Normally, I’d be frustrated at the lack of coverage and attention paid to a transfer story as significant as Chelsea’s procurement of Cesc Fabregas. However, given the reason for its relatively subdued exposure thus far has been the enthralling opening twelve games of what looks set to be the best World Cup of the century, to be honest, I’m not that bothered. Before the day’s games begin however, the implications of Cesc’s arrival certainly makes for interesting contemplation. That the Spaniard instantly improves the squad and first XI by signing for the club cannot be questioned, how and where exactly on the pitch Jose Mourinho intends to make the most of player’s talents is a topic potentially open to extensive debate.
To start with, the tactical evolution of the player since his introduction to the Arsenal first team has followed an intriguingly consistent pattern. Initially, as a teenager he was played by Arsene Wenger in central midfield next to Gilberto Silva in a 4-4-2 (come 4-2-2-2) formation. After spending much of the 2008/9 season injured though and following the signing of Alex Song and Abou Diaby, he returned to the team in a new role as the most advanced member of a three man midfield – a role in which he excelled so much he eventually became the key attacking player at the club as the #10 in a 4-2-3-1 system. His move to a Barcelona side in 2011 that featured a midfield of Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta then forced him even further forward still, either to the left flank or up front in Leo Messi’s usual withdrawn centre forward position.
The abundance of talent already at Chelsea in the attacking midfield positions raises the key question of whether Cesc would be able to re-adjust his game to the deeper central midfield position he would surely occupy at Stamford Bridge. It’s a proposition over which many hold reservations. Issues regarding the player’s physical attributes, athleticism, work rate and positioning have all been raised, and though none are without substance, they’re concerns which I feel aren’t well grounded on the basis of his performances for Barcelona these past three seasons.
Having spent the bulk of his formative years in the Premier League, it was clear from the onset that his reintegration to Barcelona would always be a compromise of sorts. From the beginning it was obvious he had neither the composure nor the patience to play as part of the midfield trio, nor the pace or work-rate to play on the flanks. Increasingly, in order to best fit in with the system he became more of a penalty box player, but was never was allowed to fully embrace the wonderfully direct style of play which made him one of the most effective and entertaining Premier League players of the decade.
In short, given the such specific requirements and roles given to (especially forward) players at Barcelona, even last year under Gerardo Martino’s less stringent system, I don’t think a player’s performances at the Catalan club can be considered a reliable way of measuring their suitability for practically any other side. This is all tributary to the point anyhow, that even if Cesc were to play in a midfield pivot alongside Nemanja Matic, the need to for him to be defensively outstanding is not great. With two such relentlessly hardworking/tactically disciplined players in front of him in Oscar and Willian, and with Nemanja Matic sweeping up possession behind him, Fabregas will be at almost total liberty to play his most natural game, getting the ball forwards quickly and making runs from deep towards goal.
Ignoring the full back positions (which are likely to change), this what I imagine would be Chelsea’s starting line-up for the majority of league games next season, especially at home and against bottom half sides. It’s a side that on first glance appears physically unimpressive in midfield, but it’s also a side full of selfless runners in attacking positions. With Fabregas’ arrival instantly reducing the creative burden on the three players behind the striker also, there will be more oppurtunities for them to press high up the pitch, taking up dangerous positions and feed off the kind of service they knew was very rarely forthcoming from Ramires last season.
But it seems clear that regardless of wherever he’s initially the deployed, the likelihood of Cesc being used in only one role all season is somewhere very close to zero. In signing the Spaniard not only has Mourinho acquired a player with a wonderfully multifunctional skill set, but also one very used to being played in a great number of positions across a season and the Portuguese isn’t one to let such an advantage go to waste.
For away games or matches against the bigger sides where extra mobility and physicality in midfield is needed, Mourinho has the obvious option of moving Cesc further forwards and bringing in Ramires to play in behind. Oscar’s exceptional performance on the right wing for Brazil in their WC opener, provided clear demonstration how both he and Fabregas could both start games in attacking positions for Chelsea next season.
One final option, for big away matches and Champions League ties would be to simply use Fabregas in a 4-3-3 formation, the position he held during his key breakthrough years at Arsenal. Three years back at Barcelona will have left him well equipped at keeping possession in congested midfields; in this role he also finally gives Chelsea someone they can rely on to effectively start counter attacks from midfield, with fast wingers and an exceptional target man to aim at, Cesc could be the player to tactically complete Mourinho’s vision for his second generation Chelsea squad.
I’ve found it rather amusing to read the anguished complaints of Arsenal supporters on social media reacting to this transfer. Despite clearly having no leg to stand on, some have been (and remain) determined to vilify Cesc for this ‘treacherous’ move but I don’t quite know what these fans wanted him to do. Arsenal passed up the opportunity to sign him. Are they seriously suggesting that the player not return to his favoured league and city just to avoid hurting their feelings? And then they have the nerve to call him shallow and petty. Oh, the irony.