How slow Cesc Fabregas thrives among midfield pace and athleticism
It was a significant 24 hours for a very particular subcategory of footballer. Soon after man of the match Cesc Fabregas had orchestrated Chelsea's restorative 1-0 win over Manchester United on Sunday, the gently descending career of Andrea Pirlo was finally, formally brought to an end by New York City FC's defeat to Columbus Crew in the MLS Cup playoffs.
The world is down one exquisitely glacial midfielder, but another has offered convincing proof that he is still relevant at the highest level. Both developments begged the same question: will there ever be another elite-class midfielder who effectively cannot run?
Pace is a valuable footballing currency, but it has not always been a clear-cut case of the haves and have-nots. The pacey -- even if that is their only notable attribute -- may well be praised as such, but the paceless are not necessarily condemned.
Take Teddy Sheringham, a relatively dynamic player in his youth who matured into a subtle strike partner at Tottenham and Man United imbued with the mythical "first yard in his head." John Terry's peak years of the mid-2000s at Chelsea came with the caveat about his often leaden feet, which in turn was mitigated by his superior "reading of the game," the saving grace of many a one-paced defender before him. Pace has been so highly valued that, without it, players in any position have had to compensate with something extra special.
A glaring lack of speed is usually expressed in two contexts: either the loss of it over time -- to devastating effect -- that blunts a striker's edge (Michael Owen, for example), or the simple observation that they never had it in the first place (Terry).
In Fabregas' case though, it is more about his glaring lack of pace compared to those around him in any given Premier League midfield. It is a spectacular slowness, quite fascinating to watch, if only because of how frequently he gets away with it.
Many midfield skirmishes for Fabregas become brief hare-and-tortoise situations, where a more nimble, athletic and urgent opponent tries to impose themselves on him, only to somehow finish runner-up as he steps away with his head up to move the ball upfield.
Even his passes -- short or long -- seem to be delivered in slow motion, rather than pinged or zipped around as the Premier League often demands from its engine rooms. His crossfield caress of the ball to Cesar Azpilicueta drews gasps from the home crowd in the build-up to the decisive goal at Stamford Bridge, not because of its inch-perfect quality but because it had gently rolled beyond the lunging boot of Marcus Rashford who was ready to intercept and break on the halfway line.
When Fabregas opts to keep hold of possession for himself, it's not so much dribbling as a careful prodding of the ball until he decides what to do with it next. Great midfielders of modern times -- Zinedine Zidane, above all -- appear to enjoy far more time on the ball than they actually have. Fabregas has survived thanks to a similar (if slightly less graceful) habit of bending the time-space continuum; his passes are often released right at the last possible moment before a tackle flies in, giving the impression of a man flirting with the very limits of his own fast-twitch muscle fibres.
None of this, though, adds up to an accusation of a lack of effort. Where Pirlo's other-worldly calmness -- which perhaps peaked with the embarrassment of a huffing-and-puffing England at Euro 2012 -- became his late-career USP, Fabregas often looks on the verge of an minor implosion: hair everywhere, a look of overworked anguish, as he reaches for loose balls and slides into half-speed tackles.
The Spaniard only turned 30 this year, but can often look truly ancient when forced to cover some emergency defensive ground; his running style is a sort of casual trot, even under pressure. His willingness to attempt the hard yards flies in the face of his actual ability to do so, which often lends him the unfortunate look of an engine running on fumes.
That emphatic lack of mobility -- over which Fabregas himself has never been in denial -- can be cruelly exposed. Watford threatened to almost literally run away with the game at Stamford Bridge recently, slicing straight through Chelsea's soft middle until a late comeback turned it around. Then, at Roma in the Champions League, the scenario Fabregas dreads the most unfurled itself: at 2-0 down, he gave the ball away to Aleksandar Kolarov and had to drag himself back, in vain, at a speed that made it look like he was in a wind tunnel, to watch the third goal go in.
The all-round relief when N'Golo Kante returned from injury to take the burden of sheer mileage from Fabregas against United was palpable. No longer occupying Pirlo territory -- with the game in front of him, ready for the lock-picking long pass -- Fabregas was free to wander into the pockets of midfield breathing space.
Amid the telescopic limbs of Tiemoue Bakayoko and Nemanja Matic, and the relentless scampering of Kante and Ander Herrera, it felt right that there should still be a place for the more considered, thoughtful probings of Fabregas.
While his midfield peers chased, harried, wrestled and recovered, he remained governed by the eternal rule of letting the ball do the work. Once again, there was nothing explosive about what he did: even his corners are floated in towards their intended target without a hint of haste, no matter what the state of the game.
Perhaps his insistence on doing everything at his own pace explains his top-level longevity, an admirable survival among the fittest. With Pirlo ambling into his own sunset, Fabregas is one of the last remaining tortoises among the hares.
Adam Hurrey analyses the language of football. You can follow him on Twitter: @FootballCliches.