With five games to go, a four-point lead and a rather gentle remaining fixture list, Chelsea are in pole position for the title. Few would have expected that when manager Antonio Conte's reign started with tame performances and nervous victories back in August; even fewer would have predicted that Cesc Fabregas would play a significant part in the Blues' title run.
Conte's arrival appeared to be bad news for Fabregas: There were strong reports that the new manager was keen to sell because he simply couldn't find a place for the Spain international in his structured midfield and didn't consider him a good team player. Fabregas didn't help himself by being dismissed for a poor tackle in a preseason game against Liverpool, and it was no surprise when he was omitted for Chelsea's opening matches of the campaign. N'Golo Kante played the deep midfield role, with Nemanja Matic and Oscar playing disciplined roles just ahead, holding their positions and covering for the runs of Chelsea's full-backs.
Fabregas was largely restricted to appearances in the Capital One Cup. But in the second of these, a 4-2 win away at Leicester in September, he produced two goals, which prompted Conte to hand Fabregas his first start of the campaign at his former club, Arsenal. It proved disastrous, with Arsenal counterattacking through Chelsea and going up 3-0 at half-time.
Famously, this was the match in which Conte moved from 4-1-4-1 to 3-4-3, and the substitution to mark this revolution was Marcos Alonso coming on and Fabregas going off to jeers from the Arsenal fans. Considered ill-suited for a three-man midfield because of his poor positional discipline, Fabregas had even less chance of making it into a two-man midfield.
Indeed, it was fully two months later -- in part because of injury -- that Fabregas next appeared in the Premier League. Starting away at Manchester City because Matic was injured, Fabregas and Chelsea were overrun in the first half, unable to cope with Kevin De Bruyne's clever movement. Yet Fabregas provided guile, creativity and incision, assisting one of the season's crucial goals: his long pass found Diego Costa, who brought the ball down and smashed home to equalise. Coming just moments after De Bruyne had somehow missed an open goal and with Chelsea going onto win 3-1, it felt like the moment they confirmed their title credentials.
The fact remains that Fabregas isn't considered suitable for Conte's system, which is all about the forward trio being supported by Alonso and Victor Moses pushing forward and forming a front five. Matic and Kante form a solid "M shape" with the three centre-backs and as a result, Chelsea are almost never caught out on the counterattack.
Fabregas is the epitome of a luxury player -- someone who can only really be accommodated when Chelsea are already in control of matches, or when the game is so defensively secure that they can afford Fabregas' "anarchic" style as it was regularly described when he disrupted Barcelona's system.
This season, Fabregas has made just 10 league starts, compared to 14 substitute appearances. But there's something irresistible about him because there are few players in European football so capable of creating goals. His statistics this season are extraordinary. Only De Bruyne, Christian Eriksen, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Alexis Sanchez and Wilfried Zaha have assisted more goals despite the fact Fabregas has started less than one-third of Chelsea's matches.
Fabregas has created a chance every 25 minutes, the best rate in the Premier League, and assisted a goal every 130 minutes, which is almost off the scale. It's true that Fabregas' limited minutes mean this is a small sample size but these stats are supported by Fabregas' overall career. He's now assisted 102 goals in the Premier League, the second-highest number in the competition's 25-year history. He's moved past Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney, the only others in treble figures, although is still 59 behind Ryan Giggs.
Fabregas' tactical indiscipline has essentially defined his career. He started off as a classic, Barcelona-schooled deep-lying playmaker and made his Arsenal breakthrough in that role, but he increasingly pushed forward to become more of a box-to-box midfielder and then, someone who played at the head of a midfield triangle.
When returning to Barca, he often dovetailed with old La Masia chum Lionel Messi in the No.9 and 10 positions; he won Euro 2012 for Spain playing up front. In the opening game against Italy he was a false nine, dropping deep into midfield, but by the final against the same opposition, he was essentially just a centre-forward, playing on the shoulder of the last defender and providing clever touches in the penalty area.
Indeed, "midfielder" maybe doesn't really do Fabregas' skill set justice. In the same way Premier League observers are increasingly realizing Dele Alli plays in such an advanced role that he's a forward and a midfielder, Fabregas probably deserves that same freedom.
Under Jose Mourinho, he was used both as a No.10 and in a deeper role alongside Matic; neither position suited him perfectly but his extraordinary assist rate justified his positional freedom. In one match against Newcastle during Mourinho's spell, Fabregas was fielded alongside Matic, who actually beckoned for him to drop back alongside him and into position before the match had even kicked off. Such is the extent of Fabregas' wandering tendencies.
Players in Fabregas' mould, who desire (and sometimes deserve) a free role, are a dying breed. People have said this about mavericks for years but in a tactical sense, it's surely now true. When you witness the likes of Spurs' Alli and Eriksen providing crucial assists and goals yet also playing a crucial part in their side's pressing, you realize that the "free role" is increasingly untenable. At top clubs, perhaps only Mesut Ozil, whose presence at Arsenal effectively denied Fabregas a return to the Emirates, is allowed that freedom without any question he might ever be omitted.
Conte might not use Fabregas for this weekend's trip to Everton; Ronald Koeman's side offer strength and creativity in midfield meaning Matic might be considered a better option. But Chelsea's next four games are all against comparatively weak sides who will sit deep: a trip to West Bromwich Albion and home games with Middlesbrough, Watford and Sunderland. Fabregas may have his limitations, but in home matches against clearly inferior sides, no other Premier League midfielder is so capable of breaking down the opposition.
Fabregas is a disastrous "team player" in terms of his positioning, but an absolutely perfect "team player" in terms of providing.