Cesc Fabregas: Underappreciated Anachronism at Odds with Game That Shuns Luxury

Alex DunnFeatured ColumnistMay 8, 2017

Does Cesc Fabregas have a long-term future playing in the Premier League?
Does Cesc Fabregas have a long-term future playing in the Premier League?Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images

It's a hard thing to pin down, luxury. The most pliable of entities, it means different things to different people. To some, it represents an abstract craving for time and space. For others, it is more physical and tangible. It has a capacity to polarise people and perceptions. It both enchants and offends.

The writer and philosopher Alain du Botton described it thus: "The materialistic view of happiness of our age starkly revealed in our understanding of the word 'luxury.'"

It is easy to see how goods and services can simultaneously be both hankered after and sneered at—one man's pint is another man's poison and all that. But what if the luxury referred to is a person, or in the peculiar case of Cesc Fabregas, a footballer?

The view the Chelsea midfielder is a luxury player is fast on its way to becoming that rarest of things in football: a truth universally acknowledged. Even Fabregas seems resigned to it. More often than not, he starts matches on the substitutes' bench, an exquisite piece of jewellery allowed out of its box only on special occasions. Games Chelsea are in control of and need to see out or ones wherein they are struggling to break down a packed opposition defence have become the equivalent of an anniversary dinner or birthday drinks.

Given Chelsea's four remaining Premier League matches are against Middlesbrough (h), West Bromwich Albion (a), Watford (h) and Sunderland (h), Fabregas should be given ample opportunity to prove he is still operating at an elite level ahead of what could be an interesting summer.

Although it can seem like he's being wheeled out for such occasions like royalty forced to make small talk with visiting foreign dignitary, he should be glad of it, as it might just win him an FA Cup final place. As for talk of moving to MLS or the Chinese Super League, even the Duke of Edinburgh doesn't consider himself old enough for that just yet. In any case, diplomatic relations could probably do without another hit.

In February, an interview Fabregas gave to Chelsea TV (h/t Sean Kearns of Metro) read like the world's gloomiest lonely-hearts ad and opened itself up to the interpretation it was a thinly disguised dig at N'Golo Kante. The Premier League's most underused playmaker pitched against the indefatigable presser. Luxury and necessity can make for uneasy bedfellows when fighting over the duvet.

"I don't think my physical abilities are the best—I'm not the quickest, I'm not the strongest, I'm not the sharpest, so you have to be ahead of the game if a player like me wants to succeed in football," Fabregas said, in an opening gambit that had his agent reaching for gas and air.

He continued: "That's what makes me very proud because right now, everyday, you see less talent and more power and players running around. Today, it's more difficult for the more talented players to succeed. That's why I'm grateful, and that's why I try to get even better because football is growing in a way that before I don't think it was."

Given Fabregas' impeccable professionalism has widely been lauded this season, it would be mischievous to the point of malevolence to suggest it were Kante being needled rather than a general lament over a footballing zeitgeist that favours the hardest-working kid in the class over the brightest.

Compatriot Juan Mata is another who, throughout his career, has been labelled a luxury player. In that warming genial way of his, when interviewed by The Times' Matt Hughes, he once proffered: "If a luxury player is a player who scores and assists and has good stats, then I'm happy to be a luxury player."

A deep thinker about the game, Fabregas is no one's fool. That said, to describe himself as "a player like me" as though it's almost a bad thing, like an elderly gentleman excusing himself from ice skating on the grounds of "a back like mine," seems a remarkable admission for a player who only turned 30 on Thursday.

Time waits for no man, as Wayne Rooney will attest as he struggles to make peace with rapidly waning physical capabilities despite being just 31. There are, however, stark differences between the Englishman and Fabregas.

For starters, Fabregas never had much of a physicality to lose. It has always been the case with him that a yard in the head has been worth two in the legs. Even in his spikier early years at Arsenal, when he was happy to go toe-to-toe with opponents outside of his weight division, he gave the impression of trudging through wet sand when tracking back.

The main difference between him and Rooney is the fact Fabregas remains an exquisite footballer.

The statistics are phenomenal. This season, he has made just 10 league starts and 15 substitute appearances. In 1,047 minutes of football he has contributed nine assists. Only Kevin De Bruyne (15), Christian Eriksen (12) and Gylfi Sigurdsson (12) have been the architects of more. Alexis Sanchez and Wilfried Zaha also have nine apiece.

All of the aforementioned quintet would consider themselves to be one of their respective clubs' most important players. Fabregas, in contrast, has been touted as being Adam Sandler's stand-in should the actor be too busy to shoot The Waterboy 2 because of a longstanding commitment to making crap films for Netflix. 

He averages an assist every 116 minutes. For a little context, Tottenham Hotspur's exquisite playmaker, Eriksen—whose form this season has courted interest from Barcelona, according to Neil Moxley of the Mirror—averages one every 249 minutes. Fabregas also has four goals and double the amount of yellow cards to his name, which suggests he still has an eye for goal and a fight.

