Fabregas’ outstanding 2014/15, & the great Spanish midfielder debate

A skim-read of the career credentials of Cesc Fabregas reads as a check-list of the sport’s greatest honours. At club level, two Premier League title medals, two FA Cups, a Spanish league title and a Europa League triumph are the highlights, perhaps only missing a Champions League title to complete the haul. Internationally, two European Championship titles sandwich the 2010 World Cup win, a period of Spanish supremacy of which Fabregas was a key squad member. Yet Fabregas’ role or synonymity with any of these winning sides is perhaps not prominent.

The Spain and Barcelona sides he played in, two of the modern era’s greatest teams, are remembered for the abundance of generational talent spearheaded by Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. Fabregas sits within an interesting time in midfield development, younger than the aforementioned Spanish greats and not held in the same regard, nor having the cult style status of contemporaries Xabi Alonso, Santi Cazorla or the younger Thiago. In foregoing to mention his name in these discussions however is to forget his performances in the 2014/15 season. Having joined Chelsea and reaching the career-defining highs he had already deserved. It is, in fact, debatable, that the highs reached by Fabregas in this season are more significant than any one season of the names already mentioned, a contentious claim, but one with grounding.

2014/15 was Chelsea’s second in Jose Mourinho’s second spell at the club, with the previous noted for their role in stunting Liverpool’s title shot, a personally satisfying plot role for Mourinho if not fulfilling of his aspirations. The additions of Fabregas from Barcelona, somewhat surprisingly considering the persistent links with Manchester United for the preceding Summer, Diego Costa from Atletico Madrid, and the recall of Thibaut Courtois also from Atletico, marked the seminal spending that begins a successful Mourinho season. Mourinho’s career has been characterised by initial groundwork before imprinting his image and style on his squads by the second season, and ultimately unravelling it all in the third.

With feet firmly under the table, he could now launch his heavy assault on the title. The additions of Fabregas and Costa seemed to strengthen Chelsea’s weakest areas from the campaign before. Strikers Samuel Eto’o, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba combined for 19 goals in the league as they witness heavy rotation; Eto’o and Torres starting the most of the three with 16 starts each. In contrast, Costa had spearheaded Atletico’s run to the Champions League final before pulling up injured in the most important fixture. The Spaniard was a highly sought after striker that summer.

Chelsea had also suffered through lack of creativity following Juan Mata’s transfer to Manchester United in January, Frank Lampard topping their midfield assists numbers with just two. Fabregas would give the midfield a new and welcome dimension.

Mourinho would mostly deploy a 4-2-3-1 formation during the season where Fabregas would pivot alongside the defensive-minded Nemanja Matic, behind two inverted wingers in Eden Hazard and one of Andre Schürrle or Willian – Oscar played as the attacking midfielder and Costa as the sole striker. This is a similar setup to that used by Mourinho at Inter Milan – Fabregas being the Dejan Stankovic to Matic’s Esteban Cambiasso.

Mourinho’s possession structure would similarly merge into a 4-1-2-3 or a 3-1-3-3 depending on his full-back selections. The busy attack-minded Branislav Ivanovic was omnipresent and expected to overlap Fabregas and Matic, the Serbian frequently dropping between the centre backs.

On the left side, Cesar Azpilicueta would not venture as far forward as Ivanovic. This creating Mourinho’s desired lopsided possession structure that gives exploitative width on one side whilst negating counter-attack threats with the other defensive-minded full-back.

Alternatively, Felipe Luis would offer more attacking threat at left-back, and so his inclusion would shift the structure to a 3-1-3-3. Whilst these subtle personnel changes dictated Chelsea’s attacking approach, Fabregas’ positioning was parallel in either structure. Fabregas sat deeper than the attacking three, although Oscar and Hazard would frequently run and drop deep to pull defenders out of position. Fabregas was slightly more advanced from the centre-backs and the deep-lying Matic.

Fabregas was this sides quarterback. With his positioning, Costa and the wingers would arrow runs forward in behind defensive lines to exercise the direct passing option. As many as two of these runners would drop deep to decoy and pull defenders out of shape, making space for the overlapping Ivanovic and Luis to be located. The direct forward runs from Costa and the attacking midfielders were prominent against equally strong sides or when defending deep, allowing counter attacks to be sprung quickly and to take advantage of the opposition’s lack of defensive shape.

