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Ligue 1

Cesc Fabregas: "Messi isn’t normal... believe me"

Cesc Fabregàs talks exclusively to AS about Monaco, Messi, Neymar, his Spain career and the coaches that have shaped his playing style.

Cesc Fabregas: "Messi isn’t normal... believe me"
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How are you finding Monaco?

Good. Last year I came here with the goal of making sure the team stayed up. We achieved that and this season the challenge is to do more. Hopefully we can look up instead of down, although we haven’t started the season very well.

Monaco are a better side than current results suggest…

Bear in mind that when I arrived we had 17 people out injured. Of the side that won the league and got to the Champions League semi-finals only four are still here: Falcao [who has now moved to Galatasaray] Sidibe, Subasic and Glik. Since then we’ve changed practically the whole squad twice. It’s a club that sells well, particularly the young players. But when you have to replace 70 percent of the squad, you pay the price. 
It’s not always the case but sometimes, like last season, it’s an uphill struggle. The objective last year was clear: stay up by whatever means possible. This season we’ll try to compete to qualify for the Champions League. Let’s see if the new signings all fit in well.

Is Ligue 1 very different from the Premier League or LaLiga?

Absolutely, the Premier League and LaLiga are on a completely different planet to Ligue 1. But there are always great individual talents coming out of France. All the big clubs come here to sign players. Obviously PSG are the dominant force but even they lose sometimes. Last season they lost four games in a row. But usually they have plenty to spare. It’s a very physical league, lots of counter-attacking football, games are always very open and played at a frenetic pace… but tactically there’s a lot of room for improvement.

Taking into account the World Cup and last season’s Champions League, do you think football is becoming a more physical game?

These days we train to defend well. Sometimes teams like Liverpool defend so well that they give themselves enough security at the back to pressure up front. And then there are other teams who don’t have that defensive solidity so they have to sit back and hit on the counter. There are more and more teams like that these days. The method Manchester City, Barça and Madrid use of dominating possession, you see that less and less. Even Barcelona play more conservatively now than they used to. Yeah, I’d say that  above all in the Champions League, Premier League and LaLiga most teams are moving in that direction.

Iniesta, Xavi, Silva and you were the flag-bearers for a different type of possession-based football…

Andrés and Xavi had the good fortune to play at Barcelona with the likes of Ronaldinho and Messi… if they had been at other sides, like Atlético or Chelsea with Conte when I was there, they would have had to adapt. Those teams don’t play such open football.My situation is different because I came through the system at Arsenal. We liked to keep the ball, but we were also amazing at hitting on the counter. Since I was a kid I’ve had to take on different roles, I had to adapt under Mourinho and Conte… I’ve been through a lot of changes in my career.

You’ve never been noted as a player with pace to burn… has that hampered you?

I always wish I was faster. I’ve thought about it a lot down the years: if I’d had more speed in my legs… but then maybe I wouldn’t have been such a quick thinker. I could never rely on pace, I knew that very well, and because of that I had to invent a pass, or a one-two. I dribbled via the pass. I’ve always had to adapt to football. If I hadn’t been able to do that, maybe I wouldn’t have made it as a player. Between the ages of 21 and 25 I had a bit more speed, but I’ve never been a fast or physical player. I’m aware of that.

You sound like you’re talking in the past tense…

Well, I’m in my 17th season now [laughs]. I’m talking in the past tense because of everything I’ve experienced. But I feel like I’m in good shape, I’m still playing and I’m always in the top three in terms of distance covered in a game. I’ve always been a diesel rather than a Ferrari. A bit like Xavi. We play at the same rhythm. We’re always involved the game, popping up here and there.

You’ve been coached by some of the best in the game, from Del Bosque to Wenger…

I’ve been very lucky. I’ve played under Luis [Aragonés] and Del Bosque with Spain. At club level, I’ve had Wenger, Mourinho, Guardiola, Tito Vilanova, Conte, Sarri, Jardim and Thierry Henry. That’s a lot of coaches and they’re all different. What makes me most proud is the roles I’ve played under them all. For Wenger I was the leader, under Guardiola I was a false nine, I played as a defensive midfielder with Matic when I was working with Mourinho, the same with Conte, and with Sarri I was a solo defensive midfielder. All of them made me a better player, above all in the head. I learned how to read the game more effectively.

Is the natural progression for a midfielder to gradually move towards the back end of the pitch?

