Cesc Fabregas & David Silva: How Man City's Maestro Surpassed the 'New Xavi'

Sometimes, football defies logic. In many ways, of course, that’s the defining characteristic of sports – their unpredictable nature, and their mind-boggling twists are why we follow them so fervently. As the late, great screenwriter, novelist and general movie business savant William Goldman once said of Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.”

Clearly, as in the movie business, so as in football. Nobody knows anything. Nobody knows who will prosper and who will falter, and when or why. Just as hesitant studio executives or a box office flop can abruptly shift the trajectory of a star, writer or director, distrusting managers, tactical shifts or severe injuries can warp a footballer’s career.

But, even with all that stated, the contrasting fates of David Silva and Cesc Fabregas right now still seems strange. The latter used to be the Spanish midfield king, at least in England, and one of, if not the leading playmakers in the game.

A vaunted star of ​Barc​elona‘s La Masia academy alongside Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique, in October 2003 Fabregas became Arsenal’s youngest ever representative at 16 years and 177 days – a record that stands to this day – and went on to notch 306 appearances for the club, notching 59 goals and 92 assists. 

Despite his technical ability, which, was incidentally perfect for the fairly rudimentary style of the time, he was unafraid of a tackle, and earned an unexpected reputation for sh*thousery.

As far as precocious beginnings go, it doesn’t get much better than that. Despite being 18 months older than his compatriot, Silva, a product of Valencia’s youth system, made his debut first team outing in the 2004/05 season, and it was in the second division with Eibar. He didn’t make his first official outing for Valencia until the 2006/07 season, at the age of 20.

Brazilian Leo (L) vies with Silva of Spa

As a measure of the pre-existing hierarchy even before this, at the FIFA Under-17 World Championships in 2003, it was the Chelsea man who won the Golden Ball, with the Manchester City midfielder relegated to the ‘Bronze Ball’.

Of course, earlier and grander promise doesn’t guarantee anything. Just ask Freddie Adu, or to continue the earlier cinematic analogy, and since we’re now in the festive season, Macauley Culkin – who, spare a thought, has now been thoroughly outshone by his two brothers Rory and Kieran. A bit like, I don’t know, Kolo Toure – there, back to football.

In any case, the aforementioned status quo of Fabregas and Silva was maintained for quite a while. By the time Silva won his first piece of silverware – the Copa del Rey in 2008 – Cesc had already won an FA Cup, reached a Champions League final, been the Premier League’s top assister twice, made UEFA’s Team of the Year twice, the PFA’s XI once, won PFA Young Player of the Year, and Arsenal’s Player of the Year TWICE. Quite the haul.

(From L) Spanish midfielders Xabi Alonso

And, in Spain’s EURO 2008 Championship triumph, Fabregas was accordingly a cut above Silva, providing one goal and three assists – including two in the semi final – compared to Silva’s contribution of one apiece. The former was duly named in the Team of the Tournament, despite playing less cumulative minutes, and the latter was excluded.

This trend continued into the 2010 World Cup. Though Silva started the first game against Switzerland, and ​Fabregas was an unused substitute, he lasted just 62 minutes before being hauled off in the ignominious 1-0 defeat, and would only make one more four minute cameo in the tournament.

In contrast, Fabregas took on his eponymous role as super-sub with devastating effect, and ultimately supplied Andres Iniesta with the assist that won La Roja their first ever World Cup.

Netherlands v Spain: 2010 FIFA World Cup Final

So, how, in the proceeding years, did Silva come to, quite comfortably, outrank his compatriot. Well, I suppose it started with his own move to ​Manchester City in 2010 (agreed upon whilst he was in South Africa). But still, having said that, he was still outperformed in the 2010/11 season, with Cesc recording three more goals and two more assists than the Citizen.

Indeed, when he left these shores to return to his boyhood club in 2011, he did so with better stats in chances created, goals and assists over the previous five seasons than both Iniesta and Xavi. That last name may just be the key to this story. Because that was who Fabregas was essentially brought in to replace. 

And, for whatever reason, this contrived shift in style, attitude, tempo and the rest seemed to eventually tell on Fabregas. While he had his moments, the prodigal return to Catalonia never quite worked out. He was still an expert technician and pass-master, but he lost his propensity for the individualistic, I’ve-had-enough-of-this-I’ll-do-it-myself type runs and scores that made him so treasured at Arsenal.

Champions League - FC Barcelona v Manchester City

In the end, he left Spain a year before the man he was intended to replace did. In the interim, Silva had established himself as a member of the English midfield elite, picking up 21 goals and 50 assists in the three seasons Fabregas was away – as well as two league titles, and a League Cup for his efforts. 

And yet, upon his seminal return to London with ​Chelsea in 2014, Cesc regained his crown. He was phenomenal in that Premier League and League Cup double winning season, contributing to 30 goals, and was one assist away from equalling Thierry Henry’s record from 2002/03.

But, even then, at the tender age of 27, there were signs of deterioration. He played 520 more league minutes than he had for Barça in La Liga the previous season, and he was not the rampaging force that he was at Arsenal – the Xavi experiment had evidently curtailed this streak.

Chelsea v Sunderland - Premier League

And Silva was showing signs of increased influence. Though he amassed a lesser 26 goal contributions, 12 of those were scores himself, compared to Cesc’s five.

That 2014/15 season proved to be his last true hurrah – while he was important in Antonio Conte’s triumph of 2016/17, it was largely from the bench. 

Fast forward to the current day, and Cesc, again at 18 months ​Silva‘s junior, has accrued just 138 league minutes, in four cameo appearances. The Man City man is, comparatively, on course for one of his most statistically imposing seasons yet, and is up for player of the month awards like they’re going out of fashion. 

Under Pep Guardiola, the midfielder has learned to maximise his diminishing energy into the places where they will be most useful. His impact is only growing. Fabregas, on the other hand, seems a spent force, especially under Maurizio Sarri. 

Manchester City v Manchester United - Premier League

When he does play in lieu of Jorginho, he simply succeeds in detailing why the Italian was so desperate to bring his regista with him to Stamford Bridge.

Many cite the modern game’s highly industrious levels of pressing and counter-pressing as the reason for his decline. Perhaps his body was never built for longevity anyway, or all those years of super-subdom have inhibited his fitness in these later years, or, as posited here, his failed metamorphosis into Xavi slowed his game beyond repair.

But, watching his Spanish rival grace the west London grass on Saturday, Fabregas may well be wondering why his elder isn’t suffering from the same affliction. 

You may also like

Leave a comment