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May 19, 2010

Fabregas exit to force Wenger rethink

Cesc Fabregas, more than any other player, personifies the philosophy Arsene Wenger has been so determined to instil at Arsenal. But having told his mentor that he no longer subscribes to the view that success is imminent for the club, his likely departure to Barcelona must result in a strategic rethink for his manager.

It is Wenger's firm contention that recruiting a player at such a young age - as he did in 2003 when audaciously plucking a 16-year-old Fabregas from the Barcelona academy - breeds commitment to the club and a deep-rooted affinity with the style of football demanded by the manager. He explained last season: "When we go for young players, it is to get them to love the club, love to be together and love to achieve together. A team sport is about that. It is about achieving something together in a positive human atmosphere."

Given the financial restrictions imposed by the move from Highbury to Emirates Stadium, it is an approach that was not only laudable - especially in opposition to what Wenger has termed Chelsea's "financial doping" since 2003 - but also necessary. It is no small achievement that when working with a tight budget, Wenger has delivered Champions League football year on year.

But for a player like Fabregas, mere qualification is not enough, not when his hometown club are winning six trophies in 2009 alone. It appears his "love" for Arsenal has waned, and the flirtation period with Barca has begun. It is an attraction he cannot resist.

Not when he has the chance to play under the man he idolised as a child, Pep Guardiola. Not when he has the chance to play alongside his former colleagues at La Masia, Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique. Not when Barcelona, the club of his heart, are playing the finest football on the globe, and winning a succession of trophies. Who could blame him for wanting to join a team making history?

For Arsenal, impressive wins over the likes of Milan, Villarreal and Porto have proved false dawns in recent years, but Wenger has always been at pains to claim that success is just a season away, that his young players are close to fulfilling their potential. For a player as talented as Fabregas, though, tomorrow will not do.

While Wenger transformed him into an exceptional talent, providing the Catalan with the perfect environment in which to develop and entrusting him with responsibilities out of all proportion with his experience - first when allowing him to marshal the midfield as a teenager, and secondly when handing him the captaincy at the age of 21 - in the end, he could not convince Fabregas that trophies were around the corner.

A lack of investment in star names - Andrei Arshavin aside - is believed to have preyed on Fabregas' mind and Wenger's reluctance to spend is a stick with which certain sections of the support will beat the manager enthusiastically if the captain does indeed return home.

Of course, Barcelona have maintained that Arsenal will have the final say and that they will "respect" the club's wishes. But it looks for all the world as though Fabregas, after seven years at Arsenal, has decided that he cannot wait any longer to see if investment is forthcoming, if trophies are not just a possibility, but a probability, as they are at Camp Nou.

It is to Wenger's ultimate credit that Fabregas is the player he is today. But the departure of the midfielder, if it happens, could fatally undermine the approach that Wenger has fostered in recent seasons. What chance does it have of succeeding if the greatest fruit of Wenger's labour leaves at just 23?

Other notable beneficiaries of the policy remain of course - Nicklas Bendtner, Gael Clichy and Alex Song prominent among them - but Fabregas is the leader, the example that helps Arsenal sell their youth policy to talented teenagers across the globe. Come to Arsenal, they undoubtedly say, and you get the chance to play, the trust of a manager who places his faith in youth. But five barren years mean they can no longer promise trophies.

The departure of Fabregas, if confirmed, must force a rethink in Wenger's policy. Funds must be invested, experienced players purchased, particularly given the financial situation has eased considerably this year.

The loss of the physical manifestation of Wenger's approach to the game would undercut everything the manager has tried to achieve. It has been a praiseworthy attempt to replicate the success of the Ajax academy products of the early 1970s. But while laudable, the exit of Fabregas would demonstrate it to be flawed.

The ultimate irony for Wenger is that Fabregas will be joining a club where the Frenchman's values are perfectly expressed. Fabregas could be lining up next season alongside Victor Valdes, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro, Bojan and Lionel Messi - all acolytes of the club's youth system and exponents of beautiful football.

Barcelona just do it better. Why play for Barcelona lite when you can represent the real thing? That is the question Fabregas has asked, and why he has chosen to leave Arsenal this summer.

Wenger must now question whether a fresh approach of his own is required.

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