As Andres Iniesta joins the long-term injury list at Barcelona, Josep Guardiola is left with a major hole in midfield—a hole that can be plugged by one of two extremely talented players in Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabregas. Deciding which one of the two should start, however, is not as straightforward a choice as it may look.
Both Thiago and Fabregas have utterly contrasting styles of play. Thiago is a player who can run at defenders effortlessly. He is not afraid to take on his man one on one. He is not afraid to dribble past a player or two. At the same time, he also has a tendency to misplace his final pass.
Fabregas, on the other hand, is more reserved. He is a player who likes to pass his way out of trouble. His connection with Lionel Messi, however, is something that has been the subject of great excitement for Barcelona fans, as the two have exhibited some brilliant inter-passing in the few games they have played together.
With difficult games against Atletico Madrid and Valencia coming up, it will be interesting to see which of these two highly talented players Guardiola will call upon. Taking a stab at this question, however, is an interesting exercise which I would like to attempt.
A Case for Thiago
Considering the talents Iniesta brings to the table, it would make sense for Guardiola to go with Thiago. Iniesta has the ability to squeeze into space, take on his man, dribble his way out of trouble. He adds dynamism to the Barcelona midfield. A fluidity and movement that makes Barcelona's game flow the way it is supposed to.
Thiago can play this part well. He has the ability and the movement to add the dynamism the midfield would lack in Iniesta's absence. While his final ball lacks the quality of Iniesta's, Thiago has the added advantage of finding goal scoring positions more often.
If Guardiola starts Thiago in place of Iniesta, Barcelona's style would not change significantly. He would play Iniesta's role directly and ensure that the midfield would not lack fluidity and movement.
A Case for Fabregas
Starting Fabregas in place of Iniesta is a good move for an entirely different reason—Fabregas' ability to play Messi's "false 9" role.
Fabregas has exhibited his ability to play this role in his first few games at the clubs. He has also shown his ability to score goals and find himself in scoring positions. However, when he starts with Iniesta, his role is still more subdued than that of Messi.
In Iniesta's absence, Fabregas could take Messi's role of a "false 9," with Messi himself dropping back into midfield to add the fluidity and dynamism that Iniesta normally provides. Messi is a capable playmaker, as he has shown regularly with some excellent assists, and when he drops back into midfield, he would draw in opposition players, leaving more space for Fabregas, Pedro Rodriguez and David Villa to work some scintillating football up front.
Fabregas' experience might hold him higher in the pecking order than Thiago, but this is a factor that should ideally only be looked at in the biggest of games. For all others, Thiago has proved he does not suffer from stage fright in the big matches.
Iniesta's injury is most unfortunate because it comes at a time when Barcelona will be playing three rather difficult games against Osasuna, Atletico Madrid and Valencia.
However, Thiago and Fabregas are adequate replacements. Each comes with his trade-offs, and each brings different abilities to the pitch. Seeing Guardiola's rationale in starting one or both of these incredibly talented players will be very interesting.