How Man United Target Cesc Fabregas Became The World's Greatest Utility Player
He arrived at Arsenal as a diminutive midfielder in the mould of his idol, Pep Guardiola. Nine years later, Cesc Fabregas was leading the front-line for Spain as they retained the European Championships; their third major tournament in a row.
The change in Fabregas’ role has been extraordinary. While Barcelona will take credit for developing him, praise must go to Arsène Wenger. After all, it was he who formed Fabregas into one of the most well-rounded players in the world.
The Spaniard began at Highbury in 2003 as a skilful, stylish midfield player. While he was slightly raw at 16, he still displayed enough technical excellence to convince his manager to throw him in at the Premier League deep-end a year later when captain Patrick Vieira was struck down with injury.
The youngster had taken to England like a duck to water after struggling slightly at first, and was adapting his playing style to add feisty tackles and upper-body strength to his burgeoning repertoire. After Vieira left the club, and as Gilberto Silva’s influence waned, Fabregas became more and more integral to Arsenal, with his all-action performances impressing in the centre of a 4-4-2.
As he became more important, Arsène Wenger decided to build the side around him as a playmaker in a 4-3-3 type formation in a role that is still known as by Arsenal fans as ‘the Cesc role’.
One of the defining moments of the then-number 15 dynamo’s Arsenal career came against Juventus in the Champions League. That was where Vieira had left to, and it was a match-up of Arsenal midfielders past and present – and future too, in Fabregas’ case.
The Catalonian didn’t disappoint. In a 2-0 victory, Fabregas was crucial, scoring the first after Robert Pires had dispossessed Vieira, before he calmly set up his new captain, Thierry Henry, to score the second.
Back then Fabregas was a dynamic centre midfielder, and mainly partnered Gilberto Silva and later Mathieu Flamini in a midfield two. However, as he became more important, Arsène Wenger decided to build the side around him as a playmaker in a 4-3-3 type formation in a role that is still known as by Arsenal fans as ‘the Cesc role’.
In this position, Fabregas was the most important player in the team; the playmaker who had a freedom to roam in order to do as much damage as possible. At times he was in the box, feeding off of a lay-off from Robin van Persie, and at other times he was sending 60-yard through balls from in front of his defence.
There was a huge difference in his role in the squad at the Nou Camp though. No longer the most pivotal member of the team, Fabregas was second fiddle to the likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Iniesta.
Arsène Wenger had succeeded in turning the midfielder into one of the best in the league, and indeed the world, yet still he couldn’t break into the Spain team. He resembled a more direct option for Vicente Del Bosque’s side at the World Cup in 2010, and after playing vital cameo roles in the matches leading up to the final, he left his mark against Holland to help Spain win the game.
In extra time, Fabregas injected energy and more importantly urgency and directness into the Spanish side, and it was he who penetrated the Dutch defence with a through-ball for Andres Iniesta, who scored to win the World Cup for his country. The diminutive Barcelona midfielder took most of the plaudits, but it was the Arsenal man, Fabregas, who made the difference.
But despite this crucial cameo, he remained on the periphery of Del Bosque’s vision. A move back to Barcelona was engineered, and Fabregas waved goodbye to the capital of England.
There was a huge difference in his role in the squad at the Nou Camp though. No longer the most pivotal member of the team, Fabregas was second fiddle to the likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, and had to play where Josep Guardiola, his idol, needed him to.
It’s been a remarkable change for Fabregas over the years, going from diminutive deep-lying midfielder to almost the world’s greatest utility player
This is where Arsène Wenger’s coaching came in handy. Wenger often attempts to develop players by playing them in different positions in order to further their footballing education – something not seen often enough in England – and the deployment of Fabregas in a few different midfield roles paid dividends in his development, as the Catalonian had become an incredibly well-rounded player.
The fact that Fabregas was almost a master of all trades – vision, passing, tackling, dribbling, shooting and even heading, as displayed by a flurry of headed goals early on for Barca – served him well, and he filled in in several different positions in the ever-changing Barcelona landscape; not only centre midfield but also as a false 9, and even a false 10.
Funnily enough, while he was always the most important player at Arsenal, before taking up a rather more back-seated involvement at Barcelona, this was the time he finally broke into the Spanish line-up. Now 25, his footballing and positional education was complete after the role as a false 9 for Barcelona, and with the injury of David Villa playing a part in Del Bosque’s hand, the manager deployed Fabregas as Spain’s false 9.
His story will surely serve as inspiration for other Spanish youngsters who feel it will be impossible to break into La Roja’s midfield, even as Xavi and Iniesta edge closer to retirement.
After initial criticism of the tactic, despite Roma, Manchester United and Barcelona all previously using it to good effect, it eventually came good against Italy after an hour of toiling to no avail, with Fabregas bursting from deep into space in the box to equalise for the Spanish. The systems critics still didn’t let up, but were later silenced as Fabregas set up the opener in the final against group-stage opponents Italy, as Spain’s system powered into top gear with an emphatic 4-0 win on the biggest stage.
It’s been a remarkable change for Fabregas over the years, going from diminutive deep-lying midfielder to almost the world’s greatest utility player, via being the most important player for Arsenal.
His story will surely serve as inspiration for other Spanish youngsters who feel it will be impossible to break into La Roja’s midfield, even as Xavi and Iniesta edge closer to retirement. Can’t get a place in the midfield? Reinvent yourself as a striker. It’s a brilliant story of determination, initiative and success, crowned by Spain’s retention of the European Championships – aided strongly by Fabregas.
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