The 2-0 win over Arsenal in September exemplified this approach, with Chelsea defending deep and finding Fabregas in his expected central location between the lines to loft a forward ball for Costa to poke home. Such movement regularly featured throughout the season, particularly against top-six sides. Against less possession and dominant, opposing teams, Fabregas would still sit in the quarterback pocket, albeit further forward. As Chelsea held more of the ball, defending narrow and congesting before winning the ball and relaying it to Fabregas as at least one of the full-backs pull wide in attack to spread the opposition. Narrow in defence, wide in attack through one of the full-backs, with the attacking four players rotating more centrally.

Such attacking and defensive structures have been repeated throughout Mourinho’s career. With slotting Fabregas’ distribution into the team, Chelsea’s direct transitions were, to an extent, not possible without such a skilled long passer.

In making 18 assists, a figure lower than only Mesut Özil’s 2015/16 and Thierry Henry’s 2002/03 efforts, Fabregas’ final pass abilities in 2014/15 were a precision knife for Chelsea’s attack. However, his pre-assists and build up involvements were equally integral. The composition of Chelsea’s side saw three attacking creators behind Costa, each able to provide penetration from all angles.

Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Hazard would weave unpredictably and demand the ball in quick returns, Willian and Schürrle would get to the byline to provide or equally run behind to finish. The denominator here is Costa’s strength to hold up play with his back to goal or to flick passes into the paths of these attackers.

Fabregas’ role, therefore, was to fire ground balls to Costa to divert towards these onrushing wingers, or indeed the proactive Ramires who would sit deep alongside Matic and burst beyond the midfield line. The regularity of Fabregas’ positioning and the number of runners ahead of him made his passing options numerous. The first game of the season against Burnley saw the highlight moment of Chelsea’s attacking synergy.

A crossfield Hazard dribble found Ivanovic advanced on the right to chip the ball infield for Fabregas on the edge of the penalty area. First time on the half-volley, he lifts a delicate ball into the path of Schürrle to finish. The weight of pass is exceptional, taking any sting out of Ivanovic’s ball to spin it weightlessly over the Burnley defensive line. The goal demonstrates the options available to Fabregas at the point of the pass, wingers swarming around the belligerent Costa, and Fabregas as the operator. The hive of activity and proactive runs in the final third justify Fabregas’ deeper positioning, not requiring him to venture into the penalty area nor finish moves himself, shown by his tally of only three league goals.

Chelsea finished eight points ahead of second-placed Manchester City on 87 points, showing a typical Mourinho defensive solidity in conceding only 32 goals. City’s downfall was recognised as a lack of quality defensive personnel, and the imbalance caused in central midfield when the marauding Yaya Toure left the Fernandinho exposed to attacks.

The balance of Chelsea’s midfield pivot provided by Matic and Fabregas’ positioning, as well as the superb distribution and creativity of the Spaniard proved a model example. Few midfield’s will achieve this defensive structure whilst supplying the attackers the same way – this brings us back to the argument of Fabregas’ under-appreciation.

Barcelona and Spain’s midfield three would remain Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets for as long as they were capable, so balance was already achieved there. Fabregas’ role in both of these systems would therefore be a covering role, and even as a utility attacker to decoy for Lionel Messi at Barcelona, or to cram extra midfield talent into the Spanish national side.

It can be argued that his role in these extraordinary teams enabled those around him to express, but his role for Chelsea spoke of ability and talent greater than that. One that was more than able to carry and instigate a side’s success rather than merely providing running or support to those deemed indispensable.

Fabregas was the missing link in a newly-formed Chelsea side rebuilt by Mourinho. However, as other managers came after Mourinho and Fabregas’ mobility declined, his role reverted to what it had been at Barcelona. Out of favour and covering for others that were key to new philosophies, as Fabregas had been in 2014/15.

The collision of Fabregas’ return to English football alongside Costa, and a team as potent as any Mourinho had produced allowed Fabregas to produce a season arguably more remarkable than any of his Spanish contemporaries. Yet, this short period at the height of his powers is what undermines his greatness alongside these great midfielders, those who defined the Spanish and Barcelona dominance and transitioned abilities as they aged. What cannot be debated, however, is the greatness of Fabregas’ role in Chelsea’s title-winning squad, and as a Premier League champion.

Words by Tom Underhill@TomD_Underhill