Antonio Conte take note: Class may not be permanent, but Cesc Fabregas still possesses it
Cesc Fabregas and Antonio Conte may very well be a stylistic mismatch but the Spaniard has already proven that he has much to offer, writes Richard Jolly.
One way or another, it was always going to be an uncomfortable occasion. It could be vitriolic, visceral in the rejection of a former favourite, the most cruel and cutting of reunions. The chances are, however, that the pain will come courtesy of supposed allies. A man who used to command this stage may be relegated to a bit-part role; perhaps even a watching brief. It is a demoralising downgrade.
Cesc Fabregas left Arsenal to play for the best team in the world. When he last returned to the Emirates Stadium, it was as a defending champion. When he goes back on Saturday, it will probably be as a substitute. It may spare him a hostile reception from the Gunners fans who once celebrated him, but it underlines the way this has been a chastening campaign for aged midfielders. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Yaya Toure may finish it with one, largely irrelevant, appearance in a Champions League qualifier between them. But they are in their thirties. Fabregas is just 29, seemingly too young to be yesterday’s man but sidelined in the running revolution.
He has become Chelsea’s anti-Rooney, a prodigy with plenty of miles on the clock at a comparatively youthful age – in his case, 659 games for clubs and country, more than many a veteran will muster when he retires in his mid-thirties – but looking a persecuted species, rather than a protected one. Fabregas has been omitted for what he cannot do but he has offered more evidence than Manchester United’s fading captain of what he can still muster, and in fewer outings.
There was the gorgeous assist for Diego Costa at Vicarage Road, a reminder that theirs can remain a hugely productive relationship. There were the two goals in three minutes at Leicester on Tuesday, both taken with enviable technical mastery. Class may not be permanent, but he still possesses it.
The thought occurs that if Fabregas had never left Arsenal, he may be granted Rooney-esque privileges. He could still be the captain, enjoying the benefits of a powerbase. The side may still be built around him. Instead, Arsene Wenger’s designated Spanish schemer is Santi Cazorla, two-and-a-half years Fabregas’ senior, but a player who is not penalised for his lack of pace.
But then there is an ideological division at the heart of the midfields: Arsenal’s remains essentially technical, Chelsea’s overwhelmingly physical. Antonio Conte has opted for the energy of N’Golo Kante and the muscle of Nemanja Matic. There is a case for dropping the Serb to accommodate Fabregas. To judge by Conte’s rhetoric, however, it seems a choice between him and a Brazilian.
"Oscar is a good player, great technique and can do both facets: both offensive and defensive," Conte said last week, highlighting concerns about Fabregas’ defending that became apparent during Jose Mourinho’s reign. Yet Chelsea's defensive record is mediocre without him and Oscar comes to mind when remembering Jamie Carragher’s 2014 comment that: “Some of these No. 10s get away with murder.” Strikers get judged on the numbers; some supposedly attacking midfielders do not. Yet since Fabregas returned to England in 2014, he has eight goals and 26 assists in the Premier League. Oscar, despite often being fielded in a more advanced role, nine and just 12 respectively. The Spaniard is the creator supreme. Without him, Chelsea’s three-man midfield offers too few goals or assists.
The only saving grace for Fabregas may be that Conte failed to secure most of his premier targets. His stated intention to play 4-2-4 has been abandoned. That would have required a box-to-box midfielder such as Radja Nainggolan to partner Kante. It would have been hard to envisage Fabregas standing in for either. The route to first-team football would have been shut completely.
Instead, it is merely blocked. Fabregas has been granted a mere 32 minutes of Premier League action this season. He said this week that he wants to open Conte’s eyes. He can still open up a defence. Arsenal can vouch for that. Two years ago, when he first faced his former club in Chelsea colours, he sent Costa rumbling clear to score: as at Watford in August, he did not even need to leave his half to fashion the chance. An economy of movement need not be counter-productive.
But a static style is seeing his career stall. Conte’s appointment has been doubly damaging. Fabregas has lost his place in the Chelsea team and the Spain squad. As his mentor Arsene Wenger brings up two decades in charge, it may feel symbolic that even one of his protégés looks consigned to the past. Yet if Fabregas and Conte, the Spaniard a midfielder blessed with gifts the Italian lacked, leading him to compensate with athleticism and attitude, seem a stylistic mismatch. It is hard to imagine them working together as long as Fabregas and Wenger did. But in the short term, as Conte’s Chelsea struggle to convince and when two of their five wins have come courtesy of Fabregas’ late interventions, it is ever harder to argue they are better off with him on the bench.
Rich Jolly - on Twitter: @RichJolly