Jeremy Wilson: 'Why departing Fabregas can't be considered among the greats'
As Cesc Fabregas almost certainly departed English football for the last time after Chelsea's clash with Nottingham Forrest on Saturday ahead of a move to Monaco, the first instinct was to place him just below the select list of truly great midfielders to have graced the Premier League.
And then you took a look through his CV and wondered if that would be an injustice: Two Premier League titles, two FA Cups, the club World Cup, La Liga and the Copa del Rey, as well as 110 caps for one of the best ever international teams and a part in a World Cup win and two European Championship victories. By any standards it is an extraordinary haul. And Fabregas was invariably also a pleasure to watch.
As technically accomplished as you would expect from a product of Barcelona's academy, he was versatile in being able to operate across the midfield and, as he sometimes did for Spain, could also operate in that false nine striker's position.
A rare ability to unlock a defence is evidenced in his 111 Premier League assists, a tally behind only Ryan Giggs and beyond players such as Frank Lampard, Dennis Bergkamp, Steven Gerrard and David Beckham.
Fabregas also had other vital attributes; he was brave, competitive and hugely spirited. This can never have been more evident than when he equalised for Arsenal in a Champions League classic against Barcelona in 2010 after his leg had been fractured. Arsene Wenger's psychologist friend Jacques Crevoisier regarded it as one of the most amazing things he had ever seen on a football pitch.
The hesitation, though, when assessing Fabregas's overall impact and still placing him marginally beneath the all-time Premier League greats is a nagging feeling that he was also unusually blessed by the quality of those around him.
Most of his medals were won at Barcelona, Spain and Chelsea, where, for all his undoubted contribution, he was often surrounded by legends and often not the main driving force.
He did have the chance very early in his career to fulfil this sort of influence at Arsenal, but proved to be a flawed choice as captain.
Fabregas left at the age of 24 and, as the symbol of the new Arsenal that Wenger created from the ashes of the Invincibles, his lengthy dalliance with Barcelona was hugely damaging to the audacious dream that Wenger was trying to realise. It was also entirely understandable from his own perspective.
Two decisions ultimately framed Fabregas's career and it is fascinating to wonder what might have been had he approached either of these two sliding doors moments differently.
The first was the decision to leave a Barcelona academy at which Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique would soon join the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta in the best club side in the world. Could Fabregas have become as iconic in the club's history had he stayed, or was the opportunity to play regular first-team football under Wenger at such a young age more valuable?
Similarly, had Fabregas stayed at Arsenal in 2011, could his decision have ensured that the likes of Robin van Persie, Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri also remained? And might Arsenal have won the trophies, at least domestically, that Wenger was so convinced this crop would deliver?
They were closer than many people think and, in the context of the spending then of Man United, Chelsea and Man City, to be the on-field talisman of such an achievement would have been quite something.
The departure of Fabregas is one of those moments that makes us all feel just a little bit older, especially in the way that he spoke so well after the 2-0 FA Cup win against Forest.
"It feels like it was last week I started playing professionally and now it is over 15 years," said the now 31-year-old.
"It is a long time, but for the young players when they start playing, my little advice is to enjoy it every single second because it goes so fast.
"In football you have to be ready every three days, you have to live with criticism, you have to live with everyone saying how good you are - up and downs - and you just think, 'I am young, I have time', but time really does fly, so enjoy every single second of it." (© Daily Telegraph, London)