Cesc Fabregas started only 13 Premier League games for Chelsea last season, and on the list of vital contributions to the club’s title run, there was significant distance between his and the top of the list. Chelsea’s attack relied primarily on a creative and clinical front three, with the Spaniard often relegated to the bench.
But champions invariably must evolve, and if Sunday afternoon at Stamford Bridge was any indication, Fabregas might have to be a major part of their evolution.
His performance in a 2-0 victory over Everton, Chelsea’s second in a row, was nothing revolutionary. But his presence alongside N’Golo Kante allowed the Blues to break down a compact, conservative Everton side that challenged Chelsea to pick it apart.
In part thanks to Fabregas, and in part thanks to Kante, it did just that.
Fabregas started and finished the move that unlocked Everton. He wasted no time over a free kick and picked out Willian running the right channel. He then recognized a large pocket of space at the edge of the penalty area, darted into it, played a one-two with Alvaro Morata, and finished exquisitely with the outside of his boot into the far bottom corner of the net:
The goal was emblematic of Chelsea’s first-half attack, before and after it gave the hosts the lead. Fabregas dictated the pace of the game, and much of Chelsea’s penetration stemmed from him. His pinpoint passes split open Everton’s midfield. He pinged balls into Morata’s feet. He popped 40-yarders over the top of the Toffees’ back three.
Everton was difficult to breakdown when the ball was at the feet of anybody other than Fabregas. But the 30-year-old playmaker is the only bonafide creative presence in a sans-Eden Hazard Chelsea team. With the Belgian winger still sidelined by injury, Antonio Conte selected Fabregas over Tiemoue Bakayoko, and the decision paid off.
Sunday’s match was not one Fabregas would have started a year ago. Nemanja Matic and Kante were the central midfield pairing for both league victories over Everton en route to the title. In fact, Matic was almost always preferred to Fabregas, even against lesser opponents.
But against those lesser opponents, the ball-winning of Kante and Matic at times seemed redundant, just as the ball-winning of Kante and Bakayoko could at times be redundant. With Diego Costa and Hazard up front, the redundancy often didn’t matter. But sometimes Fabregas’ passing ability from deep becomes necessary to unlock opponents who set up in a defensive shape. Fabregas played that role occasionally last year. Based on his performance Sunday, he could be more prevalent in such games this time around.
But if his role was somewhat of a departure from last season, Kante’s was anything but. His tackle in the buildup to Chelsea’s second goal encapsulated his value to the team. Morata ultimately scored it – he guided Ceasar Azpilicueta’s cross past Jordan Pickford – but Kante started the move by stripping the ball off Idrissa Gana 30 yards from the Everton net.
The Blues had opportunities to make it three or four in the second half, and they were as comfortable as can be. Fabregas went the full 90. He moved into a more advanced position when Bakayoko replaced Pedro after 75 minutes.
Matic was sold to Manchester United this summer, but only after Bakayoko was brought in as his replacement. The young French midfielder was presumably Conte’s pick to slot into midfield alongside Kante. To glean from Sunday’s selection that Fabregas will be the manager’s first choice against non-top-six foes is overreactive, especially with Bakayoko recently recovering from a preseason injury and still acclimating himself at the club.
But the role Fabregas played in Sunday’s victory was notable. If Chelsea is to compete for a second consecutive title and third in four years, its formula will have to be slightly different in 2017-18. The balance of midfield against the bottom half of the league could be one of the areas in which that evolution takes place.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.