Has the time come for Jose Mourinho to drop under-performing Cesc Fabregas?
The Spanish midfielder's form has been in decline for months and he has given his manager a major headache
Jose Mourinho faces a multitude of agonising choices in the coming days as he attempts to breathe life into Chelsea's season, but there is little doubt over which one will trouble him the most - the decision over whether the time has come to drop Cesc Fabregas.
The man who acted as the creative hub for so much of Chelsea's best football in the first half of last season is now a passenger, his attacking influence blunted, his energy levels depleted and his confidence apparently shattered.
Saturday's anaemic performance in an admittedly woeful team display at Everton represented the nadir, but it was far from a surprise: Fabregas' influence on Chelsea has been waning ever since the turn of the year, and if Mourinho hoped that an extended post-season break might resuscitate his marquee signing from last summer, he has been horribly mistaken.
Statistics are not always a barometer of form, but in Fabregas' case the numbers are too startling to be dismissed. Take two reliable gauges of creativity - the average number of goals Fabregas has played a key role in (i.e. either setting up or scoring) and the number of chances he has created per game:
At the start of last season, when Chelsea were at their free-flowing best, Fabregas was almost unstoppable, helping create almost a goal a game and producing 3.39 chances per match for his teammates. Those numbers dipped alarmingly in the new year, and have collapsed entirely this season: the Spaniard has yet to be responsible for a goal in his club colours and is creating, on average, just one chance per game.
It is a similar tale when it comes to Fabregas' passing.
There are two clear conclusions: first, Fabregas' influence on matches has waned significantly since the start of last season, with the player producing on average 12 passes fewer per match than he was 12 months ago; and second that his radar has become skewed, with almost five per cent more of his passes going astray this season. And while many midfielders might be satisfied with a completion rate of well over 80 per cent, for a player schooled at Barcelona and Arsenal, that slump will be embarrassing.
Yet it is not simply Fabregas' number of passes, or their accuracy, which has suffered. At its best, Fabregas' use of the ball is crisp, purposeful and pinpoint, every ball pinged with the intention of lending his team crucial attacking momentum - think his astonishing reverse pass to Andre Schurrle in a victory at Burnley last August, or the through ball for Diego Costa in the win over Arsenal two months later.
It is a striking that over 90 minutes, just one of Fabregas' passes successfully found a teammate in Everton's penalty area, while there is also a telling concentration of short, square passes around 40 yards from the home goal - in short, the kind of passing that fails to hurt teams.
Fabregas is not entirely to blame for his decline. Mourinho's decision to employ him in a primarily defensive role alongside Nemanja Matic is curious, given it effectively muzzles one of the most gifted creators in European football and discourages him from making those strong forward surges that characterise his best periods of form - in particular, that golden season he had at Arsenal in 2009-10, when he ended the campaign with 20 goals.
This touch map from Goodison Park last Saturday highlights how withdrawn he was from attacking areas: 36 of his 74 touches came in his own half, and he only touched the ball once in the Everton penalty area.
Quite why Fabregas' form has faltered so suddenly, and so dramatically, is one of the curiosities of this Premier League season. His tendency to slump in the second half of campaigns was well established even at Arsenal, but the decline has never been as marked as it is this year.
Mourinho attempted to counter suspicions that Fabregas was tired by allowing his players to return to pre-season training well after most of his Premier League rivals, on July 14, while the squad were also given two days off after the opening day draw against Swansea, which Fabregas used to return home to Spain.
Those measures appear not to have worked, and Mourinho now faces one of the hardest decisions on his second spell at Stamford Bridge: whether to trust that a player who can bend a game to his will like no other in his squad will rediscover his true self, or drop him and risk alienating one of his chief lieutenants.