Cesc Fabregas’ key pass stats lay bare Chelsea’s lack of clinical finishing

Cesc Fabregas had fewer assists in 2017/18 than in any season since his debut for Arsenal in 2004/05. Chelsea’s forwards bear much of the responsibility, as their lack of clinical finishing brought Fabregas’ key passes to a dull end.

Cesc Fabregas finished the Premier League season with only four assists: fewer than Willian, Cesar Azpilicueta and Alvaro Morata. This was only the second time he had under five assists in a season. As a 17-year old at Arsenal he had two assists in nearly the same amount of playing time.

However, Fabregas also made more key passes in 2017/18 than in all but two seasons. He connected on 91 passes that directly resulted in a shot. He only exceeded that mark twice before, with 95 key passes in each of 2009/10 and 2014/15. Yet in those seasons, he had 13 and 18 assists, respectively – two of his best seasons.

The ratio of key passes to assists is a useful reflection of a what a team does with their playmaker’s service. A key pass is the final pass before a shot, and an assist is the final pass before a goal. A team with clinical finishing – through some combination of smart shot selection and effective shot execution – will have playmakers with a low ratio. For someone like Fabregas who has a reputation of always finding the perfect pass, a significant deviation in his ratio could reflect a change in tactics (e.g., he is playing in a different position or is distributing his passes to less dangerous areas) or reflect the people around him.

Fabregas’s key passes per assist ratio in 2017/18 was over twice as large as the second-highest season: Chelsea’s forgettable 2015/16 campaign. The ratio was 3-4 times as high as any other season going back to 2009/10, when whoscored.com’s statistics begin.

Cesc Fabregas played in much the same role for the usual number of minutes last season. Most of the players around him took more shots last season than they did in the title-winning 2016/17 season. Of Chelsea’s players with over 20 shots in the last two seasons, Eden Hazard, Pedro, Victor Moses and N’Golo Kante took fewer shots in 2017/18 than 2016/17. However, Hazard and Pedro put more shots on target. Additionally, those four players reduced their shot count by fewer than 10 shots over the season. Marcos Alonso and Willian, on the other hand, increased their shot total by over 10.

Only so much blame can fall on the striker. Morata took 32 fewer shots than Costa, but he played 1000 fewer minutes. They had nearly identical rates of shot-taking: Morata took a shot every 26.1 minutes, and Costa took a shot every 27.8 minutes. But Costa scored every 154.5 minutes, where Morata took 187 minutes between goals. Still, this is another way of saying Morata only needed 1.5 more shots per goal than Costa.

Key passes are a bit of a shared statistic. They reflect the decision-making of the recipient as well as the quality and position of the pass. Whether a key pass becomes an assist, though, is much more dependent on the recipient than the playmaker.

Cesc Fabregas did everything he could to create opportunities for Chelsea’s forwards. He provided the final pass 91 times, but his teammates could only convert four of those into goals. Chelsea’s deficiency in finishing by no means confined itself to the No. 9. The difference between Chelsea’s title-winning seasons and their grim follow-on seasons was not the lack of effective or creative service. It was the drop in clinical finishing.

Throughout the season the Blues were criticized for their lack of a killer touch in front of net, the ability to complete a build-up with a goal. Cesc Fabregas would be justified in joining those critics. His teammates brought down his top-line statistics, particularly the one that has defined his career.