The array of colours in the world is often what makes much of the beauty in it. Artists and painters manipulation of it to create their art is what makes much of the beauty in it. Jackson Pollock’s splash paintings, such as Convergence and Number 18, are examples of letting the colour be free, without outlines to restrict their placement. Colours’ representation by computers for different computer applications come in two ways: hexadecimal and decimal notation. The latter is simply 0 to 255, representing the bytes of red, blue or green in the colour while the hexadecimal scale presents bytes in a scale from 00 to FF, the latter being the most intense.
Francesc Fabregas, his first name commonly shortened to Cesc, could be the personification of FF on the hexadecimal scale. When you think of the role he has performed for Chelsea this season, it was often the case of the Spaniard entering the field of play and adding colour to Chelsea’s play, when they were so dearly lacking in offensive creative play and struggling to break down the opposition. Yet even with the significant contribution in Antonie Conte’s Chelsea’s march towards their 6th top flight league title, a space in the XI was regularly lacking the feature of the former Barcelona graduate. It could even be argued that he starting on the bench has been detrimental to some results, particularly vs Arsenal in the FA Cup final. It could be Fabregas is Pollock art and Conte is not appreciative of colour being outside the lines.
Fabregas came into a Chelsea team that needed his ability to break lines from deep with his penetrative inquisitive passing, after struggling to break smaller teams down, who sat back against them. His vision coupled with his outrageous passing range and accuracy was capable of producing clear chances from areas of the pitch that would be deemed safe zones for the opposite number. He showcased his vision in his debut vs Burnley in August 2014 where a beautifully weighted first time pass to Andre Schurrle put the Blues ahead, after going 1-0 down and Diego Costa equalising. The relationship cultivated between the Brazilian-cum-Spaniard and Cesc would be a key feature in the title-winning season under Jose Mourinho as six of the former Atletico Madrid man 20 league goals were laid on by the former Arsenal man. He managed 12 other assists that season, along with those provided for Costa, posting one of the all-time assist in Premier League history in 18. Not only did Francesc contribute directly to goals, he was also tasked with finding the attacking players behind Costa in dangerous positions like Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian. The master locksmith of Stamford Bridge had once again found his playground
Unfortunately, the frivolity did not last long in South West London as the worst Premier League campaign as champions came out of nowhere, seeing the Portuguese manager losing his job in December. A season embroiled in finger pointing from all angles from the manager, players, fan, board members and landed amongst them all, even physio Eva Carneiro. On a purely footballing level, Chelsea’s defiencies were found and being pressed unrelentingly. Nemanja Matic had done a fantastic job of covering for Fabregas’ lack of tactical defensive nous, which had reared its ugly head at times the season previous, but keeping up that level of performance is impossible without support. Oscar’s presence waned as he was in and out of the team, as he was in and out after Jose had particularly picked over Juan Mata, to the displeasure of many, because of his defensive diligence. The midfield structure that allowed the World Cup 2010 winner to focus on the strengths of his game was no longer there and teams regularly found space in and around him, punishing Chelsea. It would be short sighted to blame just Cesc for this as his weaknesses were clear given that he was regularly banded about in the Barcelona team during his second Catalonia stay, because he lacked the necessary tactical intelligence to displace Xavi and Andres Iniesta, playing wide and even up front because of it. Guus Hiddink came in to replace Mourinho on a temporary basis and recognised the conundrum offered by Fabregas. He solved it by bringing John Obi Mikel and pushing Cesc forward, having a solid basis behind him and once again making it so he did not have to worry as much about the defensive side of the game.
Coming to the current stage of Chelsea management under the reign of the Italian manger, Conte, the noticeable, innumerable mentions the word ‘work’ showed that it formed the basis of the philosophy put forward by the former Juventus man. Showing hunger in both directions of play is the expectation when you take the field for Conte and Fabregas’s penchant to let his man go often when his team does not have the ball would make him unconducive with Conte’s style of play. Conte did forego a part of this by giving Andrea Pirlo a sitting role in a 3-1-4-2 with two shuttling central midfielders outside him and 3 centre backs behind him during his tenure at the Old Lady but this grace would not be extended to Fabregas. The Spaniard quickly, however, worked his way into the starting team after his introduction into the game at Watford masterminded Chelsea getting back from 1-0 down to win 2-1. He was also introduced into games at Swansea and Liverpool where Chelsea were pushing for wins, drawing 2-2 and losing 2-1 respectively. He eventually got a start but it was a 3-0 hammering, no less to his former English club Arsenal.
