Chelsea fans got our first look at Cesc Fabregas yesterday. The midfielder played most of the friendly against Olimpija Ljubljana, sitting in the double pivot in the first half and then switching into a freer role alongside substitute Marco van Ginkel as the Blues went to a 4-3-3.
And mostly, he was very impressive. Having watched the match a few times, I feel comfortable digging into his performance. Let's focus on his play in the pivot, because that's where most of the questions are.
It's frequently supposed that Chelsea will use Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas as their first choice midfield pairing, and it's obvious why. Last year, the Blues struggled against teams who yielded possession and decided to indulge in some good old bus-parking, and Fabregas' ability to create from deep will be a huge asset in rectifying that problem.
Unsurprisingly, he was magnificent in possession. What raw passing numbers have never been able to show is how clean a completed pass was. Did it hit a player in stride, or did they have to slow down? Worse, did it make them check back? How quickly was the ball moved?
If Fabregas had been a little rusty, everyone would have forgiven him. He's been out of sorts with Barcelona, and this was his first game of pre-season. Mistakes are to be expected. Only there weren't many: his passing was crisp, clean and ambitious. He has the ability to play balls from midfield that I don't think we've ever seen before, and his vision is superb. He doesn't know his teammates yet, and he's still able to pick out runs with pinpoint accuracy. Oh, and his set pieces were great, too.
Fabregas, in other words, will be a huge help in the sort of games Chelsea struggled in last year. But we already knew that would be the case. His pedigree as an attacking player is undisputed -- what really matters is how well he can defend.
Superficially, the answer we got from the Olimpija match was 'well enough'. He made several important tackles across the park, and although he also gave away a few silly fouls his challenges were generally perfectly acceptable. Which is good -- winning the ball will be an important part of his job, no matter where he ends up.
But it's not all rosy, and it's obvious why his defensive acumen in the midfield has never been highly regarded. He could have done a far better job controlling the space around him, and in general he was waiting too long to make an attempt to win the ball back. Fabregas' defence was essentially passive -- he'd hold back until the opposition had the ball and then try to challenge for it rather than nicking out in front and intercepting.
This is fine for more advanced positions (where we would call it 'pressing'), but preventing the opposition from getting an easy touch is vital in deep midfield, especially on fast counterattacks. We shouldn't be looking for kamikaze runs to block off the ball a la David Luiz, but it would be helpful if Fabregas was a little more decisive in stopping the opposition from exploiting the space around him. A good example is the Olimpija goal: while it was definitely Izzy Brown's fault, Fabregas could and should have stopped the play as it was coming into the centre, even if he had to concede a foul there to do it.
That said, this was a pre-season friendly, and we shouldn't be expecting the world from Fabregas just yet. In mid-season form I'd expect his defending to get a little better and his passing to improve still further, leaving us with an elite ball-playing midfielder who's slightly below average when Chelsea are defending. In games where we expect to dominate, that will be very helpful indeed. It remains to be seen how the midfield is set up in more competitive matches.