Absolutely. When I reached 27, under Mourinho, and especially over the last five seasons, I’ve gradually played deeper and deeper. 

I’d like to ask about Ligue 1 players who are now your opponents. What do you make of Mbappé?

He’s a phenomenon. He’s clearly going to be the best player in the world in the future. I always think like a midfielder and if I had him in front of me I’d be giving him assists all the time because he’s so fast, explosive, but he’s also very clever in slipping his markers. He has his timing down perfectly. Henry and Diego Costa were also brilliant at that. The thing that stands out about Mbappé is that he’s so hungry, he knows how to exploit his ability.

And Neymar? Will he rediscover his form and be the player he was again?

I played with him. The best players never lose their touch. Sometimes due to things in your head or because you have a coach who doesn’t know how to get the best out of you, you play below your ability. But if you’re a great player, you always will be. And he’s a great player.

You’re good friends with Messi and Piqué. Would you have liked  to play with them more than you did?

Of course. I was with Gerard for nearly ten years, including the youth teams and the national side. I would have liked to enjoy playing more with Leo. I had a bit of bad luck in that respect. The first season we had together we had a great understanding. But the two following seasons was when I had my worst time with injuries. I wasn’t at my best at key moments and that affected everyone, including Leo.

Cesc Fabregas of Spain in action during the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 Group B match between Nigeria and Spain

You know him very well so the question is… will be there another player like Messi in the future?

I think that’s probably impossible. We’ve seen the likes of Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, amazing players, but Messi has been the best for 15 years. He’s in his 17th season and he’s been the best since he was 18 years old. I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe. Every three days he scores goals, he heads off to play for Argentina, he come back jet-lagged and scores a hat-trick… that’s not normal, believe me.

And Hazard? You’ve played with him as well.

I love him, I’m one of his biggest fans. I spent five seasons playing alongside him. He’ll be a game-changer at Madrid. It’s a fact that when you’re at Real Madrid you have a lot of expectation on your shoulders, but he has the quality to deal with that.  

Did you ever have the opportunity to play for Madrid?

There were a lot of talks with Florentino, and with [Ramón] Calderón…

Would you have been up for it?

If I had been, I’d have been a Madrid player. They called me more than once or twice. The first time I was very young. I was 18 and they offered me a big salary, but I felt like I belonged at Arsenal. Wenger had bet the farm on me. I couldn’t leave. In any case, I’ll always be grateful to Madrid for the way they treated me. When I was 23 I had a serious calf injury and they sent me a really nice message. I’m grateful for their interest in me but I always dreamed of playing for Barça and if I felt that way it was for a reason. It all worked out pretty well for me.

In terms of Spain, was your international career ended too abruptly?

It came to an end in a way I didn’t see coming. I played at Euro 2016 as a starter and, in my own opinion, I played very well. We got Italy with Conte in charge and they played me in a very reserved role. It was the worst possible fixture we could have got. Bear in mind Conte had just agreed to take over at Chelsea and I’d met with him in April. I knew exactly how they’d play: a rigid system, players up for a scrap, Bonucci, Chiellini,De Rossi… If we’d beaten them we could have gone on to win the tournament. Then [Julen] Lopetegui came in and he called me to say they were going to bring in younger players and try something different, and that was the last I heard and I haven’t been called up since. But I can’t complain. That’s the way it goes in football, nobody
remembers anybody. I’m aware of that.

Is it the case that the earlier you reach the elite, the sooner you leave it?

It could be the case that people get tired of it. Football takes it out of you and that’s more the case these days than before. Before, people could play until they were 40, but that’s much more difficult now. You’re burned out at 34. I just listen to my feelings. 
Physically, we’re monitored now by GPS and I know I’m in good shape. But in terms of football, I need to feel alive. I’m not a defender who needs to be fast, and I’m not a striker who needs to score goals... at my pace, I can still play. 

Will we ever see another Spain side like the one you played in?

I doubt it. We were dominant for a few years: 2008, 2010 and 2012. We were pretty much untouchable. I remember the final against Italy in 2012. We put on an exhibition. We asked the referee to blow the whistle. He added three or four minutes and we asked him to cut it short because we were bossing it.

How will Cesc’s story end?

I don’t know. I still want to play. I’m still enthusiastic and in my head I’m still in the zone. I’m happy when I go in to train and I get angry when I lose a game. As long as that’s still the case I’ll keep going. Although it’s true that now I analyse the game more than I used to and I feel a coaching instinct that I didn’t have before. We’ll see.