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How Cesc Fàbregas proved me totally wrong

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A secret love letter to Antonio Conte in an unpleasant time

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I hate being wrong. I don’t know many who like it, but I think it can be especially difficult for writers. While my friends or colleagues may not be able to remember what I told them on some couch eight months ago, we writers put our words in print or on the internet, where they can haunt us for all eternity. As many a celebrity or public figure has found out, once it’s on the internet, it is forever.

Nevertheless, there are happy occasions of this phenomenon, too. Being wrong doesn’t always have to be painful. Sometimes being wrong fills one with a sense of joy and renewed wonder at the state of the world. This article is about one of those times.

As this past summer’s transfer window wore on, supporters like me found themselves growing more and more anxious for appropriate signings to be made. Once the respective sales of Matić and Chalobah had been finalized, and especially when Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s loan deal went through, daily waves of concern rocked washed over us. Chelsea, Champions of England, were selling in such a way that they had turned strength into weakness. Regardless of one’s opinion on Tiemoué Bakayoko as a straight swap for Matić, more reinforcements were surely needed if Chelsea were going to compete on four fronts. With just three central midfielders in the senior squad at that time, Chelsea were going to need at least one more signing simply to survive the season.

West Bromwich Albion v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

And so, like many others, the signing of Danny Drinkwater in the final hours of the window hit me with a mixture of relief and concern. Was Drinkwater really the best we could do? Certainly not, I imagined, but he’s better than nothing, right? I returned to my research, compiled as the window had progressed, and looked over what I’d written about Danny: not shy in the tackle; a capacity for the long ball behind the lines (something which Jamie Vardy misses more than most would’ve imagined); decent motor; fair technique; able to read and adjust the pace of the game, especially with the ball. There was (and is) a lot to like about Drinkwater. Rumors were circulating about the involvement of Antonio Conte in the transfer business and the gears in my brain went a-spinning, as they are wont to do.

Despite winning the title, it was clear that all throughout the 2016-17 season Antonio Conte felt he lacked the options he wanted to rotate alongside N’Golo Kanté in midfield. Cesc Fàbregas was an incredible asset to have in matches against weaker opposition and in those late stages when our attack needed that extra creativity, but it was clear that Conte was hesitant to rely on him regularly, especially when he felt a defensive job needed doing in the middle of the park. Drinkwater may not have been first on the list, he did seem to offer an attractive alternative to Cesc for the manager.

In my subsequent evaluation of the deal with Leceister, I made this statement:

”Drinkwater is far more likely to feature in Chelsea matches than I imagine most supporters would guess right now.”

I now know that I missed the mark in overestimating what our reliance on Drinkwater may be, though not for the reason I might have anticipated. My assessment of Drinkwater’s strengths and abilities was accurate, and his utility for Conte proved its worth in the jam-packed holiday schedule. The crucial mistake I made was in predicting how Conte finally acquiring a more reliable piece to rotate in would affect the current players, and one in particular; I erred in believing that the inclusion of Drinkwater in the squad would spell less playing time for our Spanish trequartista-cum-libero because I underestimated the potential of Fàbregas to change, to work hard and improve those previously neglected aspects of his game.

Chelsea on Their Pre-Season to Singapore Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

I should tell you that I am a huge Frank Lampard fan. That may seem irrelevant, but the thing is, as Lampard’s career waned, the transition from advanced playmaker to deep-lying midfielder was one he was never really able to make. Whether it was a lack of fitness as he aged, a consciousness of the team’s need for his goal-scoring ability, or tactical choices from the coach, Lamps never seemed to work in the role with as much impact as the likes of Matic, Ramires, or Mikel. He hadn’t lost his ability to see and make the diagonal pass, or slot a ball through a back line, but perhaps the only time he demonstrated the drive required by the defensive responsibilities of systems which use this role was that tremendous performance in Munich.

For his part, Chelsea’s current no.4 has made such a substantial change in what he can offer the side that I no longer consider Drinkwater a superior defensive option. He has taken on a likeness to his countrymen Alonso and Azpilicueta in that he looks as hungry in the last minute as he did in the first. His renewed intensity in play is a testament to Conte’s supreme skill as a manager. If he can continue to get the most out of Cesc going forward, we may start talking about him in the same breath as those ageless stars, Mssrs. Zola and Makélélé. Each was a player whose prime playing days had been more or less written off when they arrived at Stamford Bridge, and both went on to have substantial careers in royal blue.

For the sin of underrating you, Señor Fàbregas, I can only apologize. Who knows, with the right pieces around him, intelligent management, and the right role in the right system, he may have another five years left in the tank. We could very well be looking at Andrea Pirlo Mk.II. And this is why they sing “Antonio.”

English title Chelsea v Watford - Premier League Photo by Kieran Galvin/NurPhoto via Getty Images