It seemed like the dream return. Barcelona paid €29m to bring Cesc Fábregas back from his English exile and everything immediately clicked. On his debut last August Barca beat rivals Real Madrid in the Spanish Supercopa, and in his second appearance he scored as Porto were seen off in the European Super Cup. Wags noted that Cesc had won two trophies in nine days, after six barren seasons at the Emirates. It was like he had never been away.
The good times continued once the season proper got going. There was another goal on his full La Liga debut as Villarreal were hammered 5-0. Cesc and Lionel Messi looked ever so happy as they relived their teenage La Masia years, reading each others’ minds and scoring and assisting at will.
By the time the first clásico of the season came around in early December, Fabregas seemed to have settled perfectly and even brought something extra to Barcelona’s game. He scored a back post diving header as the Catalans won 3-1 at the Bernabéu - the kind of ‘English’ goal which Barca had not really scored before. And he netted again in the following week’s Club World Cup Final as Barca outclassed Santos 4-0. All was going swimmingly. By mid-January Fábregas had 14 goals and five assists in his first 23 games.
That was then. In the 20 games since he’s only scored once, and now looks to have gone seriously off the boil. The reasons for this seem to be mental and tactical rather than physical. There was a hint when he spoke the day after January’s 2-2 Copa del Rey second leg draw with Real Madrid. Barca had been coasting in that game, but were overrun in midfield in the second half and slightly lucky not to get caught out by a Madrid comeback.
Cesc said then that his eight years in the Premier League had not prepared him to play the ‘Xavi’ position of ‘interior’.
“I always want to get forward, as I was used to at Arsenal, where the football is more energetic,” he said. “Playing as an interior, by contrast, means you have to have more discipline, to keep your position, and sometimes I lack the patience of Busquets and Xavi. It is not easy. You have to learn the movements within the ‘software’ that the coach has created. Although I played here as a boy and picked up all these things, it is not easy to catch it all now. I am the first to demand that of myself.”
Although he was happy to have scored so many goals, that was not how a Barca midfielder was judged.
“You should not judge me by the goals, because I am not a goalscorer,” Fábregas said bluntly. “I was not happy with my performance. I have to improve a lot. When you play alongside those who play so well, like Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets, and you are not at their level it looks you are playing badly.”
It did look like he was playing badly, and Barca coach Josep Guardiola began to take action. With Fábregas in midfield Barca were drawing 1-1 against Atlético at the Calderón with just 15 minutes left. Guardiola replaced Cesc with Pedro Rodríguez and the Canary Island-born winger was soon fouled for the free kick which Messi converted to win the game. At 1-1 with only ten men at home to Sporting Gijón the following week, the ex-Arsenal man was again taken off, and Barca won that game too. It obviously wasn’t all his fault, but a pattern was forming.
So it was no real surprise when Fábregas was dropped for Seydou Keita for Barca’s Champions league quarter-final first leg 0-0 draw away at AC Milan, and stayed on the bench even as ‘Pep’ introduced Pedro and Cristian Tello to try and win the game late on. He was then left out of the match squad completely for Racing away the following weekend, with Guardiola mentioning a light back strain while reporters wondered if the coach was administering another Gerard Piqué style kick up the behind.
Injured or not, Cesc started the return Milan game and his side progressed, although again without a goal or assist from the ex-Arsenal man. The dream return has soured at least a little, and it cannot be easy to go from being the star man who everything revolves around at Arsenal to a second-tier player, no matter how many Supercopas you win. Fábregas has now been substituted in five of his last six appearances, which he is unlikely to be enjoying.
In last Tuesday’s pre-game press conference for Barca’s Champions League semi-final first leg against Chelsea, he stressed that he was enjoying the tactical (re-)education he was currently undertaking.
“I’ve learned a lot, especially tactically,” he said. “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 to. I have to think tactically, and that’s the thing I feel I have improved on. I feel more mature as a player.”
There was a feeling that he was trying to convince himself as much as those listening that things were going to plan back at home. At Stamford Bridge he played in a very advanced midfield role, staying close to Messi, and in the first half broke forward to have two excellent chances. He missed both and as the game went on, instead of linking intuitively with the Argentine, he seemed more to be getting in his way.
It was no shock when, with time running out and Barca looking short of ideas, Fábregas was again withdrawn. It was actually more of a surprise to see him starting the game at all, and may have been an emotional more than tactical decision from his coach - with Guardiola knowing it would be a further blow to the players currently fragile confidence to be left out on his return to London.
This persistence from Guardiola could now be harming Barca’s season. A lot of the Catalan coach’s tinkering with tactics this year (especially the regular attempts to get 3-4-3 to work) have been at least partly to do with fitting Fábregas into the same midfield as Iniesta, Xavi and Busquets. When they line-up in their more comfortable 4-3-3 shape Iniesta is often played out on the left-wing, which he doesn’t particularly enjoy, and where his tendency to drift inside can play into the hands of massed defences.
This was clearly the case against Chelsea - with Iniesta and Alexis often coming inside and Chelsea relatively comfortable blocking up the centre. Guardiola recognised this by sending on Pedro and Cuenca late on, a ploy which had worked the previous weekend in La Liga at Levante, and almost did again with Pedro hitting the post in injury time. The smart money is now on one or both wingers starting next Tuesday with Cesc again watching from the bench.
Dermot Corrigan is an Irish freelance writer living in Madrid and writing about football at Sport 360, Fox Soccer, When Saturday Comes and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.