Two weeks ago, Gary Neville slaughtered Cesc Fabregas for his play in Chelsea's midfield. The former Arsenal and Barcelona standout had been racking up the assists, but as Neville noticed his off-ball play was noticeably sub-par, leaving the Blues vulnerable to simple attacks straight though the middle. The first half against Swansea was perhaps Fabregas' off-ball nadir, but it was the culmination of three consecutive matches in which he embodied a woefully unbalanced Chelsea side.
The Blues had to switch to a 4-3-3 to undo the damage done in the first half against the Swans, but for the key match against Manchester City the next weekend, Fabregas once again found himself in the double pivot -- and that's despite Ramires getting into the team. But rather than turn up as a horrifying defensive weakness, the Spaniard reined in the part of his game that was causing so many problems. He didn't charge forward and stay there and he didn't get pulled out of position through misguided attempts to press. Sure, he didn't exactly stop the City midfield from playing like we might have wanted, but he's never going to do that, so what we got out of him at the Etihad was essentially Best-Case Defensive Fabregas.
That said, playing against Manchester City away from home is not exactly indicative of how the Blues usually play. Aston Villa at Stamford Bridge? That'd do it. With a relatively strong midfield and a defensive approach, Paul Lambert's side might be the perfect tactical test for Fabregas, who's expected to create against low blocks without leaving Chelsea open on the counterattack.
Unfortunately for this post (but fortunately for us in general), Oscar scored too early to work out what exactly Chelsea vs. Philippe Senderos' enormous bus might end up looking like. With a 1-0 lead for much of the match, the onus was on the Blues to control the game and look for an opportunity to put the visitors to bed, which duly arrived before the hour mark.
But the onus was on Chelsea to control the tempo against Everton at Goodison Park too, and in that match we decided to try to see if we could make it overdose on speed rather than doing something sane. What was the difference? Here the Fabregas-Matic pairing remained completely and utterly sensible, rarely overcommitting themselves nor looking to force that attack. The duo kept the ball moving* and rarely tried to do too much, and that led to a very easy game -- and also speaks very well of Fabregas' evolution as a Chelsea player.
*Fabregas had 144 pass attempts with a 92 percent passing accuracy, Matic 102 with 95 percent.
Sure, he made mistakes, but there was no sustained positional error like we saw against Swansea. The tradeoff, that he wasn't creating much, was rendered essentially irrelevant by the attacking approach taken by Chelsea, which prioritised the flanks above all else. There was the occasional through ball try, sure, and he did join the attack, but it was always done in a safe manner and a far cry from the kamikaze runs forward that characterised his play in the early going.
I was fairly outspoken about my fears of Fabregas causing us problems in the middle of the pitch, but the early signs of him being able to adapt his game to cover up the flaws are extremely encouraging. A disciplined Fabregas who knows when to go for it and when to hold back is exactly what Chelsea needs. Good on both him and Jose Mourinho for starting down that path.