Premier League

Cesc Fabregas and the Barcelona homecoming that wasn't

It was meant to be the prodigal son returning to Camp Nou - but it didn't work out that way

8:00am on Thursday 13th August 2020
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Take a moment and go down memory lane, back to your childhood. Back to the childhood home where you blissfully spent hours playing with the kid next door.

The two of you were connected to the hip, spending every waking moment in each other's company. It was a special connection you shared - first love always is. 'Soulmates', your family would say in hushed whispers seeing the two of you together. The bond only deepened as you entered your teens, and you'd look back on those days of teenage rebellion and chicanery as the 'best days of your life'.

Now, imagine yourself to be Cesc Fabregas and your soulmate to be Barcelona. Why don't we look back on this match made in heaven with wonder? Why is his trophy-laden three year stint at Camp Nou seen as a blemish on an otherwise stellar career?

It's important to recognise the Barcelona that Fabregas re-joined were fresh off a record-breaking treble and lay claims to being the greatest ever club team in history. But, the previous season's battles with Jose Mourinho's Madrid had highlighted chinks in the armour, and Guardiola wanted to freshen things up.

The 4-3-1-2/4-3-3 was replaced by a more fluid 3-4-3. "He wanted to try something different and play three and the back, four in midfield plus Lionel Messi dropping even deeper. He wanted to dominate midfield more than anything," said Fabregas.

But, it wasn't the midfield Pep Guardiola had earmarked for his compatriot.

In his book Zonal Marking, Michael Cox highlights how Fabregas and Messi both played as false 9's and how their chemistry from their youth days at La Masia helped them seamlessly interchange positions. The Argentine finished with a staggering 73 goals in all competitions, with Fabregas the club’s joint-second highest with 15, including goals in the Super Cup and Club World Cup Finals. What's most impressive about Fabregas's season was his versatility.

He wanted to try something different and play three and the back, four in midfield plus Lionel Messi dropping even deeper. He wanted to dominate midfield more than anything.Cesc Fabregas on Pep Guardiola's team selection

Barring left midfield, he played in every other attacking position. Take a look at the run-in during the Christmas period - in four consecutive La Liga games (including a Clasico) Fabregas played four different positions - right midfield, centre forward, left wing and attacking midfield - but still notched up four goals and an assist. In fact, his longest run in one position was just two games.

Fabregas's versatility was a key component of Spain's Euro 2012-winning team that summer, and he made vital contributions in the semi-final and final from his now familiar false nine role.

Arguably, things weren't smooth sailing here for Fabregas' Barca career. His next two seasons at the club follow a fixed template; a summer of transfer speculation followed by a manager categorically denying reports of his departure, stellar performances in the first half of the season where goals and assists are present in plenty, and then a plunge in the player's performance and the fans' patience.

Fabregas’ numbers make for good optics. He finished with 42 goals and 50 assists in 151 appearances and won six trophies in three years. He fought his way into the starting XI of each of the three managers he played under, featuring most prominently under Tata Martino in the 13/14 season, with his 55 appearances topped only by Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets.

Granted he had better service than his other clubs, but Fabregas adapted phenomenally to the centre forward role at Barca. He had an average of 0.38 goals/game and 0.44 assists/game - a significantly better return than what he had with Arsenal and Chelsea. In his three seasons at the club, he missed just seven games through injury. In his last season at Arsenal, he missed 21. Purely based on statistics, Fabregas played the best football of his career at Barcelona. But, numbers lack context.

Barcelona v Bayern, 2013

Barcelona were a team in transition during Fabregas' stint. Their passing style began to be exploited by quick counterattacking teams, and age was quickly catching up with players like Xavi, Carles Puyol and David Villa. Between 2011 and 2014, the league title was split evenly between Barca, Madrid and Atletico, with the last of three sealed by Atletico on the last day at the Camp Nou. Fabregas had a poor record against both these teams - he never scored against Atleti, never finished 90 minutes in a Clasico and managed just one goal and no assists against Real Madrid.

But, the true extent of Barca's malaise was highlighted in the Champions League. They were unlucky to lose to Chelsea in 2012, went out tamely to Atletico in 2014 and sandwiched between these two years is the 7-0 decimation to Bayern which brought a brusque end to tiki-taka. Despite doing well in his false nine role in the league that year, he was sparingly used in the Champions League.

He didn't come off the bench for the comeback against Milan in the round of 16, and was brought on at half-time against PSG only because of Messi's injury. Despite scoring a hat-trick in the league against Mallorca, he couldn't transfer his form to the European stage, and was subbed off for a half-fit Messi in the 2nd leg, who unsurprisingly made the difference. There's no shame in being outshone by Messi, but Fabregas didn't make it off the bench for the 4-0 drubbing in the Allianz Arena.

Cesc said of those games: "You're losing 4-0 and you're sitting on the bench, then you can't help but let it get to you. You think, ‘Hostia, I'm not even warming up and they're beating us 4-0’. That has an impact. It surprises you, it affects you mentally, because you feel good and then suddenly: bang!

"If you're winning, providing assists, playing well, scoring, everything happens naturally. If you feel truly important and then you miss the occasional game, if you're rotated, you take it differently. But if it's like that, the big games, it's harder. It's more mental than anything else."

His record in the Champions League is dubious, with just three goals (all in the group stages) and five assists across three campaigns.

With the likes of Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Busquets considered untouchable by fans, it was Fabregas who unfairly most felt their ire. The player hinted that a possible reason for his difficult relationship with fans was his academy connection.

In an interview with the Guardian, he reflected on things: "My case was different because the supporters saw me as someone who'd been here as a kid, who'd left and who the club had to pay a lot of money for.

"Without that, I would have been viewed differently."

Another school of thought existed that his arrival blocked La Masia's jewel, Thiago Alcantara, on his progression to the first team.

While he didn't struggle to adapt positionally, the adaptation to the hierarchy within the club proved to be a bigger challenge. This was a player who became Arsenal captain at the age of 21, and had the whole team built around him. With leadership and motivation responsibilities lying elsewhere in the Camp Nou dressing room, Fabregas spoke of feeling marginalised by having to take a role in the backseat.

Fabregas's Barca legacy isn't helped by the fact that his stint at the club is cushioned between two Champions League winning trebles. At the time of joining Barca, Fabregas called it "the greatest challenge of my life".

During his three years, he did everything that was asked of him, but sometimes at clubs like Barcelona, that isn't enough.

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