The curious case of Cesc Fabregas

Cesc Fabregas

Dismissed as being too old by Zinedine Zidane and “not our cup of tea” by a Chinese club official, it hasn’t been a good week for the Chelsea midfielder. What exactly has Cesc Fabregas done to earn such withering assessments?

There must have been a time, long, long ago, when it seemed entirely possible to empathise with wealthy, successful football people who had fallen on hard times. A flash of anger at the tabloid treatment meted out to the unfortunate Graham Taylor, perhaps? A twinge of sympathy for Kevin Keegan after losing the title to bitter rival, Alex Ferguson? Times when even the hardest of hearts had to put their bipartisan hostility to one side and admit that, yes, sometimes it could be a very cruel game indeed.

And nowadays? Well, they make it tough, that’s for sure. “Poor” Brendan Rodgers agonisingly misses out on delivering a coveted title for Liverpool, gets ridiculed a year later and it hardly seems fair. “Poor” David Moyes hits the skids at Manchester United and it would take a cold heart not to sympathise. And what about “poor” Arsene Wenger at Arsenal? How hideous it seems for such a storied managerial career to peter out with barely more than a whimper.

But just as you begin to hear the violins playing inside your head, you are reminded how extravagantly the game has enriched them, even in failure, and although that culture is not of their own making, it inevitably colours our attitude towards them in ways we can’t control. They are “poor” only in the way their ego and sense of ambition has suffered, not in any material sense. In any meaningful respect, they are not worth a whit of our sympathy and might well scoff at the notion anyway.

And then there is the curious case of Cesc Fabregas. A player likened by his manager Antonio Conte to the great Juventus midfielder Andrea Pirlo last week and acknowledged as one of the finest playmakers in the world. As Conte restores Chelsea to their place at the top of the English football pyramid, however, Fabregas remains on the periphery, a bit-part player of unsurpassed vision and passing skills, but not as fully wanted or as appreciated as he’d like to be.

Not that Fabregas is to be anyway pitied for this. Apart from his lavish football skills, there is nothing particularly likeable or dislikeable about him. Off the field, he has always come across as a consummate, dedicated professional. On it, he has shown the occasional propensity to dive, but that’s hardly an incriminating offence in today’s climate. He is reported to be among the highest earners in English football, on wages in excess of £200,000 a week, which would work out around £20,000 a minute in terms of actual playing time. It is difficult to get the handkerchief out for a player earning so much for doing so little.

And yet… And yet…

It is hard to see quite what Fabregas has or hasn’t done to earn the indifference of so many people. During the week a mooted summer transfer to Real Madrid was blown asunder after manager Zinedine Zidane described Fabregas as being past his best. Even worse, an official from a big-spending Chinese club spoke dismissively of the Spaniard as “not our cup of tea.” This from a club who forked out millions for the talents of Graziano Pelle and Papiss Cisse. Ouch!

For Fabregas there is painful history here. Three years ago he was excess baggage at a Barcelona regime that liked him, just not as much as the god-like pair of Xavi and Iniesta. The consensus at the time was he would find an escape route back to Arsenal where he had enjoyed such a great spell before returning to the Catalan club of his boyhood. As it turned out, Arsenal didn’t actually want him back. Fabregas spoke of how much that rejection stung, licked his wounds and settled down to life under Jose Mourinho at Chelsea.

On the surface, it seems odd that Barcelona saw no long-term future for Fabregas at the Nou Camp. In his last season, Xavi was 34 and Fabregas was second in La Liga for total assists, behind Real Madrid’s Angel Di Maria. Reportedly, the feeling among the coaching staff was that Fabregas’ direct style, his nose for the quick forward pass, did not suit the team’s slower, more meticulous style. His role was to give the ball to Messi, not to look for the over-ambitious, defence-splitting pass that was his natural inclination. For that reason, he was expendable.

The problem for Fabregas in England is that such visionary skills, while routinely prized, are usually slave to the system in which they have to adapt. And in England, more than elsewhere, the system is king. By common consensus Chelsea’s season took off, not due to the form of any individual player in particular, but when Conte switched to a 3-4-3 formation, in which Fabregas does not, and some say cannot, play a leading role. In short, he remains haunted by that Barcelona curse: they like him, just not that much.

And yet, in what has hardly been a vintage Premier League season in terms of performance, one of the greatest joys has been witnessing Fabregas’ cameo roles for the title favourites. Last week he came on for Nemanja Matic with 20 minutes left as Conte pushed his side forward for a winner at Burnley. Within moments of Fabregas taking the field, Jamie Carragher spoke on Sky of how much better and more fluent Chelsea looked for the midfielder’s presence. It didn’t work on this occasion, of course, but in the context of the season so far, that has been the exception rather than the rule.

The statistics show that Fabregas has played a total of 549 minutes in the Premier League this season, the equivalent of six games, and started just five times. In that time he has scored twice and provided six assists, rarely failing to make a decisive contribution when he is given the opportunity. Chelsea don’t just look a better team when he is directing affairs, the figures show they perform better and achieve just as much, if not more, too.

Of course, there are those who will pose all manner of caveats. English football may be more adaptable than the days when 4-4-2 was incontrovertible doctrine, but the argument will reign that there’s only so much that can be done to accommodate a playmaker like Fabregas. There is a widespread view that he simply cannot play in a deep-lying midfield role or as part of a so-called double pivot. That he is not mobile or strong enough. And on and on and on.

What it really boils down to, though, is a lack of trust, a primeval fear of the gifted playmaker who will leave your team exposed at the back, ever a handy scapegoat for collective failure. Wes Hoolahan has had to stomach a bellyful of it during a criminally under-rewarded career for club and country. Stephen McPhail suffered grievously at a time he was displaying considerable promise at a high-flying Leeds. Fabregas himself was part of a conventional set-up when he arrived first at Arsenal and duly flourished, though admittedly the fresh legs of youth would have helped.

Part of his problem now, of course, is simply that Chelsea are top of the League, seemingly sauntering to another title. What Conte is doing is working and who is to argue that using Fabregas so sparingly isn’t the right thing to do? How effective would be be, it is argued, if he regularly started games? To which there is simply no answer, because we cannot know unless Conte plays him. To suggest he is past his best, as Zidane does, however, seems egregious at best. Fabregas is not even 30 yet, a light season behind him. But ah, the knowing reply comes, he started young, there is much mileage on the clock. Really? Over the hill at 29. So this is what they mean when they talk about the snowflake generation.

Conte can make all the Pirlo comparisons he wants, but the suspicion remains that Fabregas won’t find a Pirlo-like twilight to his career, either in England or any top League for that matter. It would be nice to think there is an enlightened manager out there somewhere with an eye on building a team around his sublime talents, but we know from grizzled experience that this is not how the game works. Right now, the player’s agent will be putting the feelers out, testing the waters, informing potential suitors of his client’s unwillingness to accept a pay cut, certain in the knowledge that if the big western clubs are unwilling to meet his demands, there’ll be a cash-rich club further east that will, one that will find the Spaniard their “cup of tea.”

As an obscenely wealthy young man, sympathy for Cesc Fabregas is limited. Yet it seems a crying shame to see a player of such sublime poise and beauty sitting on the replacements’ bench week after week at a time when the modern game has never seemed more shrouded in mediocrity. A shame but not a surprise. A few months before Fabregas made his £26m move to Chelsea, Marouane Fellaini followed Moyes to Old Trafford for a fee in excess of £27m. Fellaini has started 10 Premier League games for his club this season, precisely twice as many as Cesc Fabregas for Chelsea.

Go figure.

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