Cesc Fabregas is happier now than he has ever been. The midfielder, who made his 300th Premier League appearance in Chelsea’s 3-1 win against Swansea, opened the scoring on Saturday afternoon and afterwards lavished praise on his manager Antonio Conte before insisting that he has little intention of leaving the club anytime soon. “I have made a statement and I made it clear I want to stay at Chelsea,” was his unequivocal response to one inquiry into his future plans.
It hasn’t always been like this. Fabregas feared for his place in Chelsea’s starting XI when Conte moved to south-west London and his concerns were validated when he was left on the bench for Conte’s first five Premier League matches. His first start came away to Arsenal – a game Chelsea lost 3-0 – leading to another prolonged spell on the fringes and increased speculation over his future.
Fabregas’ response, rather than to agitate for a transfer away from Stamford Bridge, was to strive to prove to Conte that he did possess the necessary attributes to fit into his relentlessly high-tempo 3-4-3 system. He achieved that aim in quite comprehensive fashion against Swansea: marking his first Premier League start since Boxing Day with a combative appearance, during which he touched the ball more than any other player.
Fabregas vs Swansea, in numbers
90 minutes played
125 touches of the ball
84.8% passing accuracy
5 key passes
It was a distinctly all-action performance – the once-languid Fabregas working just as tirelessly as N’Golo Kante beside him – and one that the player hopes has proved that he has adapted his game to Conte’s full-blooded style of football.
“I understand that there were doubts when the manager came in, because he wanted to see if I could adapt and if I could understand that,” Fabregas admitted after the Swansea match. “I know that I am somebody who wants to play with the ball and maybe not focus so much on the defensive side. But I have adapted to the way he wants to play and hopefully I can play more.
“With Antonio as manager, I am learning new things, new situations, new manners, new football and a new philosophy. It all makes a difference and it makes it entertaining. I know sometimes I am not playing as much but, even in training, I am learning.
“I am in a good situation and hopefully I have reversed the situation from the beginning of the season, and hopefully I can keep playing well to keep my place.”
Fabregas is one of the most experienced players in Chelsea’s relatively young squad and the club dearly needed his maturity in their 3-1 win against Swansea, which was far less routine than the score-line might suggest. Fernando Llorente’s powerful header on the stroke of half-time cancelled out Fabregas’ early goal, with Chelsea requiring late efforts from Pedro and Diego Costa to seal all three points.
Without Fabregas’ mature perspective, something he readily admits has not always been a part of his character, it is unlikely Fabregas would still be at the club.
Rumours of a move to the MLS and, more recently, Serie A have followed the midfielder in recent weeks. And Fabregas acknowledges the “easy way out” of his predicament would have been to stir up dressing room unrest. But the Spanish international had no desire to sacrifice his part in Chelsea’s title charge so easily.
“In the beginning, when I didn’t play, I told people to not even speak to me because I was really upset,” he said. “But now that changes with time, age, maturity and experience, which all help you to understand that the most important thing is always the team. Don’t get me wrong: I want to play. But sometimes you have to fight for it.
“Sometimes the easy way is to escape, to run away, to sulk and to want to leave or to create a drama. But in my mind, I decided that I wanted to challenge myself. Not everything comes easily in life and you have to fight in certain situations when things go against you.”
Fabregas – his season in numbers
17 Premier League appearances
6 Premier League starts
3 Premier League goals
5 cup appearances
2 cup goals
He’s certainly had to do his fair share of fighting, having started a grand total of just six Premier League matches this season with Conte favouring the more destructive Nemanja Matic as Kante’s central midfield partner.
But it is precisely this desire to fight and battle on that has convinced Fabregas his place remains in London , a city that he “loves” and where “everyone here treated me like a son from day one.” For Fabregas, an elite player whose club career has taken in spells at Arsenal, Barcelona and Chelsea, a move away from Europe is something to be considered only when he knows he is no longer able to compete with the best.
A suggestion that he could move to the Chinese Super League is even laughed away with the remark “I am only 29!”: clearly Oscar’s much-maligned comments that he left Chelsea for Shanghai SIPG for ‘a new challenge’ didn’t exactly wash with his former team-mate.
“When my brain tells me that I cannot do it anymore, then I will move, probably away from Europe,” adds Fabregas. “I’ve been at the top with Arsenal, Barcelona and the Spanish team, but when I feel I am not at the top, top level anymore then it will be the right time for me to go.
“But for now it is all about Chelsea and performing here. Until the day comes that Chelsea tell me they do not want me and that I can leave – which happens to everyone – I am thinking day by day.”