The midfielder is altering his game for the third time since arriving at Stamford Bridge but he is enjoying this latest challenge more than the others
Before the season began, many said Cesc Fabregas was past his best. And that he wouldn’t be able to cut it under Maurizio Sarri.
Yet the slick Spaniard is silencing his critics once again, proving that he remains Chelsea’s master of reinvention.
Fabregas was signed for the Blues by Jose Mourinho in 2014 and after initially being given license to roam and to create in the Portuguese’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, the £30 million signing has been dropping deeper and deeper ever since.
The 31-year-old was asked to be a box-to-box midfielder last season under former Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, with Nemanja Matic having been sold to Manchester United and his replacement, Tiemoue Bakayoko, failing miserably to fill the void left by the Serbian.
Only a year earlier, Fabregas was so out of favour under Conte that he was lining out for the Under-23s just to keep fit, but he made huge strides working on his physique to become a better option in Chelsea’s engine room than the bigger and stronger Bakayoko.
As a result, the World Cup winner ended up making 49 appearances in all competitions for Chelsea last term, with his vision and precise passing perfectly complementing the industry and dynamism of N’Golo Kante.
The summer, though, brought yet another challenge for Fabregas, with Sarri bringing Jorginho with him from Italy.
The Azzurri international had been the key cog in Sarri’s former side, the midfield metronome that made Napoli tick. His arrival was, thus, pivotal to Sarri’s hopes of implementing his brand of football as quickly and as successfully as possible at Stamford Bridge.
There appeared to be no room for Fabregas in Chelsea’s new-look team. However, he has adapted his game once more, proving himself a more-than-able deputy for Jorginho at the base of the midfield thanks to his terrific technique and wonderful distribution of the ball.
Indeed, he has already been deployed as a regista to great effect against PAOK, Liverpool and MOL Vidi, with his performance in the League Cup win at Anfield drawing particular praise.
The difficulty involved in Fabregas transforming himself into a playmaker should not be underestimated either. This, after all, was a player so suited to playing further forward that he was occasionally used as a ‘false nine’ by both Pep Guardiola and Vincente del Bosque, for Barcelona and Spain, respectively.
Consequently, he could have shied away from the challenge of changing his position at the age of 31. Instead, Sarri’s arrival actually seems to have inspired a new determination in the former Arsenal ace to ensure that whenever he departs Stamford Bridge, he will do so revered not only for his ability but also his attitude.
He has admitted himself that he feels revitalised, reborn almost.
After the 1-0 win over Vidi, he mused, “For me, this is pre-season. I’ve only been with the team for two weeks, after seven or eight weeks out, so it’s just my second game in this position and I feel really good.
“I like it, everything goes through me. This is what I like. I feel sensations under Sarri that I never thought I would feel again.
“To be honest, touching the ball 100 times, all the play going through me or Jorginho, it’s a very important role for Sarri. I’m learning it and I’m very passionate about it as it’s very interesting.
“The way Sarri sees football…. maybe in the future, if I become a coach I think I’ll do something very similar to what he does. It’s what I like and how I see football.
“I’m learning a lot from him. It’s really interesting how he works and I’m really looking forward to working with him for a long time.”
Fabregas has expressed his frustration with his lack of game time in the Premier League yet he has been so taken with Sarri and his methods, that he is willing to bide his time on the bench.
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“I felt I could have helped in the games against West Ham and Liverpool in different type of things but the manager tried another option and I respect that,” he explained.
“It is difficult to be sitting there and not helping the team when you know you could add something.
“But this is part of the game; it’s still early for me.”
He has the utmost belief in his powers of conversion. He is confident that, with time, he can work himself in a position to put pressure on the likes of Mateo Kovacic, N’Golo Kante and Ross Barkley for a place on the right- or left-hand side of midfield.
He remains one of the most creative players in the world. He ranked joint-fourth with Chelsea team-mate Eden Hazard last season for chances created across Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues, with 131 – 10 more than the great Lionel Messi.
So, there are no question marks over his ability to pick a pass. This, remember, is a player with Barcelona DNA, schooled in the art of tiki-taka.
As Sarri says, he can perform the playmaker role as well as Jorginho because he is arguably a better passer than the Brazil-born Italian.
“Cesc has to improve his physical condition, of course, but I think he’s a great option in this position,” the Italian enthused during the week.
“Cesc is very good at moving the ball. More so than Jorginho. We don’t need to change Fabregas’ way of [playing] football.”
They only want to change his position. And Chelsea’s master of reinvention is more than capable of adapting to a new role.
He’s done it twice before and he’s already doing so again under his favourite Chelsea boss yet.