They say the past is another country.
It’s a poetic enough phrase, but it accurately describes the début of Francesc Fàbregas Soler in a way that little other poetry would. It’s fourteen whole years ago that a horse-eyed 16-year-old with a greasy mullet and squad number in the fifties introduced himself to the Highbury faithful with a dominant midfield performance against Rotherham in the League Cup. He was part of a team that included up-and-coming full-back Gaël Clichy, Dutch prodigy Quincy Owusu-Abeyie and Clairefontaine graduate Jérémie Aliadière. The future looked bright for the Gunners. Some of the youngsters were to fare better than others though in the coming years.
Fàbregas was to surprisingly lead Wenger’s second revolution at Arsenal, taking outgoing Patrick Vieira’s captain’s armband, squad number and unwavering faith of the manager. Since then, it’s been a career with occasional highs, the odd low, unfulfilled promise, genius at times, and everything in moderation. The Arsenal captain offered to help pay for a move to Barcelona, where he struggled to establish himself in arguably the greatest midfield modern football has ever witnessed. He was offered back to the North Londoners, who said “Nah” halfheartedly, then sent to Chelsea, where he delivered 18 assists in his first season. Since then, the Spaniard has glittered sporadically; more in the first season, less in the second. Cesc hasn’t seen as much game time in the national side as he’d have liked to either, with his highlight being trusted to lead the line at Euro 2012 as a false nine, neither here nor there positionally, with five other midfielders weaving between him.
Antonio Conte is not the kind of manager who deals in neither here nor theres. He’s a man of extremes, a man who can seemingly keep Costa calm, Hazard sparkling and Moses relevant. He’s either Blue Steel on the touchline or a Duracell bunny; either this charming man, or the boy with the thorn in his side. A winner through and through, Antonio is as much a tinkerman and as he is a thinkerman; he barks orders at his players mid-match, micromanages the finest details of play, and yet he barely raises his voice when he speaks to the press. He has the heart of a mad scientist, the head of a chess champion and he’s unafraid to fling the board in your face. And maybe unsurprisingly for a man of extremes, he’s picked Matic alongside Kanté in his midfield this season; brawn over the brain of Cesc Fàbregas.
Antonio has made his first season in English football a success by instilling automatisms into his players, simplifying everything from build-up play to positioning in attacking phases. Perfectionist, logical, energetic and controlled; Chelsea are winners now, just like the new man in charge. From losing the ball, to facing a gegenpress, Conte looks at what’s about to happen next, and he counters it.
3-4-3 was trialed in training, then against Arsenal in the second half at the Emirates, as Conte looked to counter the absolute domination that Chelsea had suffered against both the Gunners, and Liverpool the week prior. Fàbregas was considered not part of the plans, and linked with a January transfer to Conte’s old employers, Juventus.
But was Cesc staying at the Bridge beyond the last window another part of Conte’s forward thinking?
The 3-4-3 was a compromise of Conte wanting to alter the structure, but implement the personnel that he had in a side that they’d thrive in. It didn’t seem like the perfect option to begin with: everything just clicked, and it stuck. In the first few games of the new system though, Chelsea relied heavily on early strikes, and although the first few games under the new system came with a flurry of goals and consistent clean sheets, there’s an argument that they even somewhat rode their luck.
The formation isn’t flawless, but was brought in to counter a problem Conte could see developing against Liverpool and Arsenal. As Chelsea began to settle into the new system, the rest of the division played catch-up, but now, Conte is looking ahead to the next system at Stamford Bridge.
The Kanté/Matic pivot was overrun by Tottenham’s combination of Dembélé and Wanyama. Tottenham’s own 3-4-3 midfield has been somewhat outclassed both in Europe this season, and against City at the Etihad. The 3-4-3 has its pitfalls, and though the Chelsea midfield pivot is physically tough to break down, the side could sometimes do with a little more creativity deeper; It’s something that Conte is trying to rectify by introducing previously frozen out Fàbregas. The Spaniard made four Premier League appearances before December; he’s made thirteen since, and played in every round of the FA Cup.
The 3-5-2 is a formation that Conte is used to. Chelsea have withdrawn Eden Hazard 18 times this season, Pedro 16. Unsurprisingly, Fàbregas has been the second most-used substitute behind Michy Batshuayi, who hasn’t actually featured as much of late. The advantage of having another midfielder deeper in the mix is that Chelsea can defend in a 5-3-2, just like Italy did last summer. Recycling the ball with 20 minutes to go becomes a lot easier to do if you have someone like Cesc in your midfield. On average Fàbregas makes double the successful passes that Pedro does, makes more passes than either Kanté or Matic and he holds onto the ball about twice as long as Hazard.
Fàbregas is not by any means the only player capable of being that third midfielder, and would have to adjust his game from how he played under Mourinho if he wishes to make Conte rethink tweaking a Hazard/Pedro/Costa front line that has thrived all season. The Blues have been superbly drilled without the ball this season, and can’t afford for an extra midfielder to be passive out of possession. Cesc needs to hold position, shadow-mark and subscribe to the philosophy out of possession as well as in.
He’s not exactly the laziest player in the league, but the signs are looking good for the Spaniard that he can fit into that midfield. Despite making considerably fewer appearances this term than last season or the season before – when he won the league with Chelsea in his first season at the club – Fàbregas is now averaging more interceptions and clearances a game that he has done in the last two years. The defensive side of his game is aiding what Chelsea fans already love about the number 4 too: Fàbregas is also averaging more assists and key passes per 90 minutes than he has the past two years. An impressive feat, when you consider the 18 assists he racked up in his first season back in English football.
Cesc Fàbregas is not the archetypal Antonio Conte player, just as he wasn’t the archetypal Arsène Wenger player all those years ago, when the Frenchman put faith in a young Fàbregas to transform the way the club played. Could Fàbregas lead the second revolution for Conte, like he did for Wenger? Conte’s clearly looking ahead to teams sussing out his 3-4-3, possibly to the Champions League next season. They say the past is another country: give it a few more months, Fàbregas being frozen out at the Bridge might feel a few hundred more miles away.