The Fabregas conundrum shadows Arsene, this season and next summer

What do you have when you have some of the best talent of the world and one of the world’s best players, but they don’t play well together?  Welcome to the Fabregas conundrum for Arsene Wenger.  Fabregas is so good a team can and should be built around his skills.  True to form, Arsene has done just that.  But the summer transfer season proved an impenetrable obstacle and Arsene was forced to adopt a 4-3-3.  Unfortunately, this structure brings out only the second best in the squad and Fabregas.  This is setting up an interesting summer following the world cup, assuming Fab isn’t going anywhere.

During the 2009 summer transfer window Arsene made an open push to sign Fiorentina’s Felipe Melo.  At it would turn out, and unfortunately for all parties, the deal didn’t work out and Melo went to Juventus.  While much ink has been spilled this year on the debacle the Juventus experiment has turned out to be, much less has been spilled on the impact on Arsenal.  The Melo purchase represented much more to Arsenal.  In trying to buy Melo, Arsene was putting the finishing touches on a team built on Fabregas’s strengths and designed to win the EPL and Champion’s League.  Absent Melo, Arsenal has struggled because the players and the system just don’t match.

Frankly, it’s no surprise that Arsene was willing to part with £15m or so and Senderos just to sign Melo.  Melo’s experience in the Italian game and as a Brazilian international fit perfectly with Fab’s game.  Fab is a regista -a playmaker; or, even a trequarista given his goal scoring this year.  His play is perfect for a diamond, with him on the top.  Similarly, Melo is perfect at the base of the diamond, protecting the final four and pushing the ball up the middle.  Song is fantastic, I love Song, but he’s more of a Toure (the Barca one) type player, not the base of a diamond.  Imagine for a second our starting line-up (with everyone healthy) had Melo come to Arsenal.

Almunia,

Sagna, Gallas, Song, Clichy

Nasri, Fab, Melo, Arshavin

RVP, Bendtner

Our subs, just to name a few, would be: Diaby, Ramsey, Denilson, Rosicky, Walcott, Eboue, Eduardo, Vela and Vermaelen.

But when Juventus stepped in, the deal went sour.  Worse, there were no other players to replace Melo in the market, at least not at a reasonable price.  Who else was there?  Both Diarras from RM are out.  Roma wouldn’t part with De Rossi for any price.  We can’t afford Essien.  And Alonso was off to RM.  As a result, Arsene was forced to adjust, to manage the team to its strengths.  He, appropriately, adopted the 4-3-3; the system second best for our talent.  Arsenal has attacking midfielders galore, a 4-3-3 lets them loose.

Although Fab has done well in this system, it still doesn’t maximize his strengths.  A 4-3-3 requires the midfielders to play box-to-box.  And, while Fab does track back, defense is not his forte, nor is speed.  Two issues very still very obvious for Arsenal today.  No, Fab’s strengths are in ball control, the deft pass to a teammate, or the pass no one else envisions to his blind side.  Indeed, Fab’s strengths are on complete display in the upper third of the pitch, where creativity is most needed.  Arsene knows this, Fab knows this, the team knows this,opposing teams knows this, fans know this.

Playing off of Fab, Arsenal play the beautiful game.  The young players have learned to adapt and play roles previously unnatural to them.  Some have flourished, like Song and Diaby.  Others have had their growth stunted for the good of the team, like Nasri.  But when Fab is gone, a new identify peeks through.  One that belies the restlessness of a team trapped in the wrong identity.  Locked in circumstance, Arsene must balance a team bursting with talent moving in a direction away from that of the fantastic Fab.  Without Fab, the team may in fact play better than the sum of the individual talents because the talents compliment each other better than the 4-3-3 played with Fab.

Fab’s absence emphasizes the skills of the other players; in fact, there skills are maximized and the team’s structure is more fluid as a result. For instance, Nasri and Arshavin can drop back to their midfield roles, on the left and right.  These two creative dynamos have been leashed, ironically, by their placement  in the forward positions.  Back in their natural roles it’s no shock that they excel, blistering the opposition.  Combined a Diaby and Nasri midfield has more teeth and swings the ball from side to side and up the middle without concern.  By contrast, when Fab is there, the midfield lacks bite and players are forced to swing the ball up the middle to go through Fab.

The best teams know this.  The know where the ball is going and they know where Arsenal lack teeth in the middle of the pitch.  They park the bus in front of the goal and attack Fab in the upper third with gusto, knowing the ball must flow through him.  The worst teams simply hack on Fab drawing fouls.

Arsene’s great hope is for Arsenal to play through this game plan, to impose themselves on the other team.  But playing out of sorts, such dominance isn’t likely to happen.  So Arsene is faced with the Fab conundrum.  Should he sell Fab or buy the player necessary to create the diamond he sought last year?

The answer is surprisingly difficult.  Selling Fab doesn’t make sense, especially after Barca has their elections.  First, Fab is too good, he’s only 22; it makes no sense to sell him now.  Second, once Barca has their elections, the pressure to sign Fab will dissipate until the next election cycle, when Arsenal might in fact be willing to sell him.  Third, and perhaps most important, Fab is not the issue.  The issue is the lack of a DM in the mold of a Melo.

Returning to Arsene’s conundrum.  Nothing can be done this year.  The team must play with what they have.  Thus, Arsene’s summer transfer focus is fairly obvious.  Arsene made it clear last summer about the direction he was headed.  And, he was willing to put his money where his mouth was; remember, Juventus had to pay 25m euros to get Melo away from Arsenal, the full number in the buyout clause.

Nor is this situation unique in the history of the beautiful game.  Missing key role players can kill a team bursting with talent.  Balance is everything.  For instance,  in Spain, real madrid ran into a similar problem when they undervalued Makelele.  The glue that ran the team, Makelele allowed Zidane and company to run rampant up top.  Although Makelele played a slightly different role than Melo, Makelele also offers a lesson to Arsene.  Spend the money necessary to get the glue, whether famous or not.  The question is, will someone emerge this summer to solve the Fab conundrum?

– the student

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