Friday September 18th, 2015

Chelsea’s shockingly poor start to the 2015–16 Premier League campaign continues to make last season’s initial dominance seem eons away. At this stage a year ago, the Blues were running riot, scoring 16 goals in five matches, and racing out to a sizable lead they would never fully relinquish. 

Front and center in that early-season dominance was the newly-signed Cesc Fabregas. With the talented Spaniard pulling the strings, fixtures that had previously proven tricky for the goal-shy Blues — namely those against the parked buses of lower-class opposition — often became glorified training exercises. In those first five games alone, Fabregas racked up six assists, a total that stood just one shy of Chelsea’s leading individual assist tally for the entire 2013–14 season.

Along with the stunning number of assists, Fabregas seemed to also be single-handedly delivering statements of Chelsea’s intent. His wonder-assist to Andre Schurrle at Burnley — one of the more audacious passes in Premier League history — had the usually reserved Martin Tyler purring about Chelsea’s title credentials just 20 minutes into the season.

And after a 6–3 smackdown of Everton at Goodison Park — catalyzed by an outstanding Fabregas assist in the first minute — the message to the rest of the Premier League was loud and clear: with the addition of Fabregas (and his Spanish national teammate Diego Costa), the Blues were here not just to win, but to dominate.

This time around, things could hardly be more different for Chelsea, which has managed a relegation-worthy four points through five matches. And just as Fabregas deserved much credit for Chelsea’s superb start last season, he deserves much of the blame for its early stutters this season. 

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A large part of that is due to his paltry attacking numbers thus far. At this stage last season, Fabregas already had the aforementioned six assists, along with a league-leading 18 chances created.

This year, he has yet to deliver a single assist, and more troubling, he has created just eight chances — a total that trails 29 Premier League players, including the likes of Jose Manuel Jurado and Simon Francis.

Flashes of brilliance in the same vein as his assists at Burnley and Everton seem a distant memory.

If Fabregas’s poor start in terms of assisting and chance creation were the only concerns about his performance to date, manager Jose Mourinho wouldn’t have that much to worry about; surely a player of his quality will bounce back, right? Alas, the answer is not quite that simple, given Fabregas’s status as a true anomaly in the Premier League.

In a footballing region defined by tough-tackling, hard-running central midfielders, the lightweight Fabregas always has been a glaring exception. His subtle artistry on the ball is much more suited to Ajax or Barcelona — from which Chelsea signed him — than England. But he still has managed to carve out an incredible career in the Premier League, thanks almost exclusively to his extraordinary quality on the ball. In other words, up to this point at least, Fabregas’s La Masía-sculpted feet and vision have proven sufficient in masking his League-Two level ball-winning skills in the midfield.

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Chelsea’s horrendous start to the season has, for the first time, called that reality into question. The Blues’ league-worst defense has hemorrhaged goals so far this season, and Fabregas deserves significant blame. He currently leads the league with 16 failed tackles — with some of the jarringly apathetic variety — and has a tackling percentage that bests only a few central midfielders. Additionally, his total of 12 clearances, blocks, and interceptions is also among the league worst. 

For an example of Fabregas at his defensive worst, just watch his horrendous giveaway and ensuing lethargy to set up Fernandinho’s match-sealer at the Etihad.

Of course, Fabregas is not in the team to excel in these areas. But for Mourinho to use a precious center midfield spot on a player so poor defensively, Fabregas simply must be delivering offensive value that is potent enough to offset those extreme defensive limitations. Thus far, that has not remotely been the case, and it’s killing Chelsea.

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Opposing teams — even “middle-class” sides such as Crystal Palace and Swansea — seem to have figured out that as long as Fabregas is in the middle of the park, they can drive right through the Blues’ midfield almost at will. With Fabregas in the team, no one is scared of Chelsea right now, even at the former fortress that is Stamford Bridge, where the Blues have earned a grand total of one point this season.

The dirty little secret is that Fabregas was just as bad defensively last year—in fact, he’s always been a league-worst performer on the defensive side of the ball. Even as the Blues were scoring loads of goals early on, they were still conceding at a concerningly high rate. It’s just that while Fabregas was in peak form on his way to a near-Premier League record 18 assists, it was easy to ignore his desperately poor defensive contributions. 

With Fabregas struggling to create chances or deliver assists this season, though, his lack of midfield bite stands out more than ever, especially given the associated struggles of center backs John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic, who often bailed out Fabregas a season ago. The endlessly pragmatic Mourinho surely is seeing the same thing, and questioning how long he can continue starting his gifted but featherweight midfielder. Ahead of a massive showdown against his former club Arsenal, Fabregas will need to rediscover his passing magic soon — to save both his place in the starting XI and Chelsea’s already fledgling season.

All statistics courtesy of Opta.

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