"When he has the ball, in one second he is the most special player in the world,” is how Pep Guardiola described one of his proteges earlier this season.
The Manchester City manager was not talking about the genius of Kevin De Bruyne but instead a midfielder at a rival club who has averaged more passes, more chances created and a near-identical number of touches per game as the Belgian.
Guardiola was describing Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas ahead of the two sides’ meeting in September.
The Spaniard may not rival De Bruyne for this year’s player of the year awards, yet few have been as central to their team’s successes or failures as a 30-year-old Fabregas has been to Chelsea this season.
Against West Brom last weekend, the former Arsenal maestro was involved in the build-up for all of Chelsea’s best work, including a trademark scything through-ball to Eden Hazard for their fourth goal.
More striking was a man-of-the-match display in Chelsea’s 1-0 victory over Manchester United earlier this month, in which he created more more goalscoring chances than anyone else on the pitch.
With Fabregas starting, Chelsea have averaged 11.5 chances created per match this season. When he has been missing, that has dropped to an average of seven chances created.
Ahead of Chelsea’s trip to Liverpool tomorrow evening, it is easy to forget that this time last year Fabregas appeared to be surplus to requirements at Chelsea, perhaps even worn out by a lengthy top-flight career that started at 16 years old.
Antonio Conte’s side were halfway through a 13-game winning streak that would propel them to the Premier League title, the run’s symbolic beginning being the withdrawal of Fabregas for Marcos Alonso during Chelsea’s heavy loss at Arsenal — a substitution that signalled the Blues’ switch to a successful 3-4-3 formation.
Together in midfield N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic were dynamic and mobile enough to match up with the three-man midfields of their opponents. With Alonso and Victor Moses patrolling the flanks, Eden Hazard and Pedro could drift inside behind Diego Costa. Suddenly there was no room for even “the most special player in the world”.
This season, however, Fabregas’s imagination has been given licence to roam by Conte, who in recent weeks has favoured a 3-5-2 formation that puts the heavy lifting on Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko.
With Bakayoko adept at driving into the final third and Kante able to cover the ground of two normal players, Fabregas is neither restricted to reprising his former role as an attacking midfielder nor finally inhabiting the deep-lying Guardiola position commonly associated with his No4 shirt.
Against West Brom and United, the combination worked to match-winning affect.
The problem is that those murmurings of Fabregas’ creaking legs were not entirely unfounded. Conte’s midfield is a delicate balance and when Fabregas has lined up in a two-man midfield he has at times morphed from key man to liability.
Three of Chelsea’s four losses this season have been in games in which they have deployed a two-man midfield, the exception being the masterclass inflicted upon them by City in September. If, as Guardiola suggested, Fabregas is still football’s special one then he has Bakayoko and Kante to thank.