The unsung hero

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Chelsea clinched their fifth Premier League title on Friday night with a late winner from Michy Batshuayi. In the post-match interview with Sky Sports, Cesc Fabregas, perhaps their most unsung hero of the season, accidentally summed up their collective thoughts, ‘football is f***ing unbelievable’.

A victim of the complementary partnership of N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic, Fabregas has spent large swathes of the season on the bench, with the role of settling the nerves in the final quarter of matches. While quietly going about his business, he has been a pivotal cog in their success this season.

His first start in over two months in December came in the 3-1 away victory over Manchester City, a crucial psychological blow to one of their rivals for the title. Following this match, Chelsea and Manchester City have experienced vastly different fortunes since the turn of the year.

For much of his career, Fabregas has been a reassuring presence in the heart of midfield wherever he has played; a model of consistency in some of Europe’s finest teams. He was a mainstay in one of the most successful Barcelona youth teams of all time, playing alongside the likes of Gerard Pique and Lionel Messi. Despite this early success, his footballing education was about to accelerate into first-team opportunities in one of the most successful English teams of all time.

The Spaniard made the bold move to London, bravely sensing that opportunities would be more apparent in the Arsenal set-up, where Wenger also took advantage of professional contracts starting at a younger age in England. In the season following the Gunners’ remarkable ‘Invincibles’ campaign, Fabregas started making first team appearances at the tender age of 17, to much fanfare.

After filling in for the injured Patrick Vieira with an impressive performance against Blackburn Rovers, the Arsenal legend Bob Wilson said: ‘I think Fabregas is one of the best young players there has ever been.’ Similar plaudits would continue for years to come.

When I also turned 17-years-old, I was on my first ever driving lesson. Granted, a far cry from leading the Arsenal midfield in a tricky Premier League encounter. Even so, when the car was static at a red light, my driving instructor covered up the rear-view mirror with her hand and said, ‘What colour is the car behind?’ Of course, I didn’t have a clue, I hadn’t been looking. Her point was well-made, I hadn’t been observing the mirrors sufficiently to check what was around me.

This is where Fabregas’s genius truly lies – his vision. Before he receives the ball, he has a full picture of what’s going on around him. He seems to have 360 degree vision, fully aware of what will happen next. The stats continue to support this mastery of the game too as he continues to clock up significant ‘assists, through-balls and key passes’, according to Whoscored.com.

Fabregas has been through a series of lessons in his career, playing alongside some of Europe’s finest midfielders at Arsenal, Barcelona and Chelsea. He named Pep Guardiola as his ultimate idol growing up. In a similar vein to his fellow Spaniard, he freely changes clubs when the lustre dulls. If he were to leave this summer, it would be with two Premier League winners medals in three seasons.

Since 2014, Fabregas has 36 assists in the Premier League, the most of any player during this time. When you factor in his lack of game time this season, it feels all the more remarkable. Mesut Ozil and David Silva sit in second and third place with 30 and 25 assists respectively. This season alone, he has 11 assists, becoming the first player ever to reach double figures in six different seasons.

Since being at Chelsea, he leads the Premier League in the most through-balls, a total of 38. With over 100 caps for his country too, he has won every major honour in elite football. He should be heralded as one of the finest midfielders of the modern game.

Of course, last season was a strange one for everyone concerned at Chelsea. The mood was flat. With tales of in-fighting in the dressing room, Fabregas was named as one of the players who apparently revolted against Mourinho’s tumultuous second reign, something which still hangs over the Spaniard at Stamford Bridge. He continues to be linked with moves elsewhere.

Stan Collymore recently wrote an article suggesting he should link up once again with Rafa Benitez and join Newcastle. Quite why he would do that is anybody’s guess, but, either way, it would surprise few people if he moved clubs this summer for a new challenge elsewhere, perhaps in Italy where his attributes would dovetail well with the pace of the league.

Wherever he is playing next season, Fabregas is perhaps one of a dying breed of footballers; a reliance on technicality over physicality, shrewdness over speed and strength. He acknowledges this himself, ‘It’s more difficult for the more talented players to succeed. If you are very strong or you run a lot it’s easier. I don’t think my physical abilities are the best — I’m not the quickest, I’m not the strongest, I’m not the sharpest, so you have to be ahead of the game if a player like me wants to succeed.’

Having only just turned 30 last week, Fabregas still has a lot more to give.

Chris Henderson – follow me on Twitter here

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