Has Cesc Fabregas been a success at Barcelona?
After his first full season back home following eight years with Arsenal, Dan Hill tackles the difficult question – Has Cesc been a success with Barcelona?
He came home, a cherished graduate of La Masia, returning to help maintain Barcelona’s position at the pinnacle of club football. The reality has not matched the dream, however, and it’s been a difficult season for Francesc Fabregas, with Barca not matching the flawless standards of previous campaigns.
As football’s knowledge-hoarders pick apart the intricacies of a nearly but not quite challenge for major honours, several observers have pinpointed how Cesc’s integration into a winning side has disrupted La Blaugrana’s famed fluidity.
Despite hailing from Barca’s fabled youth academy, early reports indicated Fabregas needed ‘re-educating’ in the ways of tiki-taka. Arsenal, and the Premier League, had indoctrinated bad habits – an urgency to force play with direct transitions that wasn’t in keeping with the patient, possession hoarding, tempo set by Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta et al.
Much was made of his positioning and tactical awareness in those early months. The freedom he’d enjoyed at Arsenal had to be restrained for the sake of the team – the dynamic. He was a good player, but he wasn’t a Barcelona player.
‘I was playing (at Arsenal) wherever I wanted, up and down. Here I have to work much more for the team, individually, and think about the team tactically.’ Fabregas noted before this season’s Champions League semi-finals.
The admission highlighted the difference between where he was and where he is. At Arsenal, he was the genesis of most of their attacking play – the creative gem that produced something from nothing. The onus was on him. In Catalonia, he’s a cog in the machine.
In essence, it epitomised why The Gunners are Barca-lite – a talented attacking side, whose best phases were based on an enigmatic ingenuity that they, themselves, never fully understood. It was a recipe for inconsistency, and undermined their attempts to usurp Europe’s best.
At Barcelona, there’s a system. The irony being that their moments of invention and improvisation are scripted – the result of tireless drills and technical dissection on the training ground.
Fabregas, as a graduate of La Masia, was bought because he’d gained an early appreciation of the complexities of Barca’s passing mantra. As well, many deem him the heir-apparent to Xavi – the tempo-setter when the current star-studded generation begin their inevitable, age-initiated, decline.
With Xavi and Iniesta still gracing the Nou Camp and patrolling midfield with Sergio Busquets, there was little room for Cesc to roam. The hierarchy was established, and Fabregas wasn’t ready to replace them. Hence, his first season would be about education. In the mould of Ajax’s Total Footballers of yore, he would be used in a variety of positions.
Within Barca’s traditional but ever rotating 4-3-3 formation, Fabregas has played all six forward positions. When accessing his contributions this term, one must temper any negative judgement against this fact. Few footballers would adapt with any sort of guile to such a frequent turnover of duties.
It helps explain his apparent drop off in form in the latter half of the season, where he’s scored only one goal in 24 appearances. But Cesc’s goal drought can be offset against his position switching and the six assists he contributed during this lean phase.
That leaves him with the following statistics for the season: 35(9) appearances, 15 goals, 11 assists – which are better than both Xavi and Iniesta.
But all this is within a team used to collecting major honours. In 2011/12, they’ve failed to retain the Champions League and Primera Division crown. By Barca’s own ridiculously high standards, it’s been a disappointment. It’s why small margins will be debated ad nauseam.
Last season that pair added 23 and 22 goals respectively to Barca’s tally, releasing the pressure on club talisman Lionel Messi in the process. That hasn’t been the case this year, with the goal-scoring burden more heavily loaded towards the diminutive Argentine.
The benefits of the Villa-Pedro double-act were not restricted to goals, as their whippet-like contributions provided another vital service for the team – they created space for others.
Barcelona’s unique style is reliant on such unselfish running. Messi, Xavi and Iniesta cannot thrive without it. In Villa and Pedro’s absence, Fabregas has been more frequently pushed into their attacking role. But it’s a position that highlights, in extremis, the two most prominent weaknesses in his game – pace and finishing.
In the Champions League semi-final encounter with Chelsea this was accentuated in microcosm. Barca created more than enough guilt-edge chances to take home a first leg advantage from Stamford Bridge, let alone a deficit.
It’s hard to imagine Villa missing when presented with a rebound from the ‘keeper five yards out, or neglecting to score a one on one when fed with a slide-rule pass from Messi. On such small fractions a season is judged, and, ultimately, Cesc Fabregas.
But perhaps that’s harsh – Cesc is being assessed on very exacting standards, and measured against scales he’s not used to. That he has failed to adapt completely after one season in that environment is leaning towards the overly critical. The fact of the matter is Cesc is not David Villa, nor is he Xavi.
Fabregas has never been a midfield metronome. He’s more adroit at breaking defences than defining tempo. In that respect he is perhaps more suited as an understudy to Andres Iniesta, while Thiago Alcantara offers a better like-for-like comparison with Xavi.
Analysis of Primera games tentatively supports this theory. Xavi averages 93.4 passes per game, with a 92.5 percent success rate. Thiago completes 73.1 passes per game with a 92.7 percent success rate. In contrast, Fabregas’ figures are 62.5 and 86.9 percent respectively, while Iniesta’s are 59.3 and 89.7 percent. If the former Arsenal fantasista is being judged against Xavi, then a false ratio is being created – likewise, if he’s expected to live up to Villa’s goal-scoring expertise.
Barca’s relative malaise this season cannot be levelled directly at Cesc Fabregas or other recent incumbents of the Blaugrana shirt, such as Alexis Sanchez. It would also be erroneous to cite the missing ‘Plan B’ as cause for their Champions League exit or title relinquishment.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was meant to be just that, a Plan B, and Barca met a similar demise against Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan in 2010. What cost them was circumstance, and the absence of luck – tiny, but decisive, margins.
Villa, Pedro, and Ibrahim Afellay, too, let us not forget his telling contribution to last year’s Champions League semi-final – vital players missing or form-less at vital times. Barcelona is an intricate machine – without all the necessary cogs, they do not work at optimum.
Cesc Fabregas has spent his first season back in Catalonia filling in for missing parts of that machine. Next year, and the years that follow, he will most likely be a vital cog. It might be fairer to judge his contribution then.