This time last year things could hardly have been better for Cesc Fabregas. He wasn’t even a month into his second spell at Barcelona, but he had returned home with a bang, winning as many trophies in two games with the Catalans as he had in eight years at Arsenal.
He even scored in the second of those games, the European Super Cup final against Porto, and his understanding with Lionel Messi, fostered in the La Masia youth academy, appeared as if he had never been away.
The goals and big performances continued to come. He scored in his first four league games, his first El Clásico as Barça won again at the Bernabéu and by the end of the year had another trophy and another goal in a final as Barcelona sealed their status as the World’s best team in 2011 with a 4-0 thrashing of Santos in the World Club Cup.
So what has happened in 2012? Initially it seemed as if nothing had changed as Fàbregas netted Barça’s goal in the 1-1 draw in the Catalan derby at Espanyol on January 8, but that was his last league goal in Azulgrana colours.
Indeed it was fitting that his struggles should continue against Valencia this weekend as his confidence has sapped ever since missing two glorious opportunities against Los Che at the Camp Nou in February.
That night Pep Guardiola was so infuriated with his wayward finishing that the two exchanged heated words as Cesc was substituted with 10 minutes remaining. His carelessness on that occasion mattered little as Messi scored four and Barca five, but it could have been a very different story when, after the Spanish international missed a glaring chance in both halves on Sunday, Valencia had an equaliser marginally ruled out for offside and twice came within inches of securing a 1-1 draw in stoppage time.
Fàbregas’ fall from grace has been so dramatic that he has gone from WhoScored’s third highest rated player in La Liga at Christmas last year - behind the best two in the world - to a substitute in Barça’s biggest games. Towards the end of Guardiola’s reign he didn’t start the league decider against Real Madrid and similarly didn’t feature in either of Tito Vilanova’s starting line-ups for the two recent Supercopa Clásicos.
Even more puzzling is that when he has played under Vilanova he hasn’t performed despite playing in his favourite position in central midfield, with either one of Xavi or Andrés Iniesta dropping to the bench, which raises the question of what now is his best position? Almost all his best performances for both club and country in the past year have come either as a second striker or a false nine.
That was where he played in his early days back at the Camp Nou and where he starred at the Euros with two goals and the assist for the all-important first goal in the final.
Logically his stats suggest he has more of an influence on the game when playing higher up the field with his 1.6 shots and 1.4 key passes per game from last season slipping to 0.7 on both counts respectively on, admittedly, a small sample size this time round.
However, unusually his passing statistics aren’t greatly enhanced when playing deeper with 62.5 passes at 87% completion last season compared to 64 at 88% this campaign.
This provides even more evidence that the 25-year-old is just as adept at playing accurate passes in more congested areas and helps to explain why his link-up with Messi was so devastating as both were able to pick each other out with unerring accuracy, whilst playing the ball at great speed and when surrounded by defenders.
The problem for Fàbregas, though, is that Messi looks good with anyone and with the return of David Villa from injury, Pedro coming back to top form and the continued development of Alexis Sanchez, Cristian Tello and Isaac Cuenca, competition for places in the front three is just as tough as the middle three where the triumvirate of Xavi, Iniesta and Sergio Busquets is still king.
It is a conundrum that almost any manager would settle for, but how to solve a problem like Cesc’s form is likely to be one of the first key tests for Vilanova.