[By Andrew Goh]
Chelsea’s 2-0 victory over Arsenal was notable not only for extending their unbeaten run that had also, prior to the match, included the likes of Everton, Manchester City and impressive giant-killers Leicester, but also for the nature of the goal that secured them the three points – a lob from Diego Costa following a long ball from Cesc Fàbregas.
It was a simple goal, but one that showed just how Chelsea, in typical Mourinho fashion, have ruthlessly eliminated their lack of creativity and finishing last season – Costa is very much the kind of striker the Portuguese favor, one capable of scrappy moments as well as sublime.
Fàbregas, however, is a different matter. Traditionally, Mourinho has preferred physical players over technical, ball-playing ones – this is a man who’s won the Premier League previously without a true playmaker in midfield (with Sneijder and Deco arguably the only ones he’s willingly used in his managerial career). However, another trait of Mourinho’s is adaptability, and he’s shown this not only by using Fàbregas, but by placing him in an unorthodox position.
The Spaniard has been, in the last few seasons, considered more of an attacking midfielder than a central midfielder (which is part of the reason Barcelona decided to let him go) but has regularly featured in a double pivot this season. He’s done that before in the 2007-8 season for Arsenal, with Mathieu Flamini covering for his aggressive, direct runs. This time around, it’s Nemanja Matić, a good, all-round defensive midfielder.
This has been largely successful; not only does Fàbregas have the space to dictate play, but also to make unmarked runs and slide through-balls in behind the opposition’s defense. With the standard approach (for lesser teams) being to sit deep and soak pressure before countering, it’s difficult to mark Fàbregas out of a game, if not outright impossible.
However, this is not without its disadvantages – despite being positioned deeper, Fàbregas doesn’t defend as much as a player stationed there would be expected to, and his runs forward can expose Matić. To compensate, Mourinho has regularly used Oscar as a ‘defensive playmaker’ – he drops deep to cover for the former’s runs, and helps press higher up the pitch too, which means Fàbregas is essentially responsible for most, if not all, of Chelsea’s creative play.
The Arsenal match showcased this brilliantly. In the first half, they played cautiously, denying their former player space, and Fàbregas was forced to play unambitious side passes or circulate possession to the flanks. In the second, he got more space as Arsenal rallied to find an equalizer, and promptly created two chances, one of which ended up being an assist:
Defensively, it was a complete contrast as Arsenal forced him to scrap in the first half, exposing his defensive limitations. With him playing alongside Matić, Arsenal had chances to break through, and until the assist for the second goal, he had little impact:
In the end, Mourinho’s usage of Fàbregas will always be a double-edged sword – he guarantees offensive end product, but against better teams in this unorthodox position, he’s also a defensive liability. Chelsea were fortunate that Arsenal’s attackers rarely clicked together in the final third, but in the long run, and league-wise, Fàbregas’ presence will win more points than it’ll lose.