It's not just the frequency of his assist-making but the quality. Given an assist would be rewarded for a shot heading for the corner flag that hits an unsuspecting party in the penalty box and flies into the net, it seems opportune to make a distinction for Fabregas' catalogue of mini-masterpieces.

A pattern for the season was set as early as Chelsea's second game of the season, when he came off the substitutes' bench at Watford to set-up Diego Costa's winner. There was less space between Watford's defenders than an orange and its peel. Fabregas found it with a pass that, nine months on, has yet to bettered.

As recently as April 30, in an eight-minute cameo against Everton, a pullback for Willian's goal brought to mind the following Arthur Schopenhauer line: "Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see." 

Then there was that long wedged pass from inside his own half on to the chest of Costa that brought about Chelsea's equaliser at Manchester City in early December. It was Fabregas' first start in two months. Antonio Conte's side went on to win 3-1 to ink in pen title credentials previously only marked in pencil.

A pair of assists against Stoke City on New Year's Eve saw him become only the fourth player after Ryan Giggs (162), Frank Lampard (102) and Wayne Rooney (101) to register 100 in the Premier League.

No player reached the milestone quicker than Fabregas' 293 games. He has since usurped the latter pair, with Dennis Bergkamp, Steven Gerrard, David Beckham and Thierry Henry also having finished their respective careers looking up at him. Given the reception afforded to each of those on retirement fell just short of a national holiday being granted, it will be interesting to note Fabregas' fanfare when he calls it a day.

Conte may stand accused of holding Fabregas' talent hostage, but it would be impossible, not to mention wrong, to get a conviction. It's not a victimless crime. One only has to look into the player's eyes to see a dog tied up outside a shop with a "take me" sign pinned on his collar, but it's arguably one without a perpetrator. It's hard to attribute blame.

If anyone is feeling a little teary at his plight, it's probably worth noting Fabregas charted at No. 21 in the recent Sunday Times Rich List 2017's Young 50 category. Apparently, he's worth £35 million, the same as Zayn Malik. His wealth is going in only one direction. 

By Conte's admission, he treats a player he has hailed a "genius" and comparable to Andrea Pirlo, per The Independent's Matt McGeehan, as a luxury.

Paul Scholes, who is perhaps the only player in Premier League history whose passing range outstrips Fabregas', is unreservedly a fan but understands Conte's reluctance to break up his Nemanja Matic-Kante midfield axis, telling BT Sport: "Fabregas doesn't suit him because I think he likes to be very rigid in the way he plays, and Fabregas can be a bit of a luxury."

It is Conte's job to win football matches. He does it remarkable well. With Chelsea 34 points better off than they were at this stage last season, with one hand on the Premier League trophy and a place in the FA Cup final booked, it's little wonder Fabegras has had little option other than to suck it up.

It's fair to say Conte didn't miss his vocation as a counsellor when he decided to go into football management. When quizzed on Fabregas' reported unhappiness at the peripheral role he has, Conte said, per Jack Pitt-Brooke of The Independent: "To work very hard is not simple. The player is not always happy to work hard. I want players ready to fight and put themselves in the team to win together. If you are happy, or unhappy, I don't care."

For elite managers to err on the side of caution is one thing. As supporters, though, whether neutral or partisan, it seems odd we have colluded in this deep mistrust of players like Fabregas. It used to be managers were harangued for shunting talents of his ilk out wide or, as is often the case in England, so wide they'd be on the same side of the touchline as the fans.

Now such calls less project dismay than earnest chin-stroking over how a playmaker's omission is justified because of an inability to counter-press. Dungeons & Dragons workshops must be empty on a Saturday afternoon.

The only thing it elicits in this writer is a desire to press fingers into the temple and howl into a pillow. It's not a dissimilar situation at Arsenal with Mesut Ozil. The once-untouchable German has been pushed forward to the right of a centre-forward, seemingly no longer trusted to play in the middle of the pitch. When a man like Gunners boss Arsene Wenger, who probably uses cashmere toilet paper, tires of luxury, maybe the game is up.

A candle is still lit for Cecil the lion, but we're quite happy to let playmakers go the same way as the dodo. Justifying it because they don't fit into systems would be like Hollywood not using Marilyn Monroe on the grounds she didn't fit into a Size 8 dress.

That's not to say Fabregas always makes things easy. He was so bad last season I was moved to write (cruelly and crudely, in hindsight) how it was "disputable whether he'd be able to pass a stool without first hitting the toilet seat." As it transpired, in the worst season of his career, when he was wrongly accused of being a conscientious objector in Jose Mourinho's annus horribilis, he was in fact one of the Portuguese's most loyal lieutenants.

All of which kind of makes sense of the Daily Star's David Woods' recent report linking him with a move to Manchester United. Sat in a quarterback role behind Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba, as Michael Carrick's heir, could be just the ticket. One suspects Jurgen Klopp's heavy-metal football—with Liverpool also mooted as suitors—might bring on a migraine before he left the dressing room.

