How Chelsea's Missing Piece Fell Into Their Lap

Yesterday, Chelsea kicked off their season against Premier League minnows Burnley. When the match started, their new, star midfielder Cesc Fàbregas looked strange, out of place donned in blue. He didn't seem like he fit.

But 21 minutes in, Fàbregas changed all of that, when he served as the fulcrum and orchestrator of one of the prettiest goals you'll ever see. Eden Hazard dribbled through a gaggle of defenders to the edge of the box and fed the ball wide to an approaching Branislav Ivanović, who then played the ball to Fàbregas occupying the space Hazard just vacated. As the ball made its way to Cesc, André Schürrle began a darting run from well behind the play. Cesc saw this, and played a half-volley to an empty space behind the defense that he somehow knew would be Schürrle's exact location in 1.5 seconds. The rest was easy.

Fàbregas's journey to Chelsea began three years ago. Arsenal sold Cesc Fàbregas to Barcelona, and they laced the deal with a buy-back clause. Should Barcelona ever sell him, Arsenal had the right of first refusal. Further—and this part is important, if criminally underreported—if Arsenal declined to buy him and Cesc was sold to another club, Arsenal would get half the fee. This is where details get a little fuzzy, but Chelsea's offer for £27 million wasn't rich enough to trigger the 50 percent clause, but it would activate the £5 million in performance escalators from the 2011 deal. Paradoxically, this made Fàbregas more expensive for Arsenal than anyone else.


If Arsenal chose to buy Fàbregas themselves, he would cost them a grand total of £32 million, or the same price as Alexis Sanchez. Arsene Wenger decided, with Özil occupying Fàbregas's best position, it didn't make sense for Arsenal to spend so much on a player who would have to play out of position (also called "pulling a Barcelona"). Fàbregas isn't a center forward, winger or a defensive midfielder, positions Arsenal needed to upgrade at the time. So Wenger passed, and spent around £18 million Southampton's Calum Chambers, a 19-year-old Wenger intends to mold into a defensive midfielder. It's entirely possible Arsenal will look back on this decision and see another shrewd player development move. But it also handed Chelsea a bargain.

It's worth remembering that Fàbregas's 2009-10 campaign with Arsenal was one of the great midfield seasons in EPL history—3.9 key passes and one throughball per 90 minutes!—which is doubly impressive considering he regularly had to play with the likes of Andrei Arshavin, Nicklas Bendtner, Eduardo, and Denílson (also, Abou Diaby started 26 games, so I'd be willing to believe that entire season was a global fever dream).

Just as Fàbregas was establishing himself as one of the world's great players, he went to Barcelona, which Ted Knutson of Statsbomb refers to as the "Bermuda Triangle for stats translations" because having the ball for 70 percent of each game screws everything up. Plus, Barcelona deployed Cesc in all kinds of weird roles that involved putting "false" in front of a position number.

Now, Fàbregas is on a roster where the talent actually forms a coherent lineup rather than an AYSO team on steroids. Chelsea, Premier League favorites even without Fàbregas, addressed an area of need that makes them not only one of the best teams in the league, but all of Europe. Last year, Chelsea had two obvious weaknesses: striker and central midfield. The striker question was answered with a vengeance when Jose Mourinho purchased Diego Costa and, to a lesser extent, Didier Drogba. In the center, Frank Lampard got old and, with the purchase of Nemanja Matić, they had too many defensive midfielders and not enough central playmakers. Chelsea needed a box-to-box type who could link all their various attacking elements together.

In this respect, Fàbregas wasn't just the best available option, but might have been the best choice imaginable.

In just 21 minutes Fàbregas showed that he was the perfect addition to this Chelsea side. With Matić as the main (and extremely capable) defensive midfielder, Fàbregas is free to roam from box to box and fill whatever creative gaps may need filling. Hazard's skillful run began the play, but he was swarmed by the time he got to the edge of the box. Critically, the empty space trailing him was where the entire play was made. Last year's Chelsea had no one capable of taking advantage of that space. This year, they have Fàbregas to turn possession into chances and runs into goals, all thanks to Arsenal.

While it may have made perfect sense for Wenger to decline the buy-back option and put the 50 percent fee to other needs, Chelsea now compare favorably to any side in the world. It may have been the correct decision by Wenger, but for Arsenal fans, that doesn't make Chelsea's goal against Burnley any easier to watch. Hopefully, Arsenal fans will be able to rationalize their way through seeing Fàbregas as the new Lampard on the Emirates grass in Chelsea Blue. Or maybe there are some things that will never make sense.

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