STATS ZONE OVER EUROPE: FourFourTwo's award-winning FREE app now also covers the top flights in Italy, Spain, France and Germany (as well as England, Champions League and Europa League). Paul Wilkes - editor of the laligauk.com - uses Stats Zone to help compare two players aiming to one day replace Barcelona's legendary creative duo...
When Cesc FÃÂ bregas returned home to Barcelona in August 2011, many questioned how he hoped to force his way into the world's best midfield and whether he would simply gather splinters on the Camp Nou bench. But Pep Guardiola and director of football Andoni Zubizarreta were thinking of the bigger picture.
At that time Xavi was 31, AndrÃÂ©s Iniesta 27 and youngster Thiago AlcÃÂ¢ntara just 20. At the age of 24, FÃÂ bregas was the missing generation, as the two star creators grew older he was perfectly positioned to take over the mantel. He was signed as he knew the club and its unique philosophy, while also offering something different.
Guardiola changed the formation to 3-4-3, with the four midfielders operating as a diamond and FÃÂ bregas at the foremost tip. To begin with, it was a resounding success for Fabregas, as he netted five goals in as many starts, before picking up an injury on international duty. Between his return in late October and the end of the year, he completed a full 90 minutes of league football just twice, as it became apparent Guardiola was unhappy with his tactical positioning. FÃÂ bregas was told he needed to work on the timing of his runs into the opposition box.
At Arsenal, he was used to a little more freedom, with Arsene Wenger happy for his advanced playmakers to roam into pockets of space ready to exploit teams on the counter. At Barcelona his correlation with teammates has generally been good due to the relationships built as a youngster, but he has suffered from years of playing out of the specific structure.
Against Granada earlier this season, FÃÂ bregas played alongside Thiago, with Sergio Busquets at the base. This was perhaps a glimpse of what the midfield will look like in the future. What was apparent was the all-round nature of Thiago's game in comparison to FÃÂ bregas in the same role. The Brazilian-born youngster completed more dribbles past an opponent and more tackles, his six interceptions illustrated his assured positioning within the formation. Conversely, FÃÂ bregas made none.
Despite being the less experienced player, Thiago completed more passes than the man who provided the assist for Spain's World Cup winning goal. Four of the top passing combinations involved Thiago - with passes from the young maestro to Busquets and Lionel Messi the top two, operating as the link in transitions.
Yet the former Arsenal man was way ahead on chance creation, with five to Thiago's one, giving further evidence that when given the license to neglect his defensive duties his attacking thrust thrives.
This weekend against Real Zaragoza, Thiago excelled once more, filling the gap left by Iniesta. His goal showed his clever runs from the second line, while his assist for the second goal displayed the understanding of those making the runs around him as he combined with Cristian Tello.
In Thiago, BarÃÂ§a not only have a player who grew up within the system, but one who knows no other way. There's no confusion as nature takes over from nurture, his discipline within the style is ingrained. He has the passing ability of Xavi and the movement and industry of Iniesta; stylistically he is something of a hybrid between the two legends. That's not to say he is as a good as either or that his progression will be of the same level, but his attributes are better suited to the midfield trident than those of FÃÂ bregas at present.
Luckily for Cesc, he has found solace as the understudy to Messi in the 'false 9' role, as his recent hat-trick against Real Mallorca demonstrated, but he can't hope that his life-long friend and the World's best player picks up more injuries. As he showed against Rayo Vallecano, he can play in the midfield three, but he needs consistency. He is still adapting and re-training his mind to the ethos, though under Tito Vilanova the team is a little more direct and has lost some of its control, which certainly benefits FÃÂ bregas should Pep Guardiola's former No.2 remain at the helm.
Perhaps as a partnership they provide the balance, but as a direct replacement for either Xavi or Iniesta, it's Thiago that currently fits the bill.
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