When the history books look back upon Chelsea’s all-but mathematically secured title bid, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa will be remembered as the driving forces of the Blues’ attack, N’Golo Kante as the man who bossed the midfield, Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso as the campaign-defining wing-backs, and Gary Cahill, David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta as the trio who kept things solid at the back.
But in truth, Chelsea’s 2016/17 charge has been much more of a squad effort than many have realised. Jose Mourinho used just 21 players in the Premier League before the Blues won the title in a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace at the start of May. Conte has already used two more, despite his team not being involved in the Champions League and suffering early elimination from the League Cup.
Likewise, whilst only ten players made more than ten league starts under Mourinho, whose reluctance to rotate was later deemed by many as an underlying cause of Chelsea’ catastrophic title defence the season after, 13 have already been issued ten starts or more by the Italian. Marginal differences at first glance, but capable of having a huge impact over the course of a 38-game season. Whereas Mourinho only really changed his starting XI when obliged to by injuries, Conte has been more proactive in choosing the right men for the right occasion – particularly in the central and attacking midfield berths.
No player epitomises that more than Thursday’s birthday boy Cesc Fabregas, who has been used as both a centre-mid and as one of the dual No.10s behind Diego Costa – both from the starting whistle and from the bench – throughout the campaign. He’s clocked up the fewest minutes, 1047, of any Chelsea player to have made at least ten starts this term, but his attacking contributions have been as important as Costa’s, Hazard’s or any player involved in Chelsea’s middle-to-final third.
In fact, with four goals and nine assists, he’s played a hand in 18% of the Blues’ 72 league goals – that’s one strike or setup every 58 minutes. He’s also joint-fourth in the Premier League’s assists chart, but is the only player in the top 23 to make less than 20 starts. In short, you won’t find a better or more potent cameo midfielder in the Premier League this season.
Curiously, the campaign started poorly for Fabregas, suggesting a season wallowing in the reserves. Even when Conte was still utilising Chelsea’s customary 4-2-3-1 formation that made the Spain international a prime candidate for the No.10 role, Oscar was preferred at the tip of midfield. By the beginning of December, Fabregas had made just one start in the Premier League – against his former club Arsenal in September. The Blues lost 3-0 and Conte’s consequential change in system to 3-4-3 initially pushed Fabregas further out of the picture.
But the now-30-year-old deserves huge credit for the professionalism he showed during those difficult months; when Conte finally needed him once again, Fabregas was ready to perform. His first start since the Arsenal defeat produced a superb assist to Costa in a 3-1 win over Manchester City at the Etihad – a ranging pass from midfield that allowed the powerful striker to go shoulder-to-shoulder with Nicolas Otamendi, bring the ball down on his chest and slot it past Claudio Bravo.
That triggered a run of one goal and three more assists in his next five games, by no means a level of output beyond Fabregas’ well-established ability but an impressive return considering he started just three of those games. Maintaining consistency when you’re starting one week and subbed on the next is never easy, especially when you’re switching between central and attacking midfield, but Fabregas reliably delivered whether used as a sub, a starter, a centre-mid or a supporting forward.
After Willian and Michy Batshuayi, Fabregas has been Conte’s most-used substitute this season, despite not making any appearances throughout October and November, and with good reason. He’s added the finishing touches to many Blues wins, scoring or assisting to put games against Watford, Arsenal, Hull and Everton out of sight, but perhaps more importantly has given Chelsea greater control and use of the ball during closing stages. Tellingly, 70% of his passes have been forward this season, highlighting how he’s kept Chelsea on the front foot even when they’re holding onto wins, whilst his chances created per-90-minutes is actually higher than any per-match return in the Premier League.
Over the course of the season, and especially amid what has been a more difficult second half of the campaign for Chelsea, Fabregas’ influence has been crucial, and it speaks volumes about his character that a former Barcelona star and World Cup winner, who started all but five games of Chelsea’s last title win over Mourinho, has willingly accepted a lesser role for the sake of the team, without complaining or agitating for a move.
In fact, he’s done far more than simply accept it; he’s excelled in it, finding a way to keep himself significant and influential in Conte’s plans. Olivier Giroud may be the Premier League’s leading super-sub in terms of goals and assists, but Fabregas and Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser are the only midfielders to make the division’s top eight in that regard. Four goals provided from 15 substitute appearances is a phenomenal return for a midfielder.
The question now is what happens next to Fabregas. Whether starting or on the bench, choruses of ‘Fabregas is magic’ still ring around Stamford Bridge at every home game – and as you can see from our recent poll above, the vast majority of Chelsea fans want him to stay. But now aged 30, no longer a guaranteed starter at Chelsea and on the verge of entering the final two years of his contract, it certainly feels like the Spaniard will approach a crossroads this summer. Likewise, Conte will need to strengthen all departments if Chelsea are to become the Premier League’s first title retainers since 2009 next season. That will inevitably impact his game-time.
But one thing is for certain. Whereas Fabregas’ Chelsea career appeared to be all-but over seven months ago, Conte will now be loathed to lose one of the most important members of his squad, if not his starting XI. Can he convince the magician to stay in west London for another year? Chelsea fans will be hoping so.