Statistics and trophies give you some idea of the impact Cesc Fabregas has made in English football, but he should be remembered as a pioneer as well as an assist machine after leaving Chelsea for Monaco.
Whenever I faced Cesc, even when he was just a teenager, I saw him as a Barcelona player in the Premier League.
We are more used to seeing that sort of midfielder in England now, with the likes of David Silva and Bernardo Silva at Manchester City, but when he arrived from Barca’s academy, Cesc was the first of his kind.
What the Silvas are doing now – covering a lot of ground and making things happen – Fabregas was doing 15 years ago in a 4-4-2 formation for Arsenal… and he made it work.
Until he broke into the Arsenal team in 2003 as a 16-year-old, when you played the Gunners there were giants all over the pitch. Suddenly you had little Fabregas there instead.
You would look at him and think “what is going to go on here?”
But while he was small, he was very mature for his age and also intelligent and so elusive. He was always on the move and he never played the obvious ball, which made him very dangerous.
He was a new type of midfielder for us to deal with and every time I played him, I thought: “I don’t want to have to handle this.”
‘One of the greats – and a different kind of threat’
|Most assists (all-time)||Most chances created (since 2003)|
|1. Ryan Giggs (162)||1. Cesc Fabregas (845)|
|2. Cesc Fabregas (111)||2. Steven Gerrard (827)|
|3. Wayne Rooney (103)||3. Frank Lampard (801)|
|4. Frank Lampard (102)||4. Wayne Rooney (734)|
|5. Dennis Bergkamp (111)||5. Stewart Downing (727)|
|6. Steven Gerrard (92)||6. David Silva (710)|
When I think back to what it was like to play against some of the other outstanding midfielders of that era, then Steven Gerrard would just run all over you, and could tackle and shoot from distance. Frank Lampard would always get goals whatever you did to try to stop him, and Paul Scholes was the pass-master.
Like Gerrard, Lampard and Scholes, Cesc will go down as a Premier League legend. It was just as horrible to play against him as it was to go up against any of those three, but he offered a different kind of threat.
By that, I mean he would go into areas that others wouldn’t. He was happy to receive the ball anywhere and, although he did not look like he was very strong, he was so nippy and sharp you could not get near him.
As a teenager, he never really had a huge range of passing – I found that came later when he was not able to run as much with the ball.
But back then, when he was with the Gunners, he was able to dribble very well and drive through midfield to make things happen, and he was always so fit as well – a lot fitter than people ever gave him credit for.
I had some good battles with him over the years while I was at Newcastle and in north London derbies with Tottenham, and he was just constantly up and down the pitch, demanding the ball and always driving his team forward.
‘He moaned a lot – he was annoying on the pitch’
Last summer’s World Cup, when we were both pundits for the BBC in Russia, was the first chance I had to really sit down and have a chat with Cesc.
I never knew him well when I played against him and, I am not going to lie, he was a bit annoying on the pitch.
Like a lot of the Arsenal team of that time, he was a moaner – and Cesc did moan a lot. If you tackled him, or anyone else, he was always the first one to get in the referee’s ear about it.
He contributed towards the only sending off I had in my career, in a big way.
In the opening game of the 2005-06 season, I was playing for Newcastle at Highbury and went in for a tackle with Gilberto Silva.
It was not a great challenge, but it was not a red card. It got rescinded less than 24 hours later, so it clearly was not that bad.
But Cesc was straight into the face of referee Steve Bennett. I ended up having an argument with Fabregas about it, saying “come on I have hardly touched him” but he had done his job.
I walked, we were down to 10 men after half an hour – and Arsenal won 2-0.
‘Gaining an advantage for your team is what clever players do’
Cesc has always been clever off the ball as well as on it – you might remember him playing a part in getting Fernandinho sent off in a mass scuffle when Chelsea played Manchester City in December 2016.
If you look back at Cesc’s career, he has probably been caught up in a few situations like that where people want to take his head off, because he has done something to them that the referee could not see.
I have never seen anything wrong with that myself – it is down to the opposition to maintain their discipline.
By doing that, he is just trying to gain an advantage for his side – just like he is when he is speaking to referees – and he was probably taught a lot about it at a very young age at the Barcelona academy.
So it is not as if I had Cesc down as a bad person or anything like that, but it was still nice to spend a bit of time with him over a glass of wine in Moscow, to get to know him and talk about what life is like for him now.
He was great company, and he spoke highly about a lot of the young lads who are coming through at Chelsea now, and how he helps them, which I also thought was impressive.
‘His biggest attribute – dictating the tempo’
Cesc has packed a lot into his career for club and country but I probably remember him best for one of his early appearances for Arsenal, in the 2004 Community Shield against Manchester United.
Around that time there was talk of me going to Arsenal and I watched that game so I could take a look at their midfield.
I was expecting Gunners boss Arsene Wenger to change things around a bit, but I saw Cesc, who had just turned 17, take on the likes of Roy Keane and I thought “my god, this kid is unbelievable”.
And he was. He proved at such a young age that he was capable of dealing with practically every stressful situation by constantly getting on the ball. He demanded it more than anyone else.
Cesc’s biggest attribute was his ability to dictate the tempo of the game, and the flow of the match.
Right from the start he could orchestrate a lot of that. There is a lot to admire about him, but you also have to remember he came over to play in the Premier League at such a young age, and did not just adapt to it – he flourished here.
He was never the biggest tackler but even as a teenager he thought he was the king on the pitch and that was the aura he always possessed when you went up against him.
I find it strange that he never won the main Player of the Year award – he was PFA Young Player aged 20 in 2007-08 – but I think his timing was a bit out with Arsenal.
If he had come through a couple of years earlier, he would have had a much better side around him but, as he emerged, the ‘Invincibles’ team that won the title in 2004 was just starting to break up.
Instead he was part of Wenger’s rebuilding process, which obviously had its ups and downs, before he left to go back to Barcelona in 2011.
‘He has picked a good time to leave the Premier League’
I did not play against Cesc when he returned to England with Chelsea in 2014 but I watched him a lot, and his first season at Stamford Bridge was possibly his best of all the time he had in the Premier League.
When he was Arsenal captain he had some unbelievable years but, after joining Chelsea, he was pretty phenomenal with some of the things he was doing.
Whether he was deep-lying or got pushed a bit further forward, he had a huge impact in making sure they won the title under Jose Mourinho that year.
You have to adopt your game as you get older – and I still think to this day that he has done that brilliantly – but, at 31, Cesc has probably picked a good time to leave the Premier League.
The tempo of the game in this country catches up with everyone in the end, no matter how good you are, and I think he was finding it more difficult because he was not playing week in, week out.
If you are not a regular, then you lose sharpness on top of getting older so, to prolong his career, he needed to go to a club where he knows he will play regularly.
With his old Arsenal team-mate Thierry Henry being Monaco coach, they obviously know each other very well and I am sure he will get the best out of him.
Because Cesc did not get many individual awards, there is always the question of whether he gets enough recognition in this country for what he has achieved, but I think he does.
I would hope that the Arsenal supporters still appreciate him even though he left for Barca – nobody could blame him for that – and it was Wenger who chose not to use his option to buy him back.
But even if he does not get the credit from English fans – which I think he does by the way – then he 100% gets it from the players.
The people who played with and against him have got a lot of respect for what he has done in this league, year after year, and he will go down as one of the greats.