Cesc Fabregas is not a forward by nature, but you wouldn't necessarily know that just by looking at the teamsheets this season. In 17 starts in La Liga and the UEFA Champions League, Fabregas has played in midfield 9 times, with the remaining 8 coming as a center-forward.
With Lionel Messi's injury, Fabregas has been forced into the role, and the former Gunner has taken some criticism for his performance upfront. Manager Tata Martino has begun to look at other options - Neymar bagged his first hat-trick playing in the spot - but it seems he has not given up on the idea.
Fabregas was instrumental in Barcelona's stirring comeback from 0-2 down. He assisted Pedro's first goal which gave the Catalans self-belief and scored two insurance goals late on to make the final scoreline 5-2.
That was his best performance starting at CF in La Liga or UCL this season, having produced only one goal beforehand from that spot. By comparison, he has scored 5 times and assisted 8 others playing in his favored role, albeit in one more game.
Martino played Fabregas in the forward line even in the Clasico against Real Madrid. Fabregas himself was not exactly brilliant but he did a good enough job, and Barca won 2-1.
Despite possessing great vision and a fine touch, Fabregas lacks the speed and elusiveness of Neymar or the killer instinct in front of goal of Messi.
Barcelona have only drawn once and lost twice this season in La Liga and the UCL, but coincidentally or not, Fabregas has played center-forward in all three games. He was poor in the 0-0 draw with Osasuna: though it was encouraging he took 4 shots, only 1 hit the target - a tame one, at that.
In the 0-1 loss to Atheltic Bilbao, Fabregas took only 1 shot, and it didn't hit the target. That's entirely too meek for a striker when your side doesn't have a goal. And in the 1-2 loss away to Ajax, Fabregas had possibly his worst game this season. Again he took only one shot, which missed, but this time even his passing was ineffective.
It's much harder to think of Fabregas playing that poorly in midfield. You could say that in matches such as the 4-0 win against Ajax, Cesc wasn't contributing as much... but those are less frequent when he's allowed to play in the middle of the park. Importantly, it's less noticeable that Cesc is not scoring from that role since it's primarily a striker's responsibility.
It's not difficult to see why Fabregas keeps playing in the CF spot. He's got an eye for goal, though he can be inconsistent. He is comfortable dropping back in midfield, making runs, and firing through-balls, an important quality in a false nine. Lastly, he has some height and bulk to him, and while he lacks elite speed, he is not exactly slow. He's neither a Messi nor is he a true pivot.
Fabregas has done a good job in the spot in important games, including the Clasico this season and in Spain's triumph at Euro 2012 - when David Villa was out injured and Fernando Torres was ... Torres. It's a decent emergency plan, but maybe that's all it should be.
Messi is obviously the first option, but after that, Fabregas has been the next in line. It seems Martino is moving to making Neymar the second option, but it's clear he still thinks Cesc should be at least third in line.
Maybe even that spot needs to be re-thought. Fabregas is a brilliant player, but it's become apparent he's not a natural striker. With Xavi and Andres Iniesta likely to be rotated a lot more this season, it seems there's still a lot of space for Fabregas in midfield. And with Lionel Messi set to return, the issue can be pushed aside for a while.
Even though his last performance as a striker was encouraging, the numbers show Fabregas is just a lot better when he plays in midfield. Maybe he should only play forward as an emergency, not as the primary backup plan.