It has been a rotten 2015 for Cesc Fabregas. We’re used to the late-season drop-off, but this season he hasn’t even got going. Mental fatigue, or just a player trying too hard to reach previous heights..?
In many ways, Jose Mourinho and Cesc Fabregas are football’s odd couple. Fabregas is a midfielder whose weakness is tactical discipline and who is at his most comfortable when playing pretty passes and through balls. He also openly admits to an eternal love for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger. That’s almost a ‘how to’ guide for getting on the wrong side of Mourinho.
Yet last season, this illogical marriage blossomed. Eden Hazard and Diego Costa were the benefits of Fabregas’ purple patch, his form over the first three months of the season pushing Chelsea’s title bid straight into fourth gear. His return of seven assists in his first eight league games was beaten by only 14 players across the whole of the campaign.
Those now feel like long-lost days of yore. Finding a problem at Chelsea right now is like looking for a haystack in a pile of needles, but the form of Fabregas must be written in red pen towards the top of Mourinho’s extensive ‘to fix’ list. The manager has already experimented with dropping most of his senior players, and Fabregas must be next for the chop. Only he and Cesar Azpilicueta have started every Premier League and Champions League game this season.
When Fabregas’ form dropped midway through last season, knowing glances were exchanged between north London and Catalonia. So famous is the midfielder’s decline after Christmas that Barcelona posted a story on their official website highlighting the trend when he moved to Chelsea.
‘There has been a downward trend in his stats every season at the club,’ that statement read. ‘Cesc’s contributions to the cause gradually decreased as each season drew to a close. For some reason, he was never as good in the second half of a season as in the first.’ Nowadays, they call that trolling.
Whether you consider it to be unsporting or not, Barcelona’s warning proved prophetic. Of Fabregas’ 18 assists last season, only four came after New Year’s Day. The number of chances he created also fell sharply, from 3.37 per game to 2.07, as did his pass completion.
This season, Fabregas has not even provided the early peak to counter last season’s trough. In eight matches so far, one assist is Fabregas’ paltry return, his chances created per game figure dropping to 1.88. The contrast with 2014 could not be more stark. A late-season dip has become a miserable 2015.
To compound the problem, Fabregas isn’t even getting the basics right. Of the five players to play the most inaccurate short passes in the Premier League, four are strikers forced to hold the ball up and bring others into play; the other is Chelsea’s central midfielder. The holding up of his right hand in apologetic fashion has become one of the images of Chelsea’s stalled title defence.
The problem for Fabregas is that when he’s not creating chances, it’s difficult to work out what exactly he does do. Nine Chelsea players shoot more regularly, seven tackle more regularly, 11 dribble more regularly, eight make interceptions more regularly and ten win aerial challenges more often. Chelsea’s assist master has become a jack of no trades.
The simple explanation for Fabregas’ swift decline is that he is knackered. Only turning 28 in May, he has made 610 senior appearances for club and country. By way of comparison, Gary Cahill, almost 18 months Fabregas’ senior and in a less physically demanding position, has made 190 fewer.
Plenty has been written about Wayne Rooney’s decline after starting his top-flight career so young, and the similarities are clear. Fabregas made his Arsenal debut aged 16 years and 177 days. He had reached 47 Arsenal appearances before turning 18.
If Fabregas has long been in need of a break, that luxury has not been afforded. The next match he plays will be his 250th since August 2011, of which 204 have been starts. That includes two title-winning campaigns, five other domestic trophy wins and an international tournament success. We can safely assume that competing without rest has taken its toll.
Mental exertion is football’s elephant in the room, widely ignored because it is virtually unmeasurable. Yet the demands of a Premier League title race (and Fabregas’ first ending in triumph) and three cup competitions immediately following an acrimonious World Cup exit cannot be underestimated.
There is a hardwired sense of the ‘mumbo-jumbo’ about emotional fatigue within a game that still struggles to take the issue of mental wellbeing seriously enough. This UEFA-funded study is worth a read, suggesting that it can cause a decline of 15% in performance. At the highest level, that’s a huge drop.
It’s a point Mourinho referred to in March after Chelsea’s Champions League exit, claiming his players were unable to cope “mentally” with the occasion and Paris St Germain. Jurgen Klopp cited the same problem with his Borussia Dortmund side, whilst Argentina coach described Lionel Messi as suffering from issues in April 2014: “Messi has to overcome the sadness of poor performances and rediscover the joy, pride and passion it takes to play at a club like Barcelona. I’ve seen more mental fatigue than physical. I think there is some disorder in his head, that his head is muddled.”
It would certainly be unfair to accuse Fabregas of laziness. Writing for BT Sport, Adrian Clarke accused him of ‘coasting’. ‘Fabregas has always been an arrogant, selfish type that will stroll around and do his own thing when he feels like it,’ Clarke wrote.
In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true. In the last three Premier League games in which Fabregas has played 90 minutes (against Southampton, Newcastle and Crystal Palace), he has covered more ground than any other player on the pitch. It feels as if he is trying too hard in a bid to regain his form – a natural response from a professional competitor. The passes just aren’t coming off.
Whatever the problem, Mourinho must find a solution. Moving Fabregas further up the pitch would mean dropping one of Pedro, Willian or Hazard, while letting the Spaniard roam further from his current position only leaves a struggling defence even more exposed.
Instead, the obvious conclusion is to drop Fabregas to the bench in favour of Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Unthinkable a year ago, but are Chelsea’s odd couple slowly heading for divorce? An appointment at RELATE is in the diary.