Can one man make a team?

When Cesc Fabregas , the propulsive force in the Arsenal midfield, was injured and forced out of the team, the previously all-conquering Gunners suddenly became vulnerable.

“One man can’t make a team” is a very old adage of football. Yet can it be true? The question suggests itself after Arsenal’s recent misadventures in the absence of Cesc Fabregas. Still only 20 years old, the little Spaniard has revolutionised this Arsenal team. A couple of seasons ago, when the Gunners sold the tall, dominating French midfielder Patrick Vieira to Italy, you did wonder how they could ever replace him and his major influence.

Pre-season, I remember attending a marginal friendly game when Arsenal played humble Barnet, on the fringes of North London. At the end of the game, the then Gunners’ manager Arsene Wenger gave a small Press conference on the field and seemed surprisingly optimistic. Yes, Vieira had gone, but others could always come through.

But who, you wondered? Hardly an inexperienced little fellow like Fabregas; that would be asking a boy to do a man’s job. But as we now know, Fabregas came on by leaps and bounds. Last season, he was the propulsive force in the Arsenal midfield, a player of all-round excellence, quick of foot and brain, a genuine midfielder in the sense that he could do everything expected of the traditional wing half-back in the old W formation, and also that of the classical, constructive inside forward. Not forgetting the ability to strike spectacular goals. The inspiration of his team.

So perhaps it should have been no surprise when, of late, Fabregas was injured and forced out of the team, a previously all-conquering Arsenal side suddenly became vulnerable. It was well-beaten in Seville in the European Champions League. Then in two games in the north-east of England, it drew then lost against teams it would have been expected to beat in a canter.

First, an uneasy 1-1 draw at Newcastle United, whose recent form had been parlous, with Sam Allardyce their recently-appointed manager, in serious danger of the sack. But without Fabregas, and to be fair other players such as Holland’s attacker Robin van Persie, though for weeks he had hardly been missed, Arsenal laboured. They fell 1-0 behind, never really struck their rhythm, and were glad in the end to score the equaliser.

Much worse was to come later at Middlesbrough. Boro had, like Newcastle, been struggling in the bottom of the League. Indeed, a week earlier, I had watched them struggle to a draw with a very late equaliser, at Reading. But now they soared into an early, penalty kick, lead against an Arsenal team which, without the influence of Fabregas — such absentees as the French midfielder Flamini are supporting cast by comparison — simply couldn’t get off the ground. Boro scored again, then Arsenal’s Eboue was very lucky not to be sent off for a disgraceful foul in each half, and the very late goal indeed by Rosicky did little to save Arsenal’s faces or their pride.

Surely one can indeed make a team. It is impossible to conceive of the mighty Real Madrid side, which won all five of the first European Cups between 1956 and 1960, flourishing without the incomparable Alfredo di Stefano. The ubiquitous Argentine centre-forward was playing Total Football before anyone had thought of it. Allying his exceptional stamina, which he attributed to running through the streets of his native Buenos Aires, to superb technique, inspired distribution and dynamic finishing, he made Real, in those years, irresistible.

True, he was an implacable dictator, who humiliated even as great a player as the Brazilian motivator Didi, he of the famous falling leaf free-kick, when Didi came to Madrid after materially helping Brazil win the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. By contrast, in Real’s latter seasons of success, Di Stefano hit it off very well with another undoubtedly great footballer in Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas, who, for all his own dominating character, was content to defer to Di Stefano on the field. In that memorable European Cup Final, in Glasgow when in 1960 Real thrashed Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3, Puskas got four of those goals, Di Stefano the other three.

But the example of the 1954 World Cup Final suggests that there are arguments on the other side of this question. For, when Paskas was literally kicked out of the 1954 World Cup finals by Germany’s Werner Liebrich, Hungary regrouped without their formidable captain and got all the way to the Final without him. He then insisted on playing though plainly not fully fit; and lost to the Germans.

Note, too, that Brazil won the 1962 World Cup Final in Chile though the incomparable Pele dropped out after the second match. There was no player like him but Brazil used the lively Amarildo in his place. He scored goals and the Cup was retained.

As against that, it is unthinkable that Argentina could have won the 1986 World Cup without Diego Maradona, and probably, though he was injured and hobbling in 1990, too. But, putting aside the scandalous Hand of God goal against England, his irresistible brilliance in the Azteca Stadium brought solo goals of incomparable skill, speed and flair. So the argument could be pursued from either side. Here, Fabregas. There, such heroes as Puskas and Pele. And Chelsea without Didier Drogba to lead their attack are unrecognisable.