Cesc Fabregas: 'A pioneer, not just an assist machine for Arsenal and Chelsea'

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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?”

Arsene Wenger made Fabregas the youngest player in Arsenal’s history when he handed him his debut, aged 16 years and 177 days, in a League Cup tie against Rotherham on 28 October 2003. He won the 2005 FA Cup with the Gunners and played in their 2006 Champions League final defeat by Barcelona

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’

Premier League
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.

What was it like playing Fabregas? “He would arc his run back to his goalkeeper to collect the ball and be off again, driving forward and dictating play,” Jenas explained. “If the move broke down, he would go back to the keeper again, demanding the ball. You would be so deep defending that you could never get close to him, so every time he was on the ball he was always running at you.”

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’

Cesc Fabregas intervenes in the aftermath of Jermaine Jenas’ challenge on Gilberto Silva – Jenas was sent off

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,