It took Cesc Fabregas only two games to win his first two trophies with Barcelona; a sense of pride, relief and belonging. Since then, the disappointments have overwhelmed the positives. Not because Fabregas has become a bad player overnight, but rather because it’s not the Fabregas we’ve come to know.
Even if Barcelona do not want to admit it, the signing of Fabregas was to ensure a smooth transition between Xavi Hernandez and Thiago Alcantara, with the former Arsenal captain acting as the bridge.
Cesc is not an attacking midfielder, nor is he a forward, despite his goalscoring successes and the fluidity of his partnership with Lionel Messi early in his Barcelona career.
Technically, Fabregas is a Barcelona player, wonderfully proficient and good enough for the engine room at the Camp Nou. But tactically, something is missing. It’s as if he wasn’t raised at La Masia, rather arriving in Spain as a product of the Arsenal youth system.
And that’s not completely a bad thing: David Villa, among others, have found success at Barcelona despite having come from other corners of the football world.
On the other hand, players like Alexis Sanchez show the lack of quick-thinking that is so prevalent in the Barcelona academy players. Unfortunately, Cesc may be one to fit into that group.
It doesn’t help either that Vicente del Bosque seems intent to use Fabregas as one of his forwards, rather than in the position that made him one of the world’s best at Arsenal.
Fabregas may have the intelligence to play in that role, helping to find a middle ground between a Barcelona with Messi and a Spain without him. But as a player who looked destined to become the heir to Xavi, Fabregas should have been encouraged in the position he knows best.
Is it his fault?
At the very start of Fabregas’ time at Barcelona, it was clear that the tactical setup came as something of a shock. The attention to detail and the need to move and think with as much intelligence as the ball-carrier was a manner of preparation that was totally bereft at Arsenal. More than anything, he needed time to adapt.
A fair assessment would be that Barcelona haven’t always been able to trust Fabregas, even after a year with the club. Yes, at times he’s looked like the player from Arsenal who took control of high-profile games with ease. At other times, it’s been clear why he’s often been overlooked.
It’s also worth noting that the development of Fabregas’ style of play that resulted in him as something of an advanced midfielder started at Arsenal.
Along with the 4-3-3 formation that Arsene Wenger adopted, he also gave Fabregas the freedom to push forward as the furthest of the midfield three. The idea was to get more goals out of the midfielder, as his production in front of goal had dropped after the 2007/08 season.
The disappointment is that you sense Fabregas is at the point of no return for his intended role at Barcelona.
Thiago is now seen as the player to pull the strings in the midfield for the long term, and the youngster has certainly impressed when given opportunities. Fabregas, meanwhile, doesn’t appear to have a clear path for the next few years at the Camp Nou. That specific central-midfield role might be off the table, while even appearances on the left flank seem like poor imitations of regulars, especially Andres Iniesta.
It’s not that Fabregas hasn’t played well at various points during his time at Barcelona, but it’s nothing of what you’d expect to see from a player of his calibre.
For much of the first half of this season, Fabregas looked near enough the best midfielder in La Liga, with subtle hints of the magic of his Arsenal days. The team were forced to adapt by Tito Vilanova, who appeared to have found a place for Fabregas in the traditional 4-3-3.
The 5-4 win at Deportivo, from an attacking perspective, was an indicator that this team had a found a sense of continuity without Xavi. On the day, Fabregas registered three assists.
But that was a team and a setup that was more suggestive of a direct route to goal.
The recent 4-0 win over AC Milan was a throwback to the height of Barcelona under Pep Guardiola. The midfield and attacking six were identical to the side that lined up against Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final, and the football on display was largely the same.
It seems unlikely that Fabregas will be a part of a team that plays that level of football at Barcelona in the future; at the very least, he’s unlikely to be one of the central figures in a team like that.
Fabregas may find a new identity in the coming months with Barcelona, certainly if there is set to be an overhaul of playing staff this summer.
The age and injury concerns of Xavi means he’s unlikely to feature regularly in the side, while new arrivals and specifically a likely replacement for David Villa means Fabregas could be used to great effect in a slightly altered system.
But for now, that’s up in the air. You wonder if the player has done enough to make his move “back home” worthwhile, or if he himself feels held back by surrounding factors that haven’t allowed him to blossom.
The most likely explanation is that Fabregas is simply unfamiliar with not to being the focal point or unquestionable leader of a team.