As a boy growing up in Catalonia, Cesc Fàbregas knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: "My only dream was to play for Barcelona." The Blaugrana shirt he cherished in his youth – on which Josep Guardiola had written "One day you will be Barça's No4" – is now his own.
By returning to Catalonia, Fàbregas has come full circle. But the expectation that he would have to sit on the bench and wait his turn has proved mistaken. So too was the theory that he had been bought to revive the Guardiola role, the 'pivot' often associated with the No4 shirt – that rare fusion of circuit-breaker and power source, a player who can 'short out' the opposition's play and start his own.
For three years, FC Barcelona have largely played the same way, evolving little by little. Lionel Messi's role has gone from inverted right-wing forward to false nine, while Sergio Busquets has learned how to drop into defence so Daniel Alves and Éric Abidal can push up to counter teams who sit deep. By asking his players to reinvent themselves, Guardiola is able to maintain their focus and ensure things remain stimulating.
This is the motivation behind his experiments with the 3-1-3-3 formation used by Johan Cruyff's Dream Team, Louis van Gaal and, on occasion, Frank Rijkaard. It also explains the reinvention of Fàbregas which has drawn on Barça's knowledge of his playing style from his time at La Masia, when he was coached by Guardiola's assistant Tito Vilanova.
"Tito knew him as a kid and told me he played as a No4, but always got forward," Guardiola revealed after a 5-0 friendly defeat of SSC Napoli in August. He had opted to keep Messi on the bench and experiment with Fàbregas as a false nine flanked by David Villa and Kiko Femenía. Fàbregas scored with a perfectly timed run from deep to sweep in a cross from Adriano. If this really were the Dream Team 2.0, Fàbregas's role could have more in common with José Mari Bakero than Guardiola.
Some have called his role 'anarchic', but perhaps, in relation to his understanding with Messi, this represents a new tactical development: the false nine². While Fàbregas gives Guardiola another option, his freedom of movement creates a potential defensive imbalance. But with Barça in his DNA, this role could become second nature for a player as gifted as Fàbregas.
The full article is available in the new issue of Champions, the official magazine of the UEFA Champions League, which is out now.
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