Pep Guardiola effectively ending Joe Hart’s Manchester City career may have hoovered up the headlines during the Premier League’s opening weekend, but Chelsea chief Antonio Conte benching Cesc Fabregas was surely the bigger surprise.
Nemanja Matic was the favourite to give way to N’Golo Kante after the France international’s £30m switch from champions Leicester, with Juventus and Manchester United reportedly keen on signing the 28-year-old.
We should have known better after Italy’s exploits under Conte at Euro 2016, when 6ft-plus pair Daniele De Rossi and Marco Parolo did much of the leg work in the Azzurri midfield.
Even in their 1-0 loss to Republic of Ireland at the end of the group stage, when Italy were already guaranteed top spot in their pool, 6ft 2in Thiago Motta and 5ft 11in Stefano Sturaro were tasked with patrolling the centre of the park.
With that in mind, 6ft 4in Matic was always likely to be a key figure for Conte considering Kante, diminutive in size but not stature at 5ft 6in, commands a first-team spot following his big-money switch from the East Midlands.
Fabregas – who at 5ft 9in may have looked tall at former club Barcelona, but doesn’t anywhere else – won 0.6 aerial battles per match on average last term, while Matic managed two in Chelsea’s first Premier League fixture of the new campaign against West Ham.
Operating in a slightly more advanced midfield position than he was used to under Mourinho in Conte’s 4-1-4-1 formation, the Serbian also completed one dribble, pinged two long balls and found teammates with over 86% of 66 passes in addition to his defensive duties.
Considering Matic’s Premier League pass-completion rate was better than Fabregas’ last term, at 88.1% to 84%, while winning almost twice as many aerials, making more interceptions and as many tackles on average, the Spaniard should get used to the Stamford Bridge dugout, with Kante untouchable for now.
Chelsea are 19/4 with bwin to win the Premier League this season.