The pending debut of David Luiz for Chelsea after his return in a $44.2 million transfer dominated the buildup to a Friday match against Liverpool, and his performance in a 2-1 loss, not surprisingly, featured prominently in every match report and analytical summation.
Yet running as a intriguing subplot to the new regime of manager Antonio Conte is the saga of midfielder Cesc Fabregas, praised by Conte for his abilities but mostly ignored in the process of allocating match minutes. Fabregas came off the bench to play all of six minutes at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea futilely chased an equalizer, and when presented with a chance to affect the result, he hit a free kick straight into the defensive wall.
That cameo appearance raised his total playing time this season to 32 minutes -- he also came off the bench in the Watford and Swansea City games -- and reinforced again the viewpoint of Conte to factor significantly in his system, Fabregas must broaden his game. Fabregas started 33 league games in each of the last two seasons.(His only start this season came in an EFL Cup game against Bristol Rovers; he played the full 90 minutes in a 3-2 win.)
So far this season, Conte has preferred the pairing of Oscar and Nemanja Matic to complement defensive mid N’Golo Kante and is very clear about his reasons why.
“I always thought that this team needed to find a good balance when you have the ball and, above all, when you don’t have the ball,” Conte said to The Guardian. “Last season Chelsea conceded 53 goals. Now, we have found the right compromise between defensive and offensive situations. Oscar is a good player, great technique and can do both facets: both offensive and defensive. I asked him to stay always focused on the game, to stay in the game. He’s an important player for Chelsea.”
Prior to last season, Chelsea managers needed to juggle lineups for domestic matches as well as European competitions, but the team’s 10th-place Premier League finish last spring deprived it of European play for the first time in 20 years. So as the domestic cups fire up, playing opportunities will still be limited, and after winning its first three league matches under Conte, Chelsea struggled to tie Swansea City (2-2) and after conceding two goals to Liverpool never caught up.
Conte’s devotion to defense might push Fabregas to the role of offensive catalyst off the bench and occasional starter. For a man renowned for his style and artistry at Arsenal and Barcelona and at age 29 should be in the prime years of his career, Conte’s praise may seem hollow.
“We all know Cesc is a fantastic player,” said Conte. “I see him in every training session with great work and effort. If he continues in this way, it’ll be very difficult for me not to choose him in my midfield. But I want this from a player, putting many doubts in my mind over choosing someone else.
“Cesc is a great player. We all know Cesc, a great technical player. Now I’m starting to get to know him as a man. A great personality. I’m pleased with him. He’s working very well. He’s improving a lot on many aspects, above all the defensive situations. I’m very clear with my players: when a player deserves to play, I put him in the team.”
Along with Matic and Branko Ivanovic and a few other players, Fabregas’ form slipped dramatically last season from the 2014-15 championship campaign, so Conte’s caution regarding his inclusion is justifiable. He logged 19 assists and scored three goals as Chelsea rolled to that title; last season, he scored more goals, five, but assisted on only seven.
Numbers don’t often tell the full story but lackluster showings pockmarked the 2015-16 season for Fabregas, whose lone goal and assist in the Champions League were registered in the group opener against Maccabi Tel Aviv. He scored all five of his league goals after former manager Jose Mourinho was fired, yet by some quirk Chelsea didn’t win any of the four games in which he scored. For both him and the club, it was a season to forget as quickly as possible.
The acquisition of David Luiz, who started in the center against Liverpool alongside Gary Cahill with John Terry sidelined by an injury, has been accompanied by extensive instructions from Conte about not just positioning and tactics, but instinct.
“We are working on this a lot,” Conte said. “It’s not easy. I always repeat to my players: we must feel the danger. Always, feel the dangers during the match.”
Whether by instinct or acumen or vision or whatever, Fabregas has always been wired to find openings rather than close them up. The reign of Conte has just begun and no doubt change and adjustment will shape his first Premier League season and perhaps alter Fabregas’ status as well.
Yet since Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich’s massive spending began in 2002, Chelsea has carried the reputation of buying more excellent players than it can utilize. (U.S. defender Matt Miazga is one of 38 players currently on loan.) John Obi Mikel will vie for time in the middle, and David Luiz could play there as well once Terry recovers and rejoins Cahill at centerback. The wide slots are well manned with Eden Hazard, Pedro, and Willian among the options
In three and a half months, the January transfer window may offer a chance for a new start somewhere else, but if the minutes continue to prove scarce for Fabregas, potential buyers will need to rely on past performances, not current form, as they evaluate a talented Spaniard who doesn’t seem to have a place under an Italian manager in a top English club.