Are Tata Martino’s Tactics Taking Their Toll on Cesc Fàbregas?

The change in modern football as of late has seen the majority of central attacking midfielders undergo a change that sees them provide a much needed defensive shift to carry out play. Oscar, Mkhitryan, Kroos, Modric, Marchisio, and now Fabregas are some of the Modern AM’s that contribute hugely to defense, keeping the likes of Mata, Goetze, Isco and many more out of the no.10 spot and forcing the latter majority out into wide positions.

Cesc has been rotated heavily under the Barcelona side since joining, being compared most often to Xavi. But recently under Martino the Spaniard has played as a furthest midfielder, proving to be imperative to Barcelona’s defensive systems and contributing to both channels of the pitch as well as central deep areas off the ball. This work saw Cesc often fatigued during the latter stages of the game, as he is dropped into central midfield positions or substituted completely during the last 20 minutes of the game.

Could these excessive work loads that are constantly planted on Cesc’s back be taking its toll? Well, in one of Barcelona’s recent games against Athletic Bilbao, he looked deprived of stamina as he was freed off the role of pressing the GK and forcing play long. Fabregas played very deep all game, dropping to the half line in the 1st phase and trying to exploit the huge gap between midfield and defense that Bilbao were risking the majority of the game.

Fabregas allowed Sanchez and Neymar to take up much more vertical positions because of this, but Bilbao’s ultra low block prevented penetration excellently the entire night. A 6-3-1 like formation was implemented, with the Bilbao ST hassling CM’s, wingers dropping to form a midfield block around the DM who stayed central, and CM’s dropped to wing backs.

This hugely defensive method proved its excellence, offering huge defensive stability and abilities in transitions thanks to the speed provided by the wingers. Fabregas was utilized in a number of roles to break down this block, being rotated heavily with the midfield trio Xavi and Iniesta, allowing the latter to take up higher roles while Fabregas fed full backs from deep to set up low crosses. Despite the efforts of Tata’s men, Athletic’s defense was largely solid the entire night and unable to falter.

Similar to the Bilbao game in terms of result was Barcelona’s recent match against Ajax. The game astonished thousands of fans as de Boer seemed to have taken a leaf out of Bielsa’s approach to games. He inspired an immense pressing game that would result in little or no time and space on the ball for the opposition, something that would prove to be a master stroke and the biggest test so far for Barcelona this season.

Ajax had been clearly instructed to carry out a huge pressing system, and not for the first time this season. Their 1st defensive phase was extremely aggressive, fielding up to 7 players in the opposition half. When Barcelona would progress to the 2nd phase, Ajax seemed to press from midfielders and forwards towards the ball zone with the back four staying goal side off of the opposition, allowing for awareness of the situation and ability to track back easily. The high defensive line would also be utilized whenever Barcelona aimed for a quick succession into 3rd phases from the 1st build up. This nullified the runs from Barcelona’s front three and allowed for a huge press as the back four closed space between midfield and defense.

These are just some of the points on how Barcelona were totally shackled by Ajax’s wondrous efforts, but Fabregas’ role must not be forgotten. Cesc approached the game after being picked at CF for not the first time and his task was clear: to press spare CB’s and GK’s and force the opposition into long balls. This regular pressing tactic indoctrinated by Tata is always going to require work ethic in which Cesc has been horribly victim to over his games at CF, endlessly working channel to channel.

But his defensive work in this game was clearly not up to par. The Spaniard looked hopelessly tired the entire game, which was fantastically noticed pre-game by Ajax manager Frank de Boer, who appeared to instruct his CB’s to wait for the press and slowly play back to GK. This effective tactic took its toll after a mere 30 minutes as Cesc looked incredibly fatigued, unsurprisingly due to the amount of movement he was carrying out due to Ajax’s pressing.

Tata noted his troubles, and the workhorse Pedro, stationed on RW, was instructed to carry out this pressing role, a costly but necessary call. The supposed ‘minor pressing role switch’ had a huge effect on the game, as Pedro situated wide had to work those few seconds longer to close down the space between him and the GK and CB’s. On top of this, Pedro’s role saw Cesc pushed deeper in defensive organisation, picking up the defensive midfielder Blind.

This lack of pressing in the 1st defensive phase early on from Febregas allowed a key man in midfield to progress forward as the GK could play on the ground and have time to pick out a key pass into midfield. Ajax added to Barcelona’s problems by fielding a single pivot with two midfielders advancing with wingers, creating a 2v1 deep in Barcelona’s midfield against Song.