Since moving to the Camp Nou for a reported £34 million in 2011, former Arsenal talisman Francesc Fabregas could largely call his time in blaugrana inconsistent. While more than 30 goals and 30 assists in two years is nothing to sneeze at, Cesc has struggled to find a spot in the starting eleven. Due in part to the excellence of his immediate competition in Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, and Xavi Hernandez, one can also point to the serious dips in form Cesc has suffered in both seasons’ respective second halves. Although starting 53 Liga games since arriving (only Messi and Alves started more in that period), he typically found himself passed over in larger matches after a string of disappointing performances (most notably versus A.C. Milan and Real Madrid). Moreover, Cesc’s seen himself shunted around the pitch in a variety of roles since arriving at the club. Sometimes deployed behind Messi in an attack minded midfield role, and sometimes orchestrating play in the "Xavi" role, Cesc even found himself making more than 10 appearances as a false 9 -- replacing Lionel Messi when the Argentine was injured. Truth be told, Cesc just has never quite gelled with the rest of the team. Described as an "anarchist" by Pep Guardiola, Cesc’s English-bred vertical freedom saw him struggle to fulfill the demands of a midfield structure requiring extraordinary precision and discipline.
Inconsistent positioning, inconsistent playing time, and inconsistent production have led to a host of rumors about Cesc leaving familiar surroundings in Barcelona for the damp streets of Manchester. While the ex-Arsenal man’s experience in England and fabulous versatility make him an attractive prospect for United manager David Moyes, both the player and the club seem opposed to the move. Barca simply can’t afford to sell another midfielder after allowing highly rated youth product Thiago Alcantara’s move to Bayern Munich. Lessened competition for places in midfield, Xavi’s continual decline with age, a new manager in Gerardo "Tata" Martino, and the lack of a recognized centre forward option beyond Messi make this Cesc’s year to shine.
Barcelona’s current midfield setup pits seven players for three spots: Sergio Busquets, Alex Song, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Sergi Roberto, Jonathan Dos Santos, and Cesc Fabregas, with JDS highly expected to leave, be it through transfer or loan. A year into his time at the club, Alex Song still looks unimpressive, while newly promoted Sergi Roberto has impressed in preseason but is still very inexperienced. With Thiago out of the way, Cesc’s importance to the midfield doubles, since he’s the only midfielder directly capable of taking over for Xavi and Iniesta should either one become injured. Sergi will get his time, but as this is his first season with the first team expect his playing time to increase gradually; he won’t be thrust into a starting role versus Real Madrid. It’s important the club and fans remain realistic about Sergi’s abilities and refrain from thrusting too much hype and pressure on him too quickly. If he is the real deal, he will show the club that over time. Cesc, however, demands the spotlight because he’s spent two years with the first team already, and must prove his longevity. When clubs are willing to pay €40 million for his signature the question becomes "Is Cesc the right fit for Barca long term, or do we take that 40 million and invest it in a player like Eriksen or Ilkay Gundogan?" Right now, Cesc deserves to stay, but the next 11 months have a huge influence over whether that opinion expands and includes a new contract.
This decision becomes particularly important given Xavi’s decline with age. As Lee Roden notes in his article for TalkSport, the club probably should have already created a plan for continuity, but given more pressing issues, the club’s continued to rely on a man pushing 34 years of age who’s battling a recurring Achilles tendon injury. Cesc is not a like for like replacement; however, he must prove over the next year that he is the man for the job. Barcelona’s struggles in the Champion’s League were directly related to Xavi’s exhaustion and inability to dominate a game like he could a few years ago. For both rotation and eventual replacement reasons, Cesc must take every opportunity granted to demonstrate his skill, vision, and capabilities as both an orchestrating playmaker and a functional asset for Barcelona’s five year future.
The man who has the biggest influence on this (besides Cesc, naturally), is new manager Tata Martino. Known for his subscription to Bielsa-inspired "Verticalidad," or Verticality, there’s little doubt he’s relishing the chance to utilize one of Cesc’s greatest strengths: powering forward from midfield and creating havoc in defense with his late-arriving runs. In this respect, Cesc now has the chance to flourish in a system more suited to his natural style. Where Pep and Tito failed to effectively combine Cesc’s inspiration with the pattern of flowing tiki-taka movement, a new start under Martino could be just what the doctor ordered. Again, however, Cesc must prove himself, but in garnering a starting spot his chances have dramatically improved given Tata’s tactical approach.
Most beneficial for Fabregas this season is that he’s irreplaceable at this exact moment by any single player available for transfer. With David Villa’s transfer to Atletico, the club lacks any real backup for Lionel Messi at the centre forward spot, and with Thiago plying his trade at Bayern, there’s no other capable false 9 at the club either. Cesc becomes the only experienced back up at both centre-forward, orchestrating midfielder, and attacking midfielder, and could probably make a capable pivote to boot. Much to the contrary of Cesc not feeling valued, he makes a compelling case for one of the most valuable players at the club.
F.C. Barcelona completely depends on Cesc: perhaps not as a starter at this exact moment, but rather what he provides for depth, rotation, experience, and style. This coming season will test him more fully than any previous year. In his response to Tata’s new look Barca side, in his potential as a Xavi replacement, and in his capability in a variety of positions, Cesc Fabregas, a player everyone loves to hate and hates to love, will be a vital cog in the machine over the next year. This is his chance to seize the opportunity and establish himself as a Barca legend.