After a win for his team that looked to everyone else like a consummation of everything they have been working towards for years, Cesc Fabregas’ first words were for the beaten opponents: “They are the best side in football’s history, in my opinion.”
A few days after the match, Leo Messi was again offering his opinion on his old buddy’s next move. “Will he come? I hope so. He will decide, but I think he knows there is nowhere better for him to be than here.” No matter who wins the tie, the increasingly irritating saga about what Cesc will do next is likely to drag on.
Most Arsenal supporters are pre-emptively moving to safeguard their psychic well-being by transferring their worship of Cesc to committed Gunners like Jack Wilshere and Robin van Persie. If it drags on beyond this summer their anxiety will curdle into open hostility.
The ongoing flirtation is not just unpleasant for the fans, it is also corrosive for the player. The distraction and uncertainty is plainly doing him no good. Beyond that, Fabregas’ wavering suggests that a man whose game is characterised by flair and inventiveness may in fact be guilty of a depressing lack of imagination. It is as though he believes that you have to play for Barcelona to have a great career. While he dithers over whether Arsenal is a suitably grand stage for his talents, he is in danger of being surpassed as the best midfielder in North London.
Fabregas was a child prodigy who grew up playing youth football with Leo Messi at the world’s best football academy. Luka Modric was a child refugee whose grandfather was murdered by Serbs during the Croatian war of independence. He took a lot longer than Fabregas to reach the knockout stages of the Champions League. Once he got there he didn’t mess about.
Within 10 minutes of coming on as a substitute in the San Siro last Tuesday night, Modric took out three Milan players out with the flick that set Aaron Lennon free to create the winning goal for Peter Crouch. Such moments have become the norm for Modric and if there was any sense in the transfer market he, not Gareth Bale, would be the Spurs player most coveted by Europe’s richest clubs.
I have recently covered more Premier League matches at White Hart Lane than any other ground, so maybe my perspective is skewed, but no player has made a bigger impression on me this season than Modric. He has inspired Tottenham to their best performances in more than two decades and made all his team-mates look even better than they are. He has done so while defying conventional wisdom and tactical orthodoxy.
Many suspected that the 5’7”, size zero Modric would be squashed like a bug in the Premier League. Yet Modric not only bosses most games he is involved in, he usually does so as part of a two-man central midfield partnership in an age when most coaches are using three in the middle.
He is doing all this for a club that has little chance of winning either of the two big trophies. Yet somehow Modric doesn’t seem haunted by the thought that he could be doing better for himself at a bigger club. He is concentrating on what is important by working hard in every game for himself and his team-mates. If Modric keeps doing that, he doesn’t have to worry about his next career move.
Too many players forget that, mistaking a superclub’s money and status for genuine career advancement. A lot of these players end up rotting on the bench at Barcelona. Look at Javier Mascherano, who was ringside at the Emirates last Wednesday. The captain of Argentina has embraced irrelevance as a substitute and team mascot. No doubt in years to come he will treasure the Spanish league medal that nobody can remember him winning.
There are no guarantees for Cesc at Barcelona. They are always buying players they don’t need, which is one reason why they are €600m in debt. Besides Mascherano, Zlatan, Caceres and Chygrynskiy have failed there in recent seasons, while Overmars, Petit and Hleb all say that leaving Arsenal for Barcelona was the biggest mistake of their careers.
Barcelona have been more successful at integrating Spanish players like Villa and Pique, but it’s still not clear where Cesc would fit in. Xavi and Iniesta might love him now, but wait until he is trying to take their place.
The other choice is to show a bit more respect for what he’s got at Arsenal. He has the chance to play for a manager who has built a talented team around him, at a rich club with a secure financial future, with everything he needs to prove that he is the equal of anything his old club has to offer. Be like Modric, forget the intrigue, concentrate on the football and fulfilment will follow. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.