After being linked with a move away at the start of last season, the Spaniard is now one of the Blues’ most important players.
It is almost a year since Chelsea came from behind to defeat Manchester City 3-1 at the Etihad Stadium, giving the clearest indication yet that they had all the qualities needed to lift the Premier League title. It was a thrilling encounter between two excellent teams, but it is easy to forget 12 months on that the Blues could easily have been out of the game by the time they equalised through Diego Costa on the hour-mark. City dominated the first 60 minutes of the match and, had Kevin De Bruyne not blazed a presentable chance over the bar, they could easily have established a two-goal advantage just moments before Costa struck on the counter-attack.
As it was, further efforts from Willian and Eden Hazard gave Antonio Conte’s men a brilliant victory – their eighth in a row in the Premier League and one which saw them move four points clear at the summit of the standings. It was only the second top-flight match Cesc Fabregas started that season; in 90 minutes at the Etihad, the Spaniard showed both why Conte was a little hesitant to trust him and why he remained a key player in west London.
Before shifting to a 3-4-2-1 formation during a 3-0 defeat by Arsenal in September – the most decisive tactical switch in Premier League history – Chelsea began the campaign in a 4-1-4-1 configuration. N’Golo Kante was the anchorman in midfield, with Oscar and Nemanja Matic deployed ahead of him and Hazard and one of Willian or Pedro Rodriguez providing the support to Costa.
There was, then, no room for Fabregas. With the transfer window still open and Conte insisting in that “it’s important to always see the right attitude because we must fight this season”, many felt the midfielder’s days at Stamford Bridge were numbered.
After failing to impress in his first start of 2016/17 against former club Arsenal, Fabregas was handed another opportunity six weeks later when Chelsea locked horns with City. Partnering Kante in a two-man midfield in place of the injured Matic, the ex-Barcelona man – who has never been the most effective when it comes to defensive tasks in the centre of the park – was overrun for much of the first half as City’s attacking players swarmed around the final third with intent. Fabregas was essential to Chelsea’s comeback after the interval, though, providing the assist for Costa’s leveller and generally helping the visitors to transition from defence to attack with his excellent long passing.
Despite his decisive contribution against Manchester City, Fabregas was back on the bench when West Bromwich Albion visited Stamford Bridge a few days later. In total he made just 11 more starts in the league as Chelsea romped to the title, while the Spain international completed 90 minutes on only nine occasions all season.
Fast forward to the current campaign and Fabregas is close to surpassing those numbers already: last weekend’s 4-0 thrashing of West Brom was the 10th Premier League match he has started this term, while he has not been taken off before the final whistle in seven of those encounters. The summer sale of Nemanja Matic to Manchester United and fitness problems suffered by Tiemoue Bakayoko and Danny Drinkwater helped clear the path to the starting XI early in the season, but the most significant reason for Fabregas’ regular employment in the engine room is Conte’s recent move towards a 3-5-1-1 setup. Such a system ensures the Blues are able to benefit from the creativity of Fabregas and the dynamism of Kante and Bakayoko in the same midfield, with Hazard repositioned in a more central role just behind Morata.
The 30-year-old was at his inventive best against West Brom. As well as providing assists for Marcos Alonso and Hazard, Fabregas had more touches than any other player but Cesar Azpilicueta, while he also made the most passes in the opposition half of the field. He may not have got his name on the scoresheet, but the Spanish schemer was arguably Chelsea’s outstanding player in a thoroughly impressive all-round performance.
“This season I think we’re changing something to find a new balance, a new solidity, to have a good balance when we are attacking and when we are defending,” Conte said of the 3-5-1-1 formation after Saturday’s success at The Hawthorns. “I hope to continue to improve. This is the second game we finished with a clean sheet and we have to continue in this way.
“We had a lot of problems and also we are trying to change something in the tactical aspect, to find different solutions. When you concede so many goals it means you have to find a new balance and solidity.”
The fact that Chelsea have found a place for Fabregas in the starting line-up while – for the most part – rediscovering their defensive resilience in the Premier League bodes well for the champions going forward.
By Greg Lea
Greg Lea is a freelance football writer for FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and various others. Follow his Twitter account @GregLeaFootball for anything and everything related to soccer and more.