Cesc Fabregas may not be Antonio Conte’s first choice, but he can still impact Chelsea

Greg Lea writes Chelsea's Cesc Fabregas may have a 'relative lack of mobility. with Conte generally preferring energetic midfielders' but his skill can be of value across a long season.
Chelsea's Cesc Fabregas celebrates scoring their third goal against Leicester City on Tuesday night. Carl Recine / Action Images / Reuters / September 20, 2016
Chelsea's Cesc Fabregas celebrates scoring their third goal against Leicester City on Tuesday night. Carl Recine / Action Images / Reuters / September 20, 2016

Chris Willock, Stephy Mavididi and Ainsley Maitland-Niles were among the unfamiliar names included in Arsenal’s squad to face Nottingham Forest in the League Cup on Tuesday, with Arsene Wenger again using the competition as a way of blooding youngsters in the first team.

Cesc Fabregas was one such player 13 years ago, the teenage midfielder handed his professional debut by Wenger in a third round tie with Rotherham United in October 2003.

The Spaniard went on to make over 300 appearances for Arsenal before returning to boyhood club Barcelona in 2011, with Chelsea then bringing him back to London two years ago.

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While Antonio Conte’s men have started the season reasonably well as the club attempts to launch a challenge for the title again, Fabregas has had a frustrating few weeks.

Ahead of his current employers’ trip to the Emirates Stadium to face his former ones on Saturday, the midfielder has enjoyed just 32 minutes of action in the Premier League, with both of his starts coming against Bristol Rovers and Leicester City in the League Cup.

Conte’s favoured midfield trio has seen N’Golo Kante stationed behind Nemanja Matic and Oscar in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Eden Hazard and Willian supporting lone striker Diego Costa from the flanks.

The main reason for Fabregas’ absence seems to be his relative lack of mobility, with Conte generally preferring energetic midfielders who are capable of getting up and down the pitch and contributing in both phases of play.

The Italian hinted at this in his pre-match press conference before last week’s 2-1 defeat by Liverpool, replying to an answer about Fabregas’ situation by telling reporters: “I always thought this team needed to find a good balance when you have possession of the ball and when you have not, and last season Chelsea conceded 55 goals.”

There have been times when Chelsea have missed the World Cup winner’s influence in the centre of the park, though. Watford were 1-0 up at Vicarage Road when Fabregas was introduced as a 78th-minute substitute; Michy Batshuayi equalised a matter of seconds later, before Fabregas played a defence-splitting through-ball to set up Costa’s winning goal.

His absence was keenly felt against Liverpool, moreover, as Chelsea struggled to keep the ball in the face of their opponents’ pressing.

Fabregas’ measured passing could have helped the hosts to get a foothold at Stamford Bridge, but Conte opted to leave him on the bench until six minutes before full-time, by which stage the damage had been done.

A fine performance in the 4-2 League Cup victory over Leicester City in midweek has only enhanced Fabregas’ chances of returning to the starting XI, with his quick-fire double in extra time sending Chelsea through to the fourth round.

Conte was complimentary in the aftermath, declaring himself happy with the player’s attitude in training and pointing out that “he is improving in many aspects, above all the defensive situations”.

Fabregas, who hit out at reports linking him with a move away in the January transfer window, has had to remain patient for his chance, but it is clear that the Spain international has plenty to offer this Chelsea side, particularly as none of his midfield colleagues are able to replicate his creativity and invention with the ball.

Fabregas is capable of controlling matches and knitting teams together with his passing, and there will be numerous occasions in a 38-game Premier League season where Conte relies upon such skills.

Fabregas will be hoping that Saturday’s clash with former club Arsenal is one of them.

Same old Sunderland

With champions Chelsea imploding, Leicester winning the title and traditional big guns Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City all underwhelming, 2015/16 was the most unpredictable Premier League campaign since the English top flight was rebranded in 1992.

Sunderland ensured there was an air of normality to proceedings, though, as the club from the northeast essentially replayed the exact same season they have had for four years in a row.

A shaky start was followed by a muddling middle, before a different manager to the one who started the campaign in charge inspired a last-gasp escape act in the final few weeks.

There has so far been no sign of a change to the formula in 2016/17: Sunderland have collected just a single point from their opening five encounters, which means they have now won only three of 42 top-flight games in the months of August and September since 2009.

David Moyes has already admitted his side will once again be battling against relegation this term, with back-to-back home matches against Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion in the next seven days already looking crucial.

Sunderland have encountered problems at both ends of the pitch in the opening weeks of the campaign.

Former Chelsea centre-half Papy Djilobodji is error-prone but the inadequate protection provided by the midfield is part of the reason why nine goals have already been shipped, a tally which would have been even higher were it not for a fine performance from goalkeeper Jordan Pickford against Tottenham Hotspur last time out.

The club’s failure to sign a striker capable of competing with the soon-to-be 34-year-old Jermain Defoe – Victor Anichebe did arrive on a free but has only scored 24 times in his Premier League career – could come back to haunt them, while the lack of creation in the team is a concern even if Defoe manages to stay fit.

Moyes has his work cut out to turn things around at the Stadium Of Light, with supporters beginning to fear that this could be the season Sunderland drop out of the top tier.

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Published: September 23, 2016 04:00 AM

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