Cesc Fabregas has had an interesting career thus far. Bursting on to the scene at Arsenal as a 17 year old creative midfielder, he became one of the most exciting players in the Premier League. In the five years before he moved to Barcelona, he created 466 chances, scored 48 times, and had 86 assists. His role therefore, was to play the final pass, or to finish off moves. Bursting forward from the center of the park, he was basically the player that Arsenal built their team around towards the end of his time in north London.
Going to Barcelona in 2011 however, he was basically signed to bridge the gap between Xavi, who was 31 at the time, and the new young talents coming from the youth academy. Playing in central midfield, he had less license to completely dictate the tempo of play, often recycling possession and feeding the likes of Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi in advanced positions. He still got his fair share of goals (42 in three seasons) but midfielders will always find opportunities to score when playing with forwards who attract as much attention as Messi and David Villa.
A player as talented as Fabregas and playing in a team as talented as that Barcelona one didn’t have too much of a problem adapting, and many thought that moving into the ‘Xavi role’ in central midfield as he aged and became less mobile would suit the Spaniard. However, as the La Masia production line dried up (relatively speaking), and new Barcelona manager Luis Enrique introduced a quicker, more up-tempo style than his predecessors, Fabregas found himself unsuited to the system.
For all his strengths, the eye for a pass, the great touch, the ability to finish calmly if given an opportunity, there are some significant weaknesses to Fabregas’ game, especially as he enters his 30’s. He is not particularly quick or mobile, as evidenced by his second season at Chelsea, where he was constantly the weak link in the midfield, unable to track runners bursting beyond him. There is also the lack of willingness to track back, or the lack of “tactical intelligence” as Jamie Carragher said, that means he does not see the threats and is late responding to them.
This means the new Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has a very interesting decision to make regarding Fabregas as he starts his tenure at Stamford Bridge. At France in the recently concluded European Championship, Conte had his Italy side extremely well drilled. Midfielders always tracked their counterparts and still found the energy within themselves to spring forward on the counter when Italy won the ball. It is unlikely Fabregas will have the energy to do both sides of the game with such intensity.