Thierry Henry received the ball on a turn in the first leg of Arsenal’s 2006 Champions League quarter-final match against Juventus, and found a then-18-year-old Cesc Fabregas making a run into space. Fabregas, who was given Patrick Vieira’s #4 jersey after the Frenchman left for Juve a season prior, wrong-footed Gigi Buffon and slid the ball into the net. It was a coming of age performance for the Spanish midfielder who left Barcelona and moved to London at age 16. Henry later admitted that he and Fabregas developed a bond so strong during that era that they have spoken to each other “every two or three days” over the past 11 years. That friendship takes on a new context with Henry, as Monaco manager, calling upon Fabregas to save their season from relegation. The move presumably ends his 13-year run in the Premier League, including his most recent run at Chelsea in which he won two league titles, capped off by an 18 assist season in 2015 under Jose Mourinho.
We don’t need the hundreds of YouTube compilations to know that Fabregas could pick a pass. In replacing Vieira in Arsenal’s midfield, the Spanish midfielder personified a larger shift in playing style under Wenger and the larger footballing world emphasizing possession. Fabregas’ instinct and freedom playing alongside Gilberto Silva and Mathieu Flamini in midfield culminated into a fluid 2007-08 side that is revered as one of the best English team to never win a title. Fabregas was then named Arsenal captain the following season at just 21-years-old, but Wenger insisted that Fabregas had all the qualities of a leader regardless of age. Most cynically, it was a way for Wenger to keep Fabregas amid rumors of a desired return back to Spain.
He would eventually return to Barcelona in 2011. On the surface, Fabregas had everything required for a Barcelona player, including being of the vaunted Barcelona DNA: he was technical, could pass, and he could move. Yet Fabregas may have been too free and instinctive. His childhood friend Gerard Pique discussed how Fabregas struggled between the freedom afforded under Wenger to the more strict, positional play instituted under Pep Guardiola. He would, according to Pique, have to forgo some of his intuition to play within the collective order of Barcelona. Fabregas’ style was caught between two worlds, for better or worse. Should he had returned to Spain in the first place? By that metric, should he have even left for Arsenal as a teenager at all?
His instincts did play a significant role in his on-field understanding with Messi. His off-ball movement could destabilize less physical sides in La Liga, adding an x-factor to otherwise metronomic passing sequences. Fabregas said he roamed where he felt dangerous and played like a #10, but with the mentality of a goalscorer, revealing that his freedom is what made him dangerous but also threatened to throw off a team’s balance at the same time. Despite this conflict with Guardiola, Fabregas’ role as a false nine during his time with Barcelona was one of the tactical innovations of the season. Guardiola cited Fabregas’ inherent ability to pop up in dangerous places but with a midfielder’s skill. At their most fluid, the interchange and lack of set positioning between Messi, Iniesta, and Fabregas up the middle with Pedro and Alexis Sanchez out wide created a 334 formation.
The beginning of Fabregas’ career coincided with an era where the footballing world was obsessed with replicating Spain’s passing model. But the Premier League’s influence through Fabregas, Fernando Torres, and Xabi Alonso added variety and directness to Spain’s national side as well. Fabregas was employed just behind Fernando Torres in attacking midfield as Spain won the 2008 Euros. And Fabregas did provide the most important assist in national team history, picking up a second ball and playing Andres Iniesta through on goal to beat the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup final. Fabregas’ masterpiece, and the height of the false nine role, came in Spain’s 4-0 win against Italy in the finals of the 2012 European Championships. Their opening goal came through Fabregas surprising Giorgio Chiellini with an incisive run. He was at his most dangerous with the ball in space, anywhere on the field, regardless of position.
It was a month of nostalgia for Fabregas. In addition to joining Henry, he and Messi also bought shares into Andorra FC, the Catalan club owned by Pique.
That shared history between the trio was significant in shaping their careers. Fabregas recalls, at age 13, the first time he was matched up with Messi during a one on one drill. “I was confident he was not going to get past me, but straight away he left me on the floor with his first go. I made sure I did the exercise with someone else after that”. That trio was so dominant at the youth level that tales of winning matches 32-0 are now part of lore.
There is an alternate Fabregas footballing timeline where he, Pique, and Messi play their entire careers at Barcelona. But his movement between the Premier League and La Liga ensured that he’d add something unique to each league, whether it was passing and vision in England or the unpredictable movement in Spain. That’s also without considering the breadth of his teammates and managers throughout his career. Henry is on a short-list for the greatest striker in Premier League history, and Messi is arguably the greatest player of his generation. He’s played in midfields alongside Xavi, Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets. He started under Wenger, Guardiola, and Mourinho, not to mention Antonio Conte. After becoming the faster player to reach 100 assists in Premier League history, Fabregas said he was proud of his achievement because he was never the fastest or strongest player.
It is interesting to see analysts placing Fabregas’ time in the Premier League within a historical context without the benefit of hindsight or time, such was his impact and quality. He changed the prototype of a Premier League midfielder and foreshadowed the importance of having a David Silva-esque creator. Even simpler, he is one of the greatest midfielders in Premier League history. In speaking about that Barcelona youth side that featured Fabregas, Pique, Messi, coach Alex Garcia said that the “generation will never be repeated”. It’s appropriate we assess Fabregas amongst his peers to see what exactly made him a revered midfielder. By himself, of course he has world-class technique. But alongside the likes of Henry, Messi, and Pique, his instincts created attacking threats out of structure and shape, able to both create chaos and find the order within in it. And he did so in Spain, in England, at the international level, and now for Henry, in France.