Separating footballers into groups could see you come up with countless variations and pairings. But some differentiation between physicality and intelligence would probably be prevalent: technicality and strength or speed and smarts.
Midfielders often spend their careers attempting to land in both categories. Given the demands of, in particular, the box-to-box role, athleticism must be married with a little bit more: one or the other isn’t enough.
Throughout their careers, both Paul Scholes and Cesc Fabregas have suffered under the same demands, and especially the changing nature of tactical orthodoxy which saw an extra midfielder deployed to help in the middle of the pitch, taking some of the physical pressure off. But two players who have played serious roles in the history of the Premier league, their similar career trajectories are striking.
Seen as attacking number 10s but blessed with neither pace nor dribbling skill, they were often played out of position. Later in their careers, benefiting from dropping into deeper positions, they both carved out a position in one of the game’s more elegant roles.
Their common lack of speed was perhaps the biggest factor in their game. Making up for that by relying on your ability to read the game and play the right pass is crucial when it changes the type of game you play. A Premier League midfield battle is a sea of frantic activity, but players like Scholes and Fabregas are a calm and assured haven.
At just 30 years of age, the Chelsea midfielder still has plenty of time to reinvent himself in the mould of an Andrea Pirlo or a Xabi Alonso. But having broke through at Arsenal so young, and having played such a physically-demanding explosive role in the north London side’s midfield before joining Barcelona, perhaps it’s not surprising the Spaniard’s physical deterioration should start earlier than that of other players.
He broke through at the age of 18, making 33 Premier League appearances in his first season, and since then he’s never played fewer than 33 times in all competitions over the course of a season. Coincidentally, exactly the same statement applies to Wayne Rooney, two years Fabregas’s senior, and for whom accusations of physical decline have been around for a while.
The positions and the relative abilities of the pair to play deeper roles make their situations very different, but playing so many games from such a young age seems to be a common factor.
And yet, accusations of a lack of physical endurance are nothing new to Fabregas. As a silky midfield players whose contribution in attack has always been great, he seems to have suffered because of it.
After leaving Barcelona and joining Chelsea, Barcelona released a mean-spirited statement emphasising Fabregas’s weaknesses rather than the usual formula of thanking a player for his service.
“From being someone who joined in with the attack, supplying and scoring goals, the magic tended to fade later on in each season.” read a Barcelona communique. “He only scored one, six and one goals in the last 24 games of each season.”
“For some reason, he was never as good in the second half of a season as in the first.”
Aside from the obvious pettiness of such a statement,though, it does illustrate the need for Fabregas to put into practice the advice he gave to other players, that of emulating Paul Scholes. If he wants to prolong a career at the top, even at just 30 years of age, that should be the Chelsea midfielder’s number one priotiry. No longer is Fabregas a number 10 with the ability to burst through in attack: and it’s not just speed he’s missing, but stamina, too, an area he has never counted among his greatest strengths, but will only get worse over time.
It remains to be seen whether or not Fabregas can change his game to play in that way, or even if this Chelsea team is the right place to even attempt to make that transition, with N’Golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko occupying two midfield spots in front of a back three.
But with Antonio Conte, the man who took Andrea Pirlo from AC Milan to Juventus, in charge at Stamford Bridge, you get the feeling that the Spaniard will have no better chance to reinvent himself in such a way. Without speed and stamina, he’ll need to play up his smarts, but as the Premier League leaves its midfield engine rooms to more and more physical, dominating midfielders, Fabregas will need to reinvent himself soon.
And with him in the side, Conte would be mad not to try and facilitate it.