It was last term when the accusation that has riddled his career, of being hopelessly ill-disciplined both tactically and positionally, was magnified. In the most instantaneous waning of powers since Fernando Torres cut off his locks, Fabregas went from being majestic in his first season at Chelsea, in 2014/15, when he made a league-best 18 assists, to so bad midfield partner Matic could probably have successfully made a claim against the Spaniard for inducing stress in the workplace.

Pretty much for the duration of the campaign, Fabregas resembled a child in a supermarket, powerless to the temptation to wander the aisles. In the middle of games, you'd see Matic frantically searching for his team-mate, a distressed mother who'd been promised by an offspring they wouldn't leave the comic section. Often, by the time Matic found Fabregas staring vacantly at a spinning rotisserie, Chelsea would already be a goal down.

Criticism is a reoccurring theme. It's hard to think of a single player with a career anything like as decorated as Fabregas' that has had even half the amount. There are still major reservations about where he will sit in terms of the great modern midfielders. Those who laugh at the suggestion he should be ranked anywhere near Lampard, Gerrard, Scholes and Roy Keane in the Premier League's pantheon of greats should consider his international career hasn't been too shabby.

He has won 110 caps for Spain over a period in which they will be remembered as one of the greatest international sides of all time. He has winners' medals from both the 2008 and 2012 European Championships. Sandwiched between was the assist he laid on for Andres Iniesta's winner in the 2010 World Cup final.

Getting stick from Arsenal supporters is a little churlish given the seven seasons he gave them, but signing for Chelsea was only likely to affront a fanbase more understanding of the fact he left childhood club Barcelona at 16 to move to London in 2003.

When he made his debut for Arsenal against Rotherham United in a League Cup tie, he became the club's youngest player, at 16 years and 177 days. He went on to become their youngest goalscorer too before establishing himself as the club's talisman over 303 appearances that yielded 57 goals and, reportedly, a pizza into the mush of Sir Alex Ferguson.

A solitary FA Cup win during his spell in north London was scant reward for a player who joined English football with a mullet for the ages and left as the Premier League's outstanding midfielder, having clocked up 70 assists during his first sojourn in the capital. For many Arsenal fans, though, he is the potent symbol of what might have been because of what transpired in the post-Invincibles years. He was a great player in a never quite great side.

In an injury-interrupted final season at Arsenal, he scored 11 goals in 22 Premier League matches, a rich vein of goalscoring form that continued during his three years with Barcelona. That didn't stop the Catalan giants' statement on their official website when he left the club for Chelsea in the summer 2014 reading like notice of an unmitigated disaster (via Alistair Tweedale the Telegraph):

"Despite glowing starts to each campaign, Cesc's contributions to the cause gradually decreased as each season drew to a close. From being someone who joined in with the attack, supplying and scoring goals, the magic tended to fade later on in each season. He only scored one, six and one goals in the last 24 games of each season. For some reason, he was never as good in the second half of a season as in the first."

When Fabregas was in his second year at Barca's famed Masia academy, his parents started divorce proceedings. His youth-team coach at the time, Rodolfo Borrell, knew he idolised the club's midfield metronome, Pep Guardiola.

As a favour, he asked him to sign a shirt for his young protege to help boost his morale. On it, Guardiola wrote a message encouraging the then 13-year-old to one day inherit the No. 4 shirt he wore. Some 11 years later, his new coach's words proved prophetic. Fabregas and Guardiola were reunited.

Fabregas fulfils Guardiola's prophetic message.
Fabregas fulfils Guardiola's prophetic message.Daniel Ochoa de Olza/Associated Press/Associated Press

The graduate from La Masia suffered from never finding a regular position on his return to Camp Nou. Competing with Xavi, Iniesta and Lionel Messi to start in three of his most natural roles was not always easy. In an excellent in-depth interview with the Guardian's Sid Lowe in 2013, he professed: "In the long run, every player wants a regular place, to be able to say: 'This is my position.'"

It never quite happened. Three different managers during his time in Catalonia shunted him back and forth from deep-lying playmaker all the way through to a second striker. Still, leaving Barcelona on the back of 42 goals and 36 assists in 142 appearances is hardly a record he'll be embarrassed to tell his grandkids. Only at Barcelona could such numbers represent relative failure. 

Earlier in the season, I expressed a view David Silva was the Premier League's most underrated player. Manchester City supporters are happy for the quiet genius to go under the radar, even if they are dumbfounded by the lack of individual honours that have come his way during his time in England.

While neutrals have never quite lauded him as City fans might, admired rather than loved him perhaps, there's little dispute Silva is universally liked. It would be difficult to claim similar about Fabregas.

His chippy on-field veneer will always be divisive, but when he weighs passes with the care and precision a midwife affords a newborn, surely all is forgiven? In a sea of mediocrity, the role of the moseying playmaker needs to be fought for.

The final word, as is often the case, belongs to Oscar Wilde: "Let me be surrounded by luxury. I can do without the necessities."

All statistics worked out via WhoScored.com unless otherwise stated.