First Start Or An Impact Sub – How Should Antonio Conte Use Fabregas Against Arsenal?

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Five games into the new season, there is plenty of excitement surrounding the title race as well as the one for Champions League football. While Manchester United have experienced what many believe is akin to a mini car crash, the likes of Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal have made favourable starts to their respective campaigns. West Londoners Chelsea are tied on points with the Merseyside club and Arsene Wenger’s troops and will lock horns against the latter at the Emirates stadium this evening in one of the leablue-chipe chip fixtures.

Following last Friday’s mediocre outing against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge, Antonio Conte sparked an instant response in the League Cup, beating champions Leicester City at the King Power stadium 4-2, having been two goals down minutes before the interval. The Italian will make the short trip to North London with a bout of confidence after that result and will seek to pile more misery on Wenger as far as this particular fixture is concerned. Arsenal have not beaten Chelsea in the league since October 2011 and moreover, have failed to score a single goal in their last six league outings against their rivals. Five of those six matches had now Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho in the opposite dugout while interim manager Guus Hiddink oversaw a slender 1-0 victory for the Blues at the Emirates earlier this calendar year.  

With John Terry set to miss the derby, following his failure to recover from an ankle injury he picked up at Swansea City twelve days ago, Conte must now begin with the duo of Gary Cahill and David Luiz. While that may not reassure the Chelsea faithful, the inclusion of former Arsenal talisman Cesc Fabregas might.

The Spaniard is yet to begin a game under Conte in the league this season and has been overlooked in the manager’s preference for Oscar and Nemanja Matic, both stationed ahead of N’Golo Kante in midfield. Yet Fabregas may have just given him plenty to think about following his match-winning brace against Leicester on Tuesday. Having played an instrumental role in Chelsea’s matches against Watford and Swansea as a substitute, Conte might turn to Fabregas to unlock Arsenal’s backline once again and would certainly profit from that decision.

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While Oscar and Matic have the ability to work tirelessly both on and off the ball, Fabregas possesses a skillset they simply do not have. Once a cult figure at the Emirates, Fabregas is renowned for his vision and ability to spot gaps in defence from distance. In the early stages of the 2014-15 season, he developed a great understanding with fellow countryman Diego Costa and was instrumental in condemning Arsenal to a 2-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge. His link up play is far better than that of his colleagues as well and instances of his footballing intelligence have been well documented in the past.

Many cite Conte’s reluctance to opt for a more creative and less defence minded midfielder in his eleven as the reason for Fabregas’ league exclusion thus far. To battle the likes of Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and presumably Granit Xhaka, the Italian might favour a more combative and physically dominating midfield pack, two qualities Fabregas does not endorse. However, it is the 29-year-old’s work on the ball that propels his case. Last season’s win at the Emirates saw Fabregas at his peak. His distribution was accurate, darting runs were problematic for the Gunners and composure supreme. While he was given time and space to operate, following the early dismissal of Per Mertesacker that evening, Fabregas has often stepped up to the plate in games of this magnitude and will relish the opportunity of spearheading his side’s challenge against his former club. This, keeping in mind he understands Wenger’s philosophy and brand of football better than any other teammate in the squad.

For tactical purposes, Conte might want to hand Fabregas his first start of the league campaign. As has been the case for the Spaniard, though, the odds favour him coming on as an impact substitute in the second half. A tough decision lies ahead for the Chelsea manager.  

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