Life after Cesc Fabregas - how will Arsenal replace their creative hub?
Ramsey, Rosicky or a new face? Arsene Wenger must find the answer
For Arsene Wenger, the hard work starts now. Cesc Fabregas has gone – his captain, his playmaker, the creative hub of this Arsenal team.
Fabregas has been pulling the strings at Arsenal for the last five years. It was during the 2005-06 season, when he was part of the side that reached the Champions League final, when the young Spaniard started to come to the fore, aged just 19.
Two and a half years after he was left crying in the Paris rain by Barcelona, Fabregas was made captain at the Emirates, at the age of just 21 following the brief and ultimately unsuccessful reigns of both Thierry Henry and William Gallas.
Fabregas, too, must leave with the knowledge that his leadership since the autumn of 2008 has also proved a failure where it matters most, in terms of trophies won. But in that time he has emerged as one of the leading creative midfielders not only in the Premier League but in the world.
Ironically he is joining the club where arguably two of the very few players better than him in his position are plying their trade, the remarkable duo of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta.
That pair have kept him on the substitutes bench for the majority of Spain’s Euro 2008 and 2010 World Cup triumphs, and they may well do so again, initially at least, at Camp Nou.
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That is the kind of selection problem Pep Guardiola will not mind though, an embarrassment of midfield riches that only adds to the frustrations at the Emirates at the hole that Fabregas’s departure has left behind.
So is Fabregas irreplaceable at Arsenal? Not perhaps, as much as he might have been two years ago when he was in his pomp, and before the troublesome hamstring injury that has regularly interrupted the last two campaigns began to surface.
The man who has often stepped into his boots, of course, is Samir Nasri, which is why his potential exit to Manchester City has caused such consternation for Wenger this summer.
Despite the defiant stance he has maintained since the end of last season, Wenger must have known that Fabregas was likely to depart this summer. It therefore follows that he must have considered his potential replacements.
Nasri has filled in for him before, but he is not the same kind of player. Nasri is more of a dribbler, and likes to play further up the pitch. Fabregas was happy sitting in front of the back four and spraying the ball around or, as he had been used in the last few seasons by Wenger, at the front of a central midfield trio sliding balls into the feet of strikers and wide players.
The most natural replacement for him in the current squad is, without doubt, Aaron Ramsey, a player who has been earmarked as the successor to Fabregas since he first arrived at the Emirates three years ago.
At 20, the big question is whether he is ready to make what is a highly demanding step up. The broken leg that interrupted his progress and kept him out of the game for almost a year is now firmly in the past, but the experience he would have gained in that time has not been replaced yet. He has still played less than 50 first team games.
Jack Wilshere, although a year younger than Ramsey, is perhaps more ready to shoulder the extra burden of responsibility after his breakthrough season last term. He does not get forward and score goals like Fabregas can, but he could be the perfect foil for Ramsey to do just that.
If Nasri follows Fabregas out of Arsenal and no new midfielders are brought in, then those two young tyros and Alex Song could be Arsenal’s new look midfield. Another teenager, Emmanuel Frimpong, is highly-rated inside the club, but is perhaps still a year away from being a genuine first-team contender.
Tomas Rosicky is another player who has been mentioned and has featured in the Fabregas central role at times last season. But he ha struggled to convince since returning from almost two years out of the game, and cannot even be considered a first choice.
The other option, of course, is to buy. But who? Juan Mata may well arrive this week, but he is a winger, not a central player. If anything, he is a more natural replacement for Nasri.
Not for the first time, Wenger may regret parting company so drastically with Lassana Diarra. The Frenchman is now surplus to requirements at Real Madrid and could be available again, but he has burned his bridges at Arsenal and if he does head back to north London it is more likely to be up the road at White Hart Lane.
Shakhtar Donetsk’s Brazilian Jadson, who impressed in the Champions League last season for the Ukrainians, is another name that has been mentioned and one that would not cost the earth. But he would represent a gamble, and there is also the added complication of possible work permit complications.
As a short-term solution, Scott Parker has been put forward by many observers as being a player Wenger should snap up to bring some experience and English muscle to the midfield which, with Song only aged 23, has an average age that wouldn’t get into some nightclubs.
Or how about a really big name? Could Germany’s brilliant Bastian Schweinsteiger be tempted away from Bayern Munich in the next 16 days? More audaciously, could Arsenal enter the race for Wesley Sneijder, who has been angling for a move away from Internazionale all summer?
If Nasri does move to Manchester City, Wenger will be almost duty-bound to spend a total in excess of �50m. Literally anybody would be available for that kind of money.
As we know, such lavish transfers are not Wenger’s style, and he has never spent more than �17m on a player. But the feeling is that this is a moment in which he must either change his ways, or be prepared to admit defeat if his policy of promoting youthful talent from within remains unsuccessful.
If he does not buy before the end of the month and Arsenal are out of contention for the title by Christmas, there will be a justifiable clamour for the once unthinkable prospect of removing him from his position.
That is how crucial the next two weeks could be for Wenger and Arsenal. How he replaces Fabregas, and how successful he is in doing so, could be a decisive moment in the club’s history.