Half of Europe is trying to, but no-one plays football quite like Barcelona: the style is unique, and it demands a very specific skillset from the players.
One result of this is that new signings have to adapt; it’s rare for a new arrival to play the same role at Barcelona as they did at their previous club. David Villa was a central striker with Valencia, while at Barcelona he plays wide-left. Alexis Sanchez was a winger and then a number ten at Udinese; now he wears the number nine shirt and often plays upfront. Javier Mascherano was a holding midfielder; now he’s a centre-back. If you don’t adapt, you don’t fit in. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was sold after a season because he couldn’t adjust his game, while Alex Hleb’s didn’t have the mental capacity to adjust to Guardiola’s regime.
The tale of Cesc Fabregas is more complex. He trained at Barcelona until the age of 16 before moving to Arsenal. There, he spent one-third of his life and the majority of his serious footballing education in London, trained in the Arsenal youth academy and brought up to play in the Premier League. Arsenal and Barcelona are often likened in footballing style, but Arsenal move the ball forward more quickly—Arsene Wenger’s best sides played with pace rather than hoarding the ball like Barca do.
Therefore, like Villa and Sanchez, Fabregas had to adapt. The problem is it’s not clear what he’s meant to become. He arrived at the club as something of a number ten, the highest Arsenal midfielder in a 4-2-3-1. Barcelona don’t play with a 4-2-3-1, and therefore they don’t play a ten. They haven’t for years, which is partly why Juan Roman Riquelme didn’t fit in. Deco, who played at the top of the midfield in a 4-3-1-2 at Porto, had to drop deeper.
But which way is Fabregas going to move? At the start of the season he was pushed into the forward line beside Lionel Messi, and surprised everyone with his goalscoring. Now, Pep Guardiola prefers deploying him much deeper in midfield.
The key word here is patience. The word describes Barcelona’s passing style, it also describes one of the few qualities Fabregas does not have. But this alone doesn’t solve the problem, for Fabregas’ impetuousness affects him regardless of which role he plays. When moved forward at Arsenal, he said, “Now, my position is higher up on the pitch, sometimes I don’t touch the ball as often as I used to, so I have to be patient.” But when talking about adjusting to a midfield role at Barcelona, he says “Playing as an interior means you have to be disciplined, to keep your position, and sometimes I lack the patience of [Sergio] Busquets and Xavi [Hernandez]. It is not easy.”
When high up he wants the ball too quickly, when in midfield he’s too keen to get it forward. He acknowledges this, saying “I always want to get forward, as I was used to at Arsenal, where the football is more nervous.”
Clearly, Guardiola has tried to change his style. Earlier in the season he described Fabregas as bringing ‘anarchy’ to Barcelona’s finely-tuned system, while some coaches at Barcelona were shocked by how direct Fabregas was, accusing him of making Barcelona’s play ‘too English’. He’s still adjusting. “At Arsenal I was free to do whatever I wanted, and tactically I wasn’t good at all. Here I have to work much more for the team and be married to my position. I can’t just go wherever I want, I have to think tactically, and that’s the thing I’ve improved upon.”
But there remains a danger that Fabregas could be coached out of what makes him special. His best moments at Arsenal came from his directness, and when Spain used him as a supersub at the World Cup two years ago, he brought an added burst of ambition to their play—generally replacing the slower, more thoughtful Xabi Alonso. Spain didn’t win the World Cup from tiki-taka—they won it because they combined tiki-taka with more direct options: Fabregas, Pedro Rodriguez, Jesus Navas, Fernando Llorente. They had a plan B, C, D and E, all of which were more direct than their natural ideology, and all of which were needed at some point in the competition. But at Barcelona, the directness comes from Messi and Sanchez, the two major Barcelona attacking options not available to Spain.
I remember reading an interview with England rugby player Jonny Wilkinson back in the early 2000s. I’ve no interest in rugby, but found it fascinating that Wilkinson said he’d become the greatest kicker in the world by completely changing his physical technique and mental preparation, and that there was a period of transition between the two styles, where he could do neither to a high standard.
That seems to be where Fabregas is at the moment. He’s not offering a goal threat nor contributing to great build-up play. He was left out of the Clasico starting XI, a fair decision considering his poor performance at Stamford Bridge last week, but Messi lacked the support Fabregas had been providing early on this season.
Now Barcelona want him to play in a less vertical way. The time has come to look for a replacement for Xavi, especially with nagging injury problems (though don’t be surprised he’s still playing for Barca in four years time) and Fabregas might be the man. But, at the moment, he’s a less able replacement than Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets or Thiago Alcantara.
Fabregas looked up to Guardiola when at La Masia—“He was a hero for me…I learned from watching him, the way he passed the ball and calmly controlled the game”—and to suit Guardiola the coach, it seems Fabregas will have to mimic Guardiola the player.