One week and two nerve?jangling successes into Antonio Conte’s career as a Premier League manager the Italian will recognise better now the value of one of those he inherited. Cesc Fàbregas has become a recurring theme in the Italian’s post-match media briefings, whether he has been explaining the playmaker’s omission from the side, praising his professionalism in striving for a recall or hailing his impact from the bench. “We all know Cesc is a great player with a great technique,” he had said after the victory at Watford on Saturday, “always with a good pass or assist.” The interception and first-time delivery, scything between backtracking centre-halves for Diego Costa to score Chelsea’s late winner, had proved as much.
Yet there have been times this summer when those qualities actually appeared dispensable. Fàbregas has been wondering where he might fit in since mid-April, when he was a studio guest on Sky’s Premier League coverage as the top flight digested the news that Conte was bound for south?west London after Euro 2016. He had said then he might not be the all?action midfielder who would fit the manager’s favoured profile. The 29?year?old does not charge around the pitch, closing down opponents or working feverishly to reclaim possession. His own game is not about blistering pace off the mark or any great mobility when working defensively, but relies instead on more subtle contributions, whether inventive or sly in the challenge. Oscar, for all that his end product so often falls flat, offers greater energy.
Perhaps scarred by his experiences back at Camp Nou when he had slipped out of Barcelona’s mouthwatering midfield with his style apparently lacking the required intensity, Fàbregas appeared to be pinning his hopes on Conte handing him the Andrea Pirlo role. “Why not?” he had suggested that Monday night when asked if he could play the quarter-back position, in front of the rearguard, where Pirlo had been imperious for Juventus. “I love coming deep for the ball. I love long-range passes and connecting with people at the front.”
The problem is, of course, that the frenetic English game rarely lends itself to such composed conjuring from deep. Chelsea’s midfield sitter of choice is N’Golo Kanté, a player whose idea of relaxation would be to crank up the incline on a treadmill. Conte’s nominated defensive shield is charged as much with intercepting and closing down as distributing. The Spaniard prefers a more sedate involvement, picking his passes and moments to influence the contest.
Kanté will not be displaced any time soon, with Fàbregas’s dismissal against Liverpool in the team’s first friendly of their pre-season tour of the United States, for an ugly foul on Ragnar Klavan at the Rose Bowl, distinctly untimely. If he was looking to convince Conte he should be integral, his chance was gone.
A little over three weeks and five first-team games later he has still to play a full 90 minutes. His omission from the starting lineup for the fixtures against West Ham and Watford felt almost inevitable, with Conte clearly unconvinced this was a player with the legs to thrive in the four-man midfield ahead of Kanté. Back in Chelsea’s title-winning season, Fàbregas’s first at the club, he had flourished to the tune of three goals and 18 assists while benefiting from Nemanja Matic’s gargantuan performances at his side.
That combination had felt thrilling but with the Serb diminished these days the former Arsenal player had become peripheral. Then came a stodgy display at Vicarage Road, a need to unlock an increasingly cluttered defence and a chance to prove his pedigree. Desperation has driven Conte’s switch to two up front in his league games to date but Fàbregas remains the only player in the setup who guarantees a supply line through massed ranks of opponents, as Watford were duly reminded.
It may be that this is his role from now on. When rivals seek to stifle, on trots Fàbregas to pick them apart while Kanté tears around tirelessly. Eden Hazard went public in his praise for a player who seems to sniff out space to exploit. Yet the sense persists this is very much a marriage of convenience, with manager and playmaker left with little option but to make the situation work.
Fàbregas may have heard talk of interest from Juventus earlier in the summer but it soon fizzled out to nothing. At this stage of his career, and with last season’s toils still fresh in the memory, is he really likely to be the subject of concrete offers from other elite clubs?
Chelsea, for their part, are running out of time to make an eye-catching signing to bolster their midfield, and cannot even offer the carrot of European football to those players they do covet. Rather, they must tap into the talent provided by the World Cup winner. It is in his understanding with Costa where Fàbregas is key. The pair are close friends off the pitch and enjoy an almost telepathic relationship on it with the striker apparently convinced he will contribute between five and 10 more goals per season if the Spaniard is integrated into the team.
The assist on Saturday could have been plucked from late 2014 when Chelsea were all-conquering, justifying the joyous ovation the substitute had been granted from the travelling support in the Vicarage Road end up his introduction.
The midfielder does not quite fit into this side as snugly as he once did, but Conte should still be grateful to have him.
File picture of Chelsea coach Antonio Conte.