New managers are fond of making a controversial decision early in their tenure, to mark their territory and lay down the law at an immediate juncture. Steve McClaren dropped David Beckham from his first squad as England manager but, in typical fashion, later climbed down and sheepishly handed the national hero a recall.
We have seen Pep Guardiola make such a call by axing Joe Hart, though there are rational footballing reasons behind this decision. Antonio Conte’s first ‘big call’ was to leave Cesc Fabregas on the bench against West Ham yesterday, and the Spaniard did not even get a run out as a substitute.
Of course, all the usual caveats need to be added. Fabregas was involved in the European Championships; Conte may feel he needs more work on the training ground before he can be introduced to the rigours of Premier League football. However, some have suggested that Fabregas might find it hard to force his way into Conte’s first XI, given what the former Juventus manager usually demands of his central midfielders.
At 29 years of age, Fabregas is at what used to be considered the prime of a footballer’s career. However, rather like Wayne Rooney, many people underestimate the physical effects of playing first team football from your late teenage years onward.
Fabregas has been not just a player, but a key one at that, in his respective sides for more than ten years now. That takes a great deal out of the body; Fabregas suffered with hamstring problems towards the end of his time at Arsenal and members of the Barcelona hierarchy grew tired of his habit of tailing off in the second half of seasons.
Fabregas retains the technical ability and speed of thought that made him a Premier League star before the age of 20. However, there were signs last season that he lacks the athleticism to play in a central midfield pair; something N’Golo Kante will bring in abundance.
There was a whole plethora of reasons why Chelsea capitulated at the start of last season, many of which are down to personal relationships about which we still don’t know the full story, but one was the form of Fabregas and Nemanja Matic. The pair looked lethargic and failed to offer adequate protection to John Terry and Gary Cahill. As Chelsea shipped goals, their woes were a reminder that defences are often only as good as the protection they are offered.
There were signs that Fabregas could be a defensive liability during his first season at the Bridge, when ten-man PSG overpowered Chelsea to knock them out of the Champions League. Nevertheless, Mourinho generally stuck with him in a central midfield role rather than pushing him into a ‘No. 10’ position. The thinking was that Fabregas could help Chelsea build attacks from the back more effectively, finding the likes of Oscar and Eden Hazard in good positions between the lines.
Many teams in Europe like to have this type of midfielder deep in their midfield; Bayern Munich have Xabi Alonso, Real Madrid have Toni Kroos and Barcelona have Sergio Busquets. Michael Carrick and Granit Xhaka at Manchester United and Arsenal are two domestic examples.
On first look, it seems Antonio Conte is not preoccupied with having this type of ‘quarterback’ in the team. Against West Ham, Kante was the deepest of Chelsea’s midfielders with Matic and Oscar in front of him forming a triangle in the middle of the park. Matic and Oscar shuttled up and down the pitch, both to support Chelsea’s defensive structure when out of possession and to provide numbers in the final third in attach.
Essentially, Chelsea operated within a 4-1-4-1 without the ball and in a 4-3-3 with it. Oscar has been a regular under Conte this pre-season, and if he continues with the same system it is Oscar’s position that Fabregas is fighting for.
Fabregas would prefer a more stationary role, either floating behind a striker without much defensive responsibility or in the role of deep-lying playmaker from where he is not required to sprint forward to make himself available in the last third. At the time of writing, it does not appear that either role exists in Conte’s current Chelsea set up.
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