For a player who has won pretty much everything in his career, it’s fascinating to hear Cesc Fabregas talk about very different types of successes in football: infrastructure, guidance, trying to keep up – both with younger legs and deeper pockets.
The 34-year-old has three league titles to his name, two in England and one in Spain, a motley collection of nine cups, domestic and super, plus the small matter of the World Cup and European Championship with his national team. A Champions League success ultimately evaded him, being a losing finalist with Arsenal against Barcelona before spending three seasons at the Camp Nou which were directly, and frustratingly, bookended by European successes.
He’ll have one more chance this year, albeit as huge outsiders, as Monaco earned a top-three finish in Ligue 1 last year to return to Europe’s elite – pending a very tough qualifier against Shakhtar Donetsk.
As difficult as that final step toward the group stage looks, it’s a walk in the park compared to the task which awaits Les Monegasques domestically: the small matter of already dominant Paris Saint-Germain having added a plethora of world-class talent to their squad, including new star attraction Lionel Messi.
Being former teammates, there’s naturally a huge amount of interest in the Argentinian’s arrival as Cesc sits to a start-of-the-season discussion, explaining to journalists how the younger players at Monaco are essentially in dreamland at the prospect of suddenly going toe-to-toe with one of the game’s icons. Or with the “goat”, as the squad’s kids will perhaps refer to him.
“It’s big news for France and Ligue 1, nobody expected it four days ago,” Fabregas says. “All the boys are excited, they have a lot of enthusiasm to play against Messi and some of them have been dreaming of it – for them it’s a really good thing and they don’t stop asking questions. It brings even more motivation and confidence to do well and make something special. We have to not think about PSG – we don’t play them until mid-December. The youngsters are already asking me to get his shirt!”
PSG’s moves in the market aren’t restricted to the now-former-Barcelona star. Achraf Hakimi is the big-money signing, but Gini Wijnaldum, Sergio Ramos and Gigi Donnarumma all joined on free transfers, too.
As Fabregas points out, it feels a little like a reaction to last season where PSG not only failed to repeat 2020’s efforts in reaching the Champions League final, but also fell short in Ligue 1, where Lille pipped them to the title.
“When PSG don’t win the league it’s a ‘disaster’. Everyone says it’s a one-team league but Monaco and Lille have been in the middle of it to put the brakes on [their dominance].
“It’s not an easy league like some people think. As a coach I’m sure [Mauricio] Pochettino prefers a fantastic squad with pressure on rather than the other way around, but they must have pressure when you create a super team. It’s obvious they want to win the Champions League, they’re trying to catch it for a very long time.
“Leo is the best, Gini one of the best, Hakimi the best right-back... it’s like the final push. The line is so thin between winning and losing.”
Up against all that, can Monaco win? Can anybody else in France’s top flight? Probably not... but it was probably not last year, too, and they did. There is talent in Ligue 1 outside of PSG, particularly when looking to younger players and “interesting projects” with clubs, as the Monaco midfielder puts it. Rennes continue to make good moves in the transfer market year on year, Marseille and Lyon keep trying to recapture past glories, and Nice have a very exciting-looking attack this term, with Denmark Euro 2020 star Kasper Dolberg and genius attacker Amine Gouiri now joined by Dutch duo Justin Kluivert and Calvin Stengs.
The theme of building teams with young players is of course twofold, hoping for bravery and exciting play on the ball, but also to capture rocketing interest and prices when their form ignites. It’s the same at Monaco, where Cesc is one of only two outfield players aged 30 or over, the other being captain Wissam Ben Yedder.
Summer signings Myron Boadu (age 20), Ismail Jakobs (21), Jean Lucas (23) and the on-loan Alexander Nubel (24) are typical of the modern approach to team-building which leaves Fabregas as an extension of the coaching team when he’s on the pitch – which isn’t always. He knows and accepts his role, which he is very much taking as a crash course in coaching with a view to entering management “quickly after retiring”.
“The closer the end comes, the more thoughts come to mind [about coaching] but at the same time I love football and I enjoy training every day with the boys and I feel I can still play.
“The way [manager] Niko [Kovac] likes to play is very aggressive, intense sprints, and this is something not so much into my game. But I’m learning, improving, doing good numbers, and I still feel with energy to play. It’s my last year and then we’ll see where my head is. Here are young players to learn, ask questions, they want to improve and let themselves be advised and for me it’s great to have that. Some were born when I started playing!
“Kovac is a little bit like a teacher in school with young players, he repeats things we need to improve and how it’s done. He is a really good man, has his ideas and he dies with them. It’s very interesting to learn a lot from him and teaching me face to face how he prepares. I have a really good relationship with him.”
Fabregas makes the point that he has reached the stage of his career when he understands what football is outside of winning trophies. After all, when he joined Monaco, they were one place off the bottom of the table, yet last season reached the cup final and qualified for the Champions League. Perhaps it would be a fitting end to his time at the Stade Louis II if, given the summer arrivals in Paris, they ended the campaign one place off the top.
BT Sport is the exclusive home of Ligue 1 football in the UK and Ireland, with around 200 top-flight clashes available to watch this season. For more info, visit btsport.com
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