This prompted the well-documented change in system to 3-4-3, from the 4-1-4-1 that Conte employed in the beginning six games of the Premier League season. Teams had no idea how to combat it, a 13 game winning streak shooting them to the top of the table, laying the foundation to win the Premier League title. The two central midfielders who started the most games were Nemanja Matic and the footballer of the year across the board, N’Golo Kante. These two’s productivity came from winning the ball back and good first balls out to the front three that would go on to punish teams on the break. Turnovers, exploiting the lack of structure in teams during their defensive transition, were a sight that became all too familiar in 2016/17 Premier League season when Chelsea was playing.
Interestingly enough, the games Chelsea found most difficulty were away to the big six, even with the formation change. Fabregas started two of those five games, the aforesaid loss to Arsenal and the 3-1 win vs Man City, their only win away. 2-0 losses at White Hart Lane & Old Trafford and a 1-1 draw at Anfield complete the set. Even in the FA Cup, the tide did not begin to change in Chelsea’s favour in the semi-final until Fabregas and Hazard entered the fray. The loss in the final was where fans were chagrined because of the obvious need for the master locksmith of Stamford Bridge. In those games, Chelsea looked as they did vs the smaller teams in 2013/14: unable to break them down, the lack of Cesc very well being the primary reason for this.
The hex colour code for white is #FFFFFF. When red blue and green are at their most intense, white is presented on computers and in a way, this could be a metaphor for what Conte sees in this Chelsea team. He already has David Luiz providing creativity from deep in that libero role and Hazard is given the licence to roam, within a system, so perhaps adding Fabregas to the equation regularly would be seen as blanking out the creativity already afforded in the players chosen and the way the system itself is implemented.
Walter Mazzari’s rendition of this system at Napoli in the late and early 2010s also had Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami being the engine room for the expressive players in Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik in order for their creativity to shine without detracting from the defensive shape of the team. A proliferation in the appreciation of hard working ball winning midfielders in general has returned across Europe and has further aided in making Fabregas a peripheral figure. Before, it was a task of being able to cover the most ground and be competent in both defensive and offensive capacities but the emergence of Josep Guardiola and his Barcelona team caused a change in how the world had viewed the role of the midfielder. However, after much manoeuvring in trying to make it work at lesser levels with lesser talents, such ambrosial football was seen as something that could only be achieved by those coached in that discipline from a young age. Thus, the return of the ball winning midfielder and 3-4-3, with its variations, is a formation that gives these players a platform to return to being in demand again, as detailed in Michael Cox’s assessment of Oriol Romeu, a former Chelsea DM. The continued selection of Matic ahead of Fabregas lends itself to supporting this thinking and change of times. The incessant links to Tiemoué Bakayoko and recently Idrissa Gueye are perhaps a show of Conte’s opposition to the #FFFFFF idea aforementioned, using the midfield to protect the creative influences in defence and in attack, whereas not so long ago it would have been the area of the pitch that was a given to offer some sort of creativity.
In the end, Fabregas will always be able to provide the colour that the fans across the world want to see in football. He will forever brighten the play of whatever team he plays for and is a talent that will be rightly regarded when he finally decides it is time to hang up his boots. Alas, the footballing world is moving more and more towards structure and pre-planning and the beauty is shifting from those that provide the colour. The adage of beauty being in the eye of the beholder rings true in all aspects of life. Conte being the beholder and computers being the system, Chelsea’s midfield may start looking towards the 00 end of the hexadecimal scale. Unfortunately, Fabregas’s relegation, despite the pointed demonstrations of his need to play, to a bit player could soon be the start of players in his ilk being tantamount to Jackson Pollock’s art and some appreciators of football may be disappointed if this transpires because for them it is what makes much of the beauty in it.
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