“I will see you at the Bridge on Saturday,” read a Cesc Fabregas social media missive celebrating his 500th game in English football, but the way in which he had saluted Chelsea fans after Wednesday’s 0-0 draw with Southampton suggested Saturday, Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup, could be 501 and out.
Monaco and a reunion with Thierry Henry beckon. Fabregas is not yet 32, but that association with Arsenal’s last golden era shows just how long he has been around. He reached his 17th birthday in May 2004 just as Arsene Wenger’s team were closing on their unbeaten Premier League title win, but by the following season Fabregas was a key player for the Gunners.
Back then, his talent was such that Wenger planned to build a new Arsenal around him. By the age of 23, he was a European and World Cup champion and had been a key man in both Spain triumphs. Fabregas slotted the winning penalty against Italy in the quarter-final of Euro 2008 and supplied the pass from which Andres Iniesta scored the winning goal in Soccer City’s final two years later.
He will depart for the Mediterranean principality having made the second-most assists – 111 – in Premier League history, with only Ryan Giggs, on 163 and over a far longer spell and 282 more matches, ahead of him. Fabregas reached 100 assists faster than any other player, in 293 matches, and won every possible trophy in English football, including two titles with Chelsea.
That, by any stretch is a glittering career, and yet there hangs something of a tinge of disappointment over Fabregas, and what is something of an understated exit from the Premier League. There is a touch of Wayne Rooney about him, someone who appeared almost fully-formed as a teenager and was better than players ten years older than him from the start
Rooney scored over 200 Premier League goals and is Manchester United’s all-time leading scorer, but still failed to live up to the promise he had laid out as Everton’s ingenue. And similar went for the young, be-mulleted, blonde highlighted Fabregas, strutting his stuff alongside Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira, and then succeeding them as Arsenal’s leader.
Back then, he was one of the most coveted players in football. Barcelona stalked him as soon as he made his Arsenal breakthrough and a return to the club Wenger had poached him from as a 16-year-old became a fait accompli and a staple of transfer window speculation until it actually happened in the summer of 2011.
And Barcelona is the great dividing line of Fabregas’ career.
Adding him to a team that had just won the Champions League for the second time in three years looked a dream ticket. But he never managed to fit into the thinking of fellow Catalan and La Masia product Pep Guardiola.
There was no place for him in a midfield that contained Iniesta, Xavi and Sergio Busquets and he found himself an ersatz forward, though always in the shadow of Lionel Messi. Arsenal’s main man had become a sideshow, an executive-class substitute and a return to England became another fait accompli. In Spain, it was felt Fabregas had become too ‘English’ to achieve the purity required to be a true Barca player.
David Moyes saw Fabregas as the answer to the Manchester United team he had just inherited, but a long summer of transfer speculation in 2013 ended with Cesc staying at the Nou Camp for one more year as a hapless Moyes and Ed Woodward floundered. The player Chelsea have enjoyed since 2014 was rather different to Arsenal’s box-to-box tyro; somewhere along the line, the years and miles had removed the turbo from his engine and along with that some of the leadership qualities Wenger once saw in him.
Instead, Fabregas’ sublime passing proved key to Chelsea’s 2014-15 title-winning team, and Jose Mourinho’s reactive style of football suited him. The pair remained close even after Mourinho was sacked but Fabregas was not so favoured by Antonio Conte, with the Italian demanding his players to press. Fabregas became an option off the bench rather than the creative fulcrum in a midfield in which N’Golo Kante embodied the manager’s approach.
Maurizio Sarri’s unshakeable belief in Jorginho at his position has this season cast Fabregas further to the fringes.
The time now comes to assess his impact on the Premier League: he has been one of its elite for a decade and a half, barring those three years back ‘home’ in Barcelona, but talk of being the best Spaniard to grace English football would seem a little puffed up.
David Silva, Fernando Torres, David de Gea and perhaps Santi Cazorla have hit greater heights. Stats and longevity cannot deflect that Fabregas didn’t quite live up to his boundless teenage potential.