Cesc Fabregas had 18 assists for Chelsea in the time it’s taken Enzo Fernandez to claim three. £105m should buy you more than neat and tidy.
“I have to thank God for giving me the chance to play alongside him at Chelsea because we all know the great player he is,” Enzo Fernandez said of Moises Caicedo, having played his part in persuading the midfielder to join him in the summer, as excited by the prospect of playing alongside him as any Chelsea fan.
Gary Neville was preaching to the choir when he said “they could be one of the best in Europe if they get it right.” And for a long time too, given they’re both just 21 years old.
It’s not happened for them yet. “Time” is the operative word in any Chelsea press conference, applied to Fernandez and Caicedo along with a dozen or so of their teammates as Mauricio Pochettino quite reasonably uses the inexperience of his squad to reduce the pressure on his players and himself.
There have been recent indications of a growing bond between the pair, who were particularly impressive – along with Conor Gallagher – in the 4-4 draw with Manchester City. But even given allowances for slow progress due to their tender age and the inexperience around them, as well as the sheer volume of change at Chelsea, it’s fair to expect more of a £220m midfield axis, and of Fernandez in particular, who’s now been at Stamford Bridge for ten months.
In that time he’s provided three assists and scored one goal, and started all but one of Chelsea’s 31 Premier League games, of which they’ve won just seven.
It’s a rotten record for a player who could quite reasonably argue that he’s doing his job to a tee. ‘He keeps things ticking’ is perhaps the stock cliche that best describes his role at Chelsea. As one of two deep-lying midfielders with Caicedo, Fernandez is tasked with looking to link defence and attack while Caicedo does the dirty work. Only Bruno Fernandes (112) and Rodri (104) have played more progressive passes than Fernandez’s 102 this season, and his 91 passes into the final third is second only to Rodri (123).
Being a poor man’s Rodri is no mean feat – the Spaniard is arguably the most important player in the best team in Europe. But Chelsea don’t need Fernandez to be Rodri, who is also doing Caicedo’s job of sweeping up; they need Fernandez to have more attacking strings to his bow given he’s got the midfield safety net not granted to Rodri at Manchester City.
He needs to be more like Cesc Fabregas, who got an extraordinary 19 Premier League assists in the 2014/15 season to help Chelsea claim the title at a canter under Jose Mourinho from a very similar role to the one Fernandez now inhabits, with Nemanja Matic as his Caicedo. Before a further 12 assists from just 13 starts in the 2016/17 title-winning campaign, typically alongside N’Golo Kante.
That’s closer to what we expected of Fernandez from this current partnership. Not quite so many goal contributions perhaps, but in time maybe. He did cost £105m.
He’s got the vision and skill to be that player. The scooped assist for Kai Havertz against Leicester and the dinked cross for Joao Felix against West Ham illustrated his awareness of runners and his ability to find them. Fabregas had the ball on a string tied to Diego Costa in their time together at Chelsea, and the midfielder’s first instinct would be to look for the bully up front. In Nicolas Jackson, Fernandez has someone who – like Costa – is consistently playing on the shoulder of defenders and could get in behind time and again with first-time balls whipped around corners.
Everyone has been singing the praises of Cole Palmer, but it’s the risks he takes on the ball that make him such a handful for the opposition. His first instinct is a killer pass, and while Fernandez will need to be slightly more risk-averse in his role, he should be looking to be a direct threat from his deeper position, slipping balls in behind or over the top of defences, rather than passing the baton on to Palmer, who shouldn’t be burdened with all of the creative responsibility in a squad worth £1bn.
There’s a benefit to being neat and tidy, but it often feels like he retains possession for possession’s sake, and that comes at a cost to the creativity he is more than capable of providing.