"Oh, Fabregas is magic, he wears a magic hat, He could've signed for Arsenal, but..."
He became a Premier League champion for the first time in his career, instead.
It has been quite the 12 months or so for the 28-year-old Spaniard. When rumours first broke out that Fabregas would no longer be a Barcelona player in 2014/15, the natural thing, for many, seemed to be a return to his old flame, Arsenal. But where Wenger chose not to exercise the buy-back option, Mourinho pounced. 10 minutes and missing Jose Jr's football match was all it took for Cesc to put the past behind him and join a club he has long been a foe to. There were skeptics: could he adapt back to the Premier League? (But he never really looked like he ‘adapted' to Barcelona either so was there anything to adapt back from?) Did he have the tactical discipline to play under Jose Mourinho, who had shunned a Spanish attacking midfielder only months before? As a player who seemed to peak at ages 21-24, and after 3 pretty ordinary years at Barcelona, was his best past him?
With the power of hindsight, we can now say that most of those questions have been answered in a way Chelsea are quite happy with. He started the league season as if he had never left England, and though he suffered what seems to be the Annual Cesc Fabregas Second Half Syndrome, was vital to the team's evolution and success in the league and by the end, he was happily catching celery and throwing it back to the Chelsea fans — of course, no stranger to it since the Snarling Cup Final.
This season, Chelsea aim to retain their Premier League as well as progress further than the paltry RO16 exit last year and Fabregas remains a key ingredient in this pursuit.
There has been talk of Pogba and other central midfielders, perhaps more defensive than Fabregas but his best position, I believe, is still sitting next to Nemanja Matic at the base of midfield. Why? There are two major reasons for this.
The first is that, to move him from there would defeat the entire purpose of his signing in the first place. After two seasons of a Mikel-Ramires pivot, with a dash of an ageing Frank Lampard, it was evident that Chelsea lacked that creativity from deep midfield that many other teams had, to supplement the attacking talent up front. They lacked a pace-setter, a rhythm-controller, someone who could dictate proceedings around him when his team had the ball and be an effective link between John Terry and Eden Hazard. And this is what Mourinho saw in Fabregas when he earmarked him as a top target in the summer of 2014. Although he had been playing in a free, attacking midfield role at Arsenal and was a utility player, essentially, at Barcelona, Fabregas had initially started out as a deeper midfielder - a ‘regista' of sorts in today's football hipster vocabulary.
This is exactly what Fabregas brought to the team from the get-go. Calm in possession, he did not foray up into the opposition box as much as he loved to do in North London. With Nemanja Matic beside him, whose own job is, as he described himself, ‘to make Cesc's job easier', the La Masia product brought about a marked shift in Chelsea's play in the first half of the season almost singlehandedly. Mourinho gave Fabregas a kind of freedom, in the sense that he had the authority when Chelsea had possession to circulate as he wished. He could look to circulate possession around midfield, or play it wide to the interchanging attacking trio ahead of him, or even play it straight up to Costa. Essentially, Fabregas had the authority to dictate Chelsea's play and arguably, his two best performances in this regard, came at home, against West Brom and Aston Villa, where he did so well, Gary Neville compared him to Paul Scholes and Pirlo in the role.
The second reason is that Fabregas is not the ideal No. 10 in Jose Mourinho's system. Indeed, in many games when he is played as the No.10, he does not quite function as one and drops pretty deep into midfield, making it a 4-3-3 more than the 4-2-3-1 we see when Oscar plays there. In attack and in possession, this is fine as Fabregas does not have reins to hold him up but more often than not, Fabregas is played in this role in games in which Chelsea do not have a possession-centred approach. And in such games, the No. 10 is expected to press and run around to support the midfield and force turnovers in the opposition - something Fabregas is not built for.
For all that has been said about the Annual Cesc Fabregas Second Half Syndrome, my theory for his slump last season in particular has to do with Oscar's form in the corresponding time too. For Fabregas to play effectively in the role he does in the pivot and 'noticeably', he needs two things; his team to have possession and for Oscar to be in form, both of which are linked in a way too.
Oscar offers the tactical balance to the midfield. He drops deep and covers for Fabregas when he moves up field, he makes tackles and doggedly pursues opponents when they break. The importance of the Brazilian's role in complementing Matic and Fabregas cannot be understated. And when Oscar covers, Fabregas has the freedom to control and retain possession for his side. So, it is perhaps not surprising that Oscar's slump from around December corresponds with Fabregas' loss in form.
This also inevitably leads to Chelsea's change in approach in the second half of the season, especially with the frequent absence of Diego Costa: less flash, more caution, which lead to more appearances for the likes of Ramires, Mikel and even Zouma in midfield. The new approach was dubbed ‘boring' as Chelsea sat back and looked to hit teams through the outlet of Eden Hazard up front. What this means for Fabregas is that his original purpose of dictating play in possession is rendered redundant, so his role is just to get the ball moving as soon as possible and finding Hazard or Wilian. So, it is perhaps again inevitable that we notice Fabregas ‘less' and feel him to be less influential compared to the first half of the season where Chelsea were more likely to go for possession and look to control games with the ball.
Fabregas has been undroppable for Jose when he has been fit and a great catalyst to Hazard's form, so it is unlikely he will be rotated to an awfully great extent next season. Indeed, the top two passing combinations in the 2014/15 PL, according to Opta, were Fabregas to Hazard (520 passes) and Hazard to Fabregas (380).
Furthermore, Jose has placed Fabregas behind vice-captain Ivanovic in the leadership pecking order. Jose waxed lyrical about this aspect of his midfielder last season, saying that ‘his (Fabregas') brain is connected to his own (Jose's) during matches.', a requirement he looks for in his leaders. Fabregas was also the person who delivered the team talk in the dressing room before the Crystal Palace match when the Blues secured their title, with Jose again lauding his ‘fantastic talk', saying he said ‘exactly what Jose thought and what he was thinking before the game'. Fabregas too, returned the favour, rating Jose the best manager he's worked for (Ouch, Arsene). So, those two obviously like each other.
The downside of a great season is that the following season, one needs to work even harder to match expectations, let alone exceed them. Cesar Azpilicueta, in Sinatra style, believes the best of Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas is still yet to come and if he is indeed Nostra-Dave-us, it could be a great season at SW6.
We Ain't Got No History's 2015/16 season preview was edited by Joe Tweeds and designed by Graham MacAree. If you've enjoyed the work of the authors who generously donated their time to this project, please share with your friends and consider supporting The Chelsea Foundation as a way of saying thank you.Credits