32 players to watch, January 2010

Player To Watch #24: Cesc Fàbregas

Number 24: Cesc Fàbregas

Country: Spain

Position: Midfielder

Club Team: Arsenal

American-Based Professional Sport “Soulmate”: 1990 Steve Young, QB, San Francisco 49ers, NFL

Francesc “Cesc” Fàbregas is at the top of his game and on top of the world. He’s essentially a 22-year-old kid who captains Arsenal, London’s favorite football club (yeah Chelsea I said it, now go buy a new helmet for your non-World Cup goalie). But Fàbregas doesn’t just wear the armband for Arsenal; to put it in American sports terminology, Fàbregas is the franchise. At this point in his career Cesc leads the English Premier League in assists year in and year out, and he’s only 22! The high-falutin’, high-vocab British soccer announcers often describe Cesc as “talismanic,” and he backs it up.

Not only do the Gunners have a much better record when he’s on the field, but it seems like every other week Fàbregas does something really special for Arsenal. As if to illustrate this point he put on another show a weekend ago. Recovering from a minor knock, Cesc started the game on the bench as a precaution but was subbed in for an infusion of offense to try and break the nil-nil tie, and that he did. Cesc obviously knew it was his turn in the spotlight on the Yanks list of 32, so he promptly beat American keeper Brad Friedel with a masterful free kick and then again on a breakaway.  Making what could be an exceedingly long blog post just a bit shorter, Cesc Fàbregas is the man. So why doesn’t he start for Spain!?

One word: Xavi. He’s the incumbent “quarterback” of Spain’s exceptional midfield. He’s old, but he’s still good enough to win the two most coveted UEFA titles back-to-back (Euro 2008 with Spain and UEFA Champion’s League with Barca). Xavi and Cesc play the same position, but their games are so different, and this is really where the Joe Montana/Steve Young comparisons firmly take hold. Xavi is Joe Montana. He’s late in his career but a drop off in his play has been fairly imperceptible. He makes the safe passes, plays within the system, and is still capable of the spectacular.

But just as much as Xavi is Joe Cool, Cesc Fàbregas is Steve Young. He’s got more flare to his game; he’s faster and “throws” the long ball more often. In soccer terms, it wouldn’t be false to say that Steve “got forward” more often than Montana ever did, and the same is true of the very offensively-minded Fàbregas. And finally, this comparison even holds up with regard to playing time for the Spanish national team. Xavi starts as he should, just like Joe Montana always did for the late 80’s Niner’s, but just like Young, Cesc Fàbregas is part of the game plan. Steve Young would come in for a play or a series at a time, and fireworks were the norm when the change-of-pace QB with the wheels and the big left arm came in. Fàbregas can’t come in and back out for Spain, but he’s subbed into most games for the Red Fury, and he usually notches a goal or an assist even in this limited action.

If you were an NFL fan back in the late 80’s-early 90’s you know how the Montana/Young story ended. Joe was traded to Kansas City and Young took the reins for San Francisco. Montana had a few good years with the Chiefs, taking them to the playoffs. Young meanwhile won two league MVP’s with the 49ers, was robbed of another (Brett Favre undeserving). More importantly, Young brought another title to San Francisco in 1994/95, famously asking a teammate to take the monkey off his back when the Super Bowl victory was well in hand.

The Xavi/Cesc Fàbregas situation will probably follow the same pattern. This is most likely Xavi’s last World Cup, and Cesc is the next guy to lead Spain’s midfield. There’s also a good possibility that Fàbregas returns to his native Barcelona when Xavi is done at the Spanish super club.

But the here and now is even more compelling than the future for Fàbregas. When he comes into games for Spain in South Africa he’ll likely be brought on to provide an offensive spark, something he almost always delivers. And adding to the excitement of a super-talented Spain team in need of goals turning to their young gun for help, it’s usually not Xavi who comes off to make way for Cesc. So get your popcorn ready when defensive midfielder Iniesta is removed in favor of Fàbregas, because unlike in American football, you’re basically getting to see Joe Montana and Steve Young on the field at the same time.

Jon Levy