If I was an Arsenal fan I’d probably be sick in my mouth every time I watched Barcelona. As a Liverpool fan I find it impossible to watch Real Madrid and see Xabi Alonso anchoring midfield without wanting to punch myself in the head at least twice every game. Yet as good a player as Xabi is, he’s no Cesc Fabregas, whose performance for Barcelona against Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League last night was a study in how to play in Midfield.
Since I started the long road through my FA Coaching badges last summer people have asked me if I watch matches differently, and if it annoys me seeing professional footballers making a hash of basic techniques that I as a youth coach try and instill in the kids. In the case of Liverpool, I don’t watch matches differently, I’m a fan first. I rant, close my eyes, punch the odd thing and scream whenever I’m reminded (usually 10-15 times a game) that Glen Johnson has made it as an international right-back without the ability to defend side on and take a winger where he wants him to go rather than following him like a sheepdog.
Anyway, I digress. It has made me watch football differently. Often I’ll watch a game that I have no vested interest in and focus on one player, and last night, on Valentines Day, I left the missus downstairs* cooking while I watched Cesc Fabregas.
He’s scored more than Sanchez or Villa, created more than Xavi or Iniesta and is doing himself no harm of becoming captain when a few of the older players go over the hill
Jesus H Christ on a Sunday, what a performance. By the time 20 minutes had ticked over he’d completed as many passes as the entire Levekuesen team (34 to 33) and had extinguished any doubts I had about his positional sense when I watched him at Arsenal. His teammates, of course, help in this, what with them being hardwired into some central computer that tells them exactly when, where and why to move, but Fabregas stood out in more than one area.
He’s always been a good passer of the ball. Short, long, drilled, chipped, swerved, he’s pretty much technically perfect. His decision making has improved since he’s been at Barca but again you’d be right to point to the quality around him. His pass for Sanchez’s second goal, - when everyone assumed he was going to hit it into the space for Alves - was as good a traditional inside of the foot pass as you’ll see all season. By the end of the match he’d completed 97 of 107 passes, second only to Busquets who clocks them up in less dangerous areas.
Then there’s his movement. He didn’t stop running last night and as fit as he is, there is an economy to it that plenty of England internationals could learn from. There was one run, where he didn’t even touch the ball, that continually dragged the Bayer plays out of position and created space for Messi and Sanchez to run into. Starting in central midfield, he jogged out right and picked up the pace down the wing, ambled inside across the line of the defence and had the foresight to slowly drop off as the attack was still going. Two minutes later he again surged down the right to drill a cross in that Messi nearly reached.
While I’m not about to compare him with Messi, his influence on the team this season has gone beyond just economical passing and clever movement. In his 31 games he’s scored 15 and made 14 - only Messi betters him in every category. He’s scored more than Sanchez or Villa, created more than Xavi or Iniesta and is doing himself no harm of becoming captain when a few of the older players go over the hill in the next couple of seasons.
There is no element of schadenfreude in this piece, I genuinely feel sorry for Arsenal fans that he left and also because the Premier League is a poorer place without him. But sometimes players just fit teams and, although he was brilliant in London, he had to go home to improve as the demands on him at Arsenal would’ve continued to be unrealistic and he’d have become increasingly chippy.
And anyway, you’ve got Arteta and The Ox and we’ve got Charlie Adam, Hendo and Downing, so you won’t find me crowing anytime soon.
*In my defence we had people over and the boy had a mate for a sleepover. And Valentines Day is a rubbish anyway. She cooked Jolof rice if you’re interested. Tidy it was too…
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