x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Huge task for Fabregas

Time will tell if Arsenal's young captain can be a leader of men.

Legend has it that when Joan Laporta moved into the presidential offices at Barcelona, shortly after his election in June 2003, he found a dossier marked "CESC" on his desk, a legacy from the previous administration. Stuck prominently to the front was a yellow post-it note: "Make sure we don't lose him."

Yet, by that point, it was probably too late. Cesc Fabregas had turned 16 six weeks earlier and, with a veritable power vacuum at the club over the previous few months - Joan Gaspart, the previous president, had been forced out in February, leaving Barca rudderless - the issue of signing him up to a professional contract had been put on the back burner. Depending who you believe - there is more than a bit of Rashomon to this story - Laporta either spent the next two months unsuccessfully trying to lock up the wunderkind or his head had already been turned by Arsene Wenger.

Whatever the case, by early September he had signed with the Gunners. And Barca had lost the next link in their magical chain, the assembly line of visionary home-grown central midfielders, which started back in the 1980s with Luis Milla and continued through Pep Guardiola, Ivan De La Pena, Mikel Arteta through to Xavi and Andres Iniesta. As for Arsenal, they secured one of the most precocious midfield talents in the modern era. In his first season, he became the club's youngest debutant and youngest goalscorer.

The following year, 2004-05, he worked his way into the starting line-up, despite competition from the club captain, Patrick Vieira, and Gilberto Silva the starting defensive midfielder for Brazil, world champions at the time. The season after that, as an 18-year-old, he made his debut for Spain and guided Arsenal to the Champions League final, featuring in every game of the competition. In 2006-07 he played in every single Premier League game for Arsenal, signed a record eight-year contract and was overwhelmingly voted the club's player of the year.

He followed that up with a campaign which saw him win the PFA Young Player of the Year, take the reins from the departed Thierry Henry as the club's marquee player and win the European Championships with Spain. Last season he became one of the youngest captains in Arsenal's history, gaining the leadership at the age of 21. But perhaps it is the latter achievement which is the most remarkable and, equally, his next challenge. The lack of leadership at Arsenal since Vieira's departure has been much commented on and with good reason. The captain's armband went first to Thierry Henry: a big player but clearly not much of a leader of men, as evidenced by his frequent hissy fits and tendency to stare his teammates down, hands on hips, after they lost the ball or hit an errant pass.

Then, it switched to William Gallas, another fine player, albeit a sulky, star-crossed one whose bizarre antics at the end of a match at Birmingham City earned him the scorn of media and pundits alike. It was not until Wenger finally put his faith in Fabregas that the club regained a captain worthy of his predecessors, the likes of Vieira and Tony Adams. Indeed, it is somewhat ironic that a club who until recently could boast half a dozen men who were captain material (just think of the famous back four) should experience such a crisis of leadership after Vieira's departure. Living up to that role will be the next defining benchmark of his career.

It is a big ask of a man who is still just 22. And it is also a psychological shift. An armband is just a piece of cloth, it does not make you a leader of men. But if you already have the qualities within you, it can help you express them. There is no question that Fabregas has those qualities, just as there is no doubt that he is capable of carrying the side on his back. He has done it before. The difference now is that he will be expected to do it week in, week out. And, most of all, he will be expected to lead even when he is playing poorly.

Because that, ultimately, is the difference between a big player and a captain. The former is subject to the whims of his talent. When he does not produce, he does not contribute. The latter has to find a way to contribute even on those days when his legs are sluggish, his timing is off and his touch has turned from silk to sandpaper. Fabregas is already a big player: as a player he has already equalled the Adamses and Vieiras. Now he must show he is their equal as a captain as well.

gmarcotti@thenational.ae