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Cesc Fabregas leaving Chelsea: His Premier League legacy assessed

Cesc Fabregas said his Chelsea farewells in FA Cup victory;

Cesc Fabregas established himself as a key figure at Chelsea and Arsenal
Cesc Fabregas established himself as a key figure at Chelsea and Arsenal

Cesc Fabregas departs the Premier League as one of the finest midfielders in its history, writes Adam Bate.

Arsene Wenger likened Cesc Fabregas to Michel Platini and Paul Scholes before trusting him to assume the mantle of Patrick Vieira in the Arsenal midfield. Jose Mourinho called him a maestro. Antonio Conte described him as decisive. “When Cesc has the ball, in one second he is the most special player in the world for that ball in behind,” said Pep Guardiola.

Four Premier League winning managers cannot all be wrong. Each of them won trophies with Fabregas in their team. An FA Cup with Wenger. A Premier League title with Mourinho. Both with Conte. The Super Cups of Spain and Europe with Guardiola as well as a Copa Del Rey and a World Club Cup. And all that was just part of the player’s overall haul.

Fabregas also won La Liga after Guardiola’s departure but the highlights of his career came at international level with Spain. At Euro 2008, it was his penalty in the shootout that ended the country’s inferiority complex against then world champions Italy. At the 2010 World Cup, it was his pass that set up Andres Iniesta for the extra-time winner in the final.

He was heavily involved in Spain’s Euro 2012 triumph too, the youngest of the six men to feature in all three finals for the country during that glory period in which they enjoyed three tournament successes back-to-back. As a result, Fabregas‘ status as a Spanish football legend is obviously secure. His legacy as a Premier League icon is a little trickier to assess.

Statistically, there is no room for debate. It is not just the trophies. Fabregas’ contribution to the performances has been vast. He is always at the hub of it, controlling the tempo of games for his team. He can pass short to retain possession and pass long to cut through the opposition. That range is rare. The skill of knowing which option to choose, rarer still.

In 2016, Fabregas brought up his 100th Premier League assist when setting up Willian to score against Stoke. Nobody has provided a ton of goals for others in quicker time. Indeed, only Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard have reached such a number. Fabregas has since got to 111 assists – more than 30 more than any active Premier League player.

Fabregas ranks second behind Ryan Giggs for assists in the Premier League era
Fabregas ranks second behind Ryan Giggs for assists in the Premier League era

And yet, perusing the list of esteemed names on that list might help to explain why Fabregas isn’t celebrated in the way that his achievements merit. Every assist registered by Giggs, Dennis Bergkamp, Steven Gerrard, Thierry Henry and David Silva has come for just one club. Frank Lampard was synonymous with Chelsea. It is not so clear-cut with Fabregas.

At Arsenal, he had the misfortune to be performing at the peak of his powers just as the club’s best years were coming to an end. While still a teenager, he was good enough to force his way into a team that had gone unbeaten in winning the Premier League title the year before. But the Gunners could not retain the crown and Vieira soon left.

Fabregas did come agonisingly close to helping Arsenal to Champions League glory against his boyhood club Barcelona – he was substituted when 1-0 up in the 2006 final only to watch from the bench as the game turned on its head in a matter of minutes. Five seasons without silverware followed as he increasingly carried the team on his slight shoulders.

He made the Premier League team of the season for a second time in 2010 after top scoring for Arsenal with 15 goals in the competition, but the title challenges were becoming less convincing and there was little malice directed at the player himself when he returned to Barcelona in the summer of 2011. After all, he was joining arguably the best team ever seen.

Once again, his legacy there will be shaped by the fact that he missed out on the best of it. The season prior to his arrival culminated in the defeat of Manchester United at Wembley, the apotheosis of Guardiola’s reign. But La Liga was surrendered to Real Madrid as Fabregas, the man who was supposed to be the final piece, the heir to Xavi, could not nail down a role.

It was when he returned to the Premier League with Chelsea rather than Arsenal that his reputation in north London took a hit. It was Wenger who chose not to take up the option of bringing him back but Fabregas was wrongly cast as the villain at the Emirates Stadium that he had so lit up during the first half a decade of its existence. He was booed on his return.

It didn’t help when, at the first attempt, he duly propelled Chelsea to the Premier League title that he was never able to win in Arsenal shirt. Fabregas was brilliant in that 2014-15 season, registering more assists than Silva, Mesut Ozil and Juan Mata combined. His prompting from deep, and in particular his link up with Diego Costa, made the difference.

He had to endure a difficult second season at Stamford Bridge, one in which a banner labelled him as one of the ‘rats’ responsible for engineering Mourinho’s sacking. But he recovered sufficiently to play his part in another title win, improbably providing another dozen assists in that 2016-17 success despite getting to start only 13 matches.

Fabregas’ game had changed by that point. Having been an all-action midfielder at Arsenal and a false nine in Barcelona, he now specialised as a deep-lying playmaker and found himself having to fend off intermittent questions about his suitability to a high-tempo league. Most accept that now is probably the right time to move on.

Fabregas was handed an emotional standing ovation in the dying minutes
Fabregas was handed an emotional standing ovation in the dying minutes

There was a warm ovation at the weekend but he leaves Chelsea as a player admired rather than truly adored. He was not quite one of their own. He achieved too much at Arsenal for that. While, ironically enough given his consistent excellence there, nor did he achieve so much at Arsenal that his subsequent career elsewhere in London could be overlooked.

The result is that Fabregas will be remembered as more of a Premier League legend than a legend of any one club. Perhaps that is the way it should be for a player who has provided so much entertainment for the neutrals in his 350 appearances in the competition.

His own assessment of his assist record sums it up well. “I’m not the fastest, I’m not the strongest, I’m not the most flexible and I don’t jump high,” he explained. “But to achieve this record in my career is one of the proudest things in my job, because it is my job and I did it well.”

Of that there can be no argument.

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