Thursday’s confirmation of Cesc Fabregas move to Chelsea will have been met with decidedly mixed feelings by Barcelona fans.
Announcing the move, Fabregas told his new club’s website he had "unfinished business" in England, an almost exact echo of his statements three summers ago on returning to the Camp Nou after eight seasons at Arsenal.
The idea then was that Fabregas would gradually replace Xavi Hernandez as the main playmaker and on-field leader at the Catalan club. Having first left Barca’s La Masia youth academy at the age 16 to try his luck in England, Fabregas was coming home to Barcelona.
This narrative seemed to be unfolding perfectly when Fabregas and Lionel Messi — who had played on the same Barca youth teams — combined brilliantly in their first few games together for the seniors.
On his debut he was almost immediately involved in a classic tiki-taka move which lead to Messi scoring the winner in the Spanish Super Cup. His second game brought his first competitive goal for Barcelona against Porto in the European Supercup, from a Messi assist, securing a second trophy in just his second game.
Three years later, that smooth succession plan can be said to have failed emphatically. The stats are not bad — Fabregas scored a more than respectable 42 goals in 151 matches, and Barca also won the 2012 Copa Del Rey trophy and the 2012-13 La Liga title. But three managers — Josep Guardiola, Tito Vilanova and Gerardo Martino — all tried without success to fit Fabregas into the Barca team alongside Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Each had their own ideas — playing him in attacking midfield, deep midfield, as a false nine and even on the wing. But none could find a system which worked regularly, and Fabregas himself often looked not quite sure what he should be doing.
Blaugrana fans and pundits quickly decided he had been ruined by the Barclays Premier League, and his style of play was now too direct for Barca. The locally-born Catalan was even regularly whistled by his own side’s supporters, often being the scapegoat when the home side struggled for fluidity.
"It’s not easy when you see your own fans are not happy with you," Fabregas said last January. "I know they want the best from me. You must try and make everything a positive, criticism too."
Fabregas himself appeared to share the fans’ frustration, and increasingly gave the impression of he had become fed up with his situation. His camp clearly flirted with Manchester United 12 months ago, only to finally decide to give Barca another year.
This summer Barcal’s board have made the decision themselves, with funds needed for a squad overhaul. The club’s own website on Thursday detailed Cesc’s last three years in a mostly positive way, but also included the very cutting line: "For some reason, he was never as good in second half of a season as in the first." Reports close to the Barca board also widely welcomed the move — with Mundo Deportivo headlining its reaction piece, "Cesc returns home" and mentioning that his partner and child live in London.
The reported €33 million price is being spun as good business. And Fabregas is not the only big name player leaving this summer. Victor Valdes and Carles Puyol are already gone, and Dani Alves, Xavi Hernandez, Alex Song, Alexis Sanchez and even blaugrana talisman Lionel Messi could potentially move on.
Just 24 hours ago blaugrana president Josep Maria Bartomeu said that next season would bring a "new Barca."
"We find ourselves in decisive moment to build a "new Barca" — a team which will galvanize the fans," Bartomeu said. "We are working from the base to construct a great Barca. The first stone, Luis Enrique, is the ideal person to guide us again towards success."
New first team coach Enrique pointedly refused at his presentation last month to confirm he was counting on either Fabregas or Xavi. Young creator Rafinha has already been given a first team slot, while Sevilla’s Croatian playmaker Ivan Rakitic is expected to sign soon. Atletico Madrid midfielder Koke and Borussia Dortmund’s Marco Reus are other reported targets.
Meanwhile, Fabregas will move on — first at the World Cup, where he will again be unsure of his starting place in the team. Then next season he’ll be back in England, under new club coach Jose Mourinho. The two know each other well — having met during fiery clasicos while Mourinho was Madrid boss — but will now be working on the same side.
By unfinished business in England, Fabregas presumably means winning the Premier League, a trophy which famously eluded him during his time at Arsenal. Should that happen at Chelsea, many at Barca will wonder why the return of their prodigal son never worked out.