueless doctrines.

Questions also need to be asked as to why neither Sanogo nor Bendtner were on the bench, and whether Ryo Miyaichi, presumably a late replacement for one of them, was subsequently found to be ineligible to take part. Such absurd bungling is scarcely believable at this level, let alone from one of the best paid coaches in world football.


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Arsenal 0 Bayern Munich 2: Trigger in the mouth

The first five minutes were promising; a fantastic shot by Toni Kroos tipped over by Szczesny, and up the other end Sanogo’s shot was well dealt with by Bayern keeper Manuel Neuer. Cazorla struck soon after, but straight at the German goalkeeper.

Arsenal’s pressing style disconcerted Bayern, who were clearly struggling with the pace of the ‘English’ game; this was always going to be a problem for Guardiola.

On 7, Ozil ventured into the box and fell over Jerome Boateng’s carelessly placed leg. At last, the German was about to have an impact on a game – until he bottled the penalty, kicking a feeble effort straight at Neuer.

Prowling the touchline, the gesticulating Guardiola was furious with Bayern’s inability to pass accurately.

On 22, The Ox beat David Alaba to the ball, his shot parried by Neuer. Seven minutes later, the injury prone Gibbs limped off with a tight hamstring. His replacement Monreal giving cause for concern, as Guardiola had targeted Arsenal’s left side as a weak link, which it has been since Ashley Cole left.

On 36, the game changed when Arjen Robben ventured into the box to receive a chipped pass and guided the ball round Szczesny but was recklessly fouled. A clear penalty and red card for the goalkeeper. Cue post-match discussions by biased supporters about whether the rules should be changed just because Arsenal lost.

Is it unfair to punish a team by sending off the goalkeeper AND awarding a penalty? Well, I’d say it’s no more unfair than booking a keeper for preventing a certain goal and then awarding a penalty that might be missed. Why is that fair to the attacking team?

Penalties are often missed after all. Ozil had just missed one, then Alaba stepped up and missed as well, so Szczesny’s sending off seems the correct punishment considering Bayern did not gain the advantage they would have.

If the rules were any different and Szczesny had only been booked, Arsenal would have been laughing and goalkeepers the world over would be free to clip players safe in the knowledge that a certain goal would be prevented and they’d at least have the chance to save a penalty (or watch strikers miss them).

Ultimately, it’s about decisions and Szczesny lacked composure and made a stupid decision, as he’s prone to do from time to time because he’s not mature enough. If Arsenal had a more mature keeper, maybe it wouldn’t have happened – or at least lessened the chance of it happening. When managers are tight with the club’s cash and cut corners, these things happen.

Regardless, Arsenal were now down to 10 men and would have to defend like dogs to the end, which they did, but still couldn’t prevent defeat. In truth, the team defended very well collectively, but as we have seen so often, individual mistakes, which cannot be afforded at this level, became Arsenal’s undoing.

First, the problem of Ozil, who had refused to track back and protect Gibbs (in the first half) or later Monreal - who was getting slaughtered by Robben and Rafinha. Having received two tongue lashings from Wilshere and Flamini, Ozil started to float around Robben, but more as a token gesture rather than with any intent. This partly led to Bayern’s first goal; again the move building up from Arsenal’s left with too much space afforded to Lahm whose ball in-field to Kroos was struck superbly into the top right-hand corner.

At this point is was blatantly obvious that Ozil had to be removed from the pitch and replaced by Rosicky – or even Sagna, with Jenkinson put on at right back. Instead, Wenger replaced Oxlade-Chamberlain with Rosicky???

It appears the tactical imbecile was more concerned with trying to score a goal against a team that had 87% possession in the second half than keep the score down to 1-0 and Arsenal in with a shout.

On 74, Koscielny appeared to foul Thomas Muller in the Arsenal box, but it was only a touch and Muller’s delayed response to contact probably meant the right decision was given.

However, with four minutes remaining, Rosicky - having already been booked minutes earlier, should have definitely been given a second yellow for a ridiculous barge.

Three minutes later, Arsenal shot themselves in the foot again, when Koscielny motored forward at a set piece but failed to get back in time to prevent Bayern’s counter-attack. Flamini struggled to cover by leaving Muller unmarked as he headed in from close range following Claudio Pizzaro’s lofted ball into the box.

Pizzaro almost struck a third in the dying seconds with a low shot that hammered the foot of the post.

Despite Arsenal starting the game well and defending well for long periods after Szczeny’s “accident”, ultimately, Arsenal lost due to the goalkeeper’s immaturity. Those in denial will write the defeat off as bad luck, but it’s no such thing. At this level, small details matter – split-second decisions (the right ones) are vital.

Small chinks in the armour mutate to become colossal mistakes (Szczesny), poor decisions become major errors (Koscielny). Lack of concentration, lack of composure, no leadership in key situations – that’s why Arsenal lost; and always lose at this level.


Szczesny (5.5)
Has improved this season, but such reckless moments make you wonder whether he can truly be trusted at this level.

Sagna (7.0)
Played his part in a solid defensive display, although almost all of Bayern’s focus was on the left side of the pitch.

Mertesacker (7.0)
Defended well, but was protected by virtually the whole team for all of the second half.

Koscielny (8.0) STAR MAN
Made numerous vital interceptions throughout the match, but then made the criminal error of sauntering up field in the final minutes to grab a goal. Sometimes Wenger accuses his players of naivety, but the fact is Wenger was naive at half-time for not instructing Koscielny and Mertesacker to stay back at all times. Again, small details can make a big difference.

Gibbs (6.5)
Attacked well but was the weak defensive link in the first half.

Wilshere (7.0)
Even though it’s not his position, perhaps showed why Arteta should be made redundant for the rest of the season.

Flamini (6.5)
Needs to lead by example more by what he does than what he says. No point clapping and cajoling if you’re going to fall asleep and leave a player unmarked to score in the final few minutes.

Ozil (3.0)
Miserable performance. People say tracking back is “not his game”. I say, do you want to win or not? If you have that burning desire to win and help your team mates, you do it. It’s not that the media or fans target Ozil and heap blame, on two occasions his own players were berating him for not marking and tracking players.

Cazorla (5.5)
Couple of shots, but also a bit lazy when it came to defending for the cause.

Oxlade-Chamberlain (7.0)
Had a good game, if not quite as effective as against Liverpool at the weekend.

Sanogo (6.5)
Worked hard, showed a good touch and has more mobility than Giroud, but the fact that Wenger had to play a rookie player against Bayern Munich, when all his so-called strikers are fit, is ludicrous mismanagement.


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