On Monday, Cesc Fábregas did exactly what Chelsea bought him to do. He was their most dynamic attacking player in the 3-1 win against newly promoted Burnley, recording two assists as well as having a hand in setting up a third goal. His first assist, which set up Chelsea's second goal, will probably stand up as one of the best of the Premier League season when the whole campaign is finished.
What Chelsea bought Fábregas to do is beat up on teams like the Clarets, because that's his specialty. At Barcelona, Fábregas racked up huge goal and assist numbers against La Liga's minnows while disappearing in Clásicos and massive Champions League tilts. He was a huge reason that they always found a way to squeak out close wins against poor teams that brought their best against the Blaugrana, but he's also the reason they never made a Champions League final while he was with the club.
This may sound harsh on Fábregas, but his goal and assist numbers couldn't possibly be worse in the biggest spots. In the UEFA Champions League knockout stages and games against Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid last season, Fábregas recorded no goals and no assists. He started all nine of those games. Over the same fixtures in the previous season -- there were 14 of them, including the Super Cup -- he recorded one goal and one assist. He was an unused substitute in a lot of those games, likely because the previous staff at Barcelona knew something Gerardo Martino did not.
These numbers can't be explained away by arguing that most of Cesc's contributions come before the final pass or shot, much like Barcelona legend Xavi or Real Madrid's Luka Modric. Scoring and assisting is exactly what Fábregas is supposed to do. He recorded 14 goals and 11 assists two seasons ago, then increased those numbers last season, notching 13 goals and 14 assists in a season where most Blaugranes saw him as a liability.
For the most part, this happens because Fábregas has two gears -- risk-free or ultra-risky. He also doesn't appear to know how to use them. Unlike teammates Xavi and Iniesta, who know exactly when to hit the safest possible pass, when to try something moderately difficult and when to play hero ball, Fábregas makes a lot of bad decisions with the ball. He's regularly infuriating to watch, hitting the ball backwards when a relatively simple attacking pass was available to him or playing the most daring ball possible when the only possible result was an interception leading to a quick counter for the opposition.
This tendency isn't really a problem against less than elite opposition. He rarely passes backwards against poor teams because there's nothing to be scared of, and fewer of his dangerous passes get intercepted. When they do get intercepted, the other team usually doesn't have the quality to convert that turnover into a scoring chance. The tendencies that make Fábregas a liability against the best teams in the world are what make him a brilliant player against poor sides, and their inability to capitalize on his mistakes gives his manager an incentive to play him in those games.
Chelsea were lacking a player who plays like Cesc during their run-in last season. Their losses to Sunderland, Aston Villa and Crystal Palace, as well as their draw against Norwich, were mostly the result of a very predictable attack that was lacking in inventiveness. Add in a player willing to take the risks that Fábregas takes, along with the technical quality to pull it off, and they would have won the title. If they fail to win the Premier League again this season, it won't be because they weren't good enough against the bottom half of the table.
But Fábregas is demonstrably bad in the big games, which Jose Mourinho surely knows -- he coached the opposing team during some of his awful outings. As long as Mourinho either keeps Fábregas on the bench in matches against top opposition or alters his role significantly, he's not going to be a liability. That makes him a luxury player -- and at £30m, a very expensive one -- but Chelsea are the kind of club that can afford to pay lots of money for players who don't help them win the Champions League, and doing so in this case suggests that winning the Premier League is their top priority this season. They already had the type of squad and the perfect coach to win that competition, so it's not completely ridiculous that they spent a lot of money to sign a player who will help them win the league, but not the Champions League.
As long as Chelsea know exactly what they have in Fábregas, he could turn out to be a very good signing for them. His brilliant performance against Burnley didn't prove anything, though, nor will continued dazzling displays over Chelsea's next three games. We'll learn something for real on Sept. 21, when Chelsea face Manchester City, and we'll be able to figure out exactly what Mourinho thinks of Fábregas from the team sheet alone.
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