Why Chelsea's Cesar Azpilicueta Is The Best Full Back In The League
For a team renowned for lavish spending and often spectacular overpayment in the transfer market, something about spending £7m on César Azpilicueta does not feel right.
An unheralded signing from Olympique de Marseilles, Azpilicueta was rightfully seen as just a solid squad addition upon arrival. It goes without saying that top clubs very rarely unearth gems or sign players who eventually prove to be a bargain. However, the development of Azpilicueta under Mourinho this season has been so great that Chelsea fans are wondering if we have only paid a third of the overall transfer fee.
At this point there will naturally be opposing fans who rarely watch Chelsea beyond highlights packages questioning my valuation.
Azpilicueta does not frequently register an assist or provide standout moments of attacking brilliance. Therefore, it is understandable how he is overlooked as the league’s best full-back.
After all, fantasy football points seem to be the metric of choice for the media to anoint players as the best in their position. Having attacking quality as a full-back is only worthwhile if you are equally adroit defensively; both of England’s likely starters this summer will prove this to be true.
It is certainly a bold claim – “Azpilicueta is the best full-back in the Premier League” but even a basic assessment backs that up.
Having kept Gareth Bale quiet when deployed as a right-back and now excelling as a left-back, who in the league can currently operate to a similar standard on both flanks? I cannot think of a single player who is as comfortable on either flank. Chelsea have effectively solved their right-back conundrum and found a quality left-back replacement for £7m. Given the £20m+ valuations placed on Luke Shaw and Leighton Baines, that looks a snip.
Recent media speculation intimates that Chelsea are looking for a long-term solution at left-back this summer. This would see Azpilicueta shift back to his right-back slot and solidify him as Chelsea’s first choice in that position. Unsurprisingly, Azpilicueta offers more of a natural attacking threat when operating from his favoured flank.
Nonetheless, the overall quality in his attacking game from left-back has been unexpectedly decent. There will always be a tendency to cut inside and play on his stronger foot. With Hazard ahead of him this can invert Chelsea’s left flank considerably and a left-footer overlapping the Belgian would cause more issues. However, the confidence Hazard is displaying recently can arguably be attributed to the sound defensive qualities Azpilicueta shows behind him.
Looking back to the summer and the Confederations Cup, Azpilicueta has himself admitted that the international tournament put him immediately on the back foot in terms of his starting place. While Mourinho worked the kinks out of his team Azpilicueta was seen to be little more than a deputy for Branislav Ivanović. Mourinho, rightly or wrongly, prefers the Serbians aerial prowess to deploying two smaller technical full-backs. Just count the number of goal-kicks or punts from Petr Čech that invariably head the Serbs way. The one weakness of Azpilicueta’s game has been his heading ability, so perhaps this is the simple answer as to why he was not playing.
Azpilicueta, unlike other players, chose to get his head down in training and work himself back into the first team. Anecdotal evidence from Chelsea TV and snippets from interviews all strongly suggest that the Spaniards work ethic and professionalism are exemplary.
He bided his time, perhaps longer than one could have expected given his teammates performance levels, before seizing his opportunity and not looking back. Mourinho may be guilty of having favourites within the squad – Ramires and Ivanović in particular appear to be regulars when form suggests otherwise.
However, where Kevin De Bruyne moaned and moaned to the press about a lack of playing time, Azpilicueta got on with it and delivered stellar performances when called upon.
Mourinho is ruthless in terms of players earning his trust, but juxtapose De Bruyne’s lifeless performances when given an opportunity with Azpilicueta’s and you can see the manager’s point.
One player started the season in the first team and managed to play his way out of the club. The other started the season as a back-up and has now established himself as Mourinho’s first choice full-back on either flank.
It may well have been a matter of time before Azpilicueta’s talent shone through, but his desire and work ethic to get there should be held up as an example to all players.
Azpilicueta’s path to the first team may well have been somewhat delayed under Mourinho’s stewardship. Nevertheless, his overall development as a player under the Portuguese schemer has been wonderful.
Debatably a by-product of settling into the Premier League, we have seen every aspect of his game tangibly mature under Mourinho’s coaching. Arguably my favourite aspect of watching Azpilicueta defend is his exemplary 1-on-1 ability. Even playing as a left-back his tackling and timing are wonderful. If he is momentarily wrong footed a block or challenge soon follow. He covers superbly well and his relationship with Eden Hazard bodes well for an athletic left-footer to slot into Chelsea’s side next year. He does not get outpaced, nor has any winger given him the run around.
In a league where defensive quality appears to be dipping, he is a rare beacon of hope – perhaps it might catch on, a full-back who can actually defend?
He has, to my knowledge (and backed up by statistics, though I am never really sure what pertains to a quantifiable defensive mistake) not made a single error this season that has led to a goal. Perhaps even more impressively there seem to be very few opposition chances that come from an Azpilicueta mistake.
Defensively he is excelling on both flanks and while comparisons to a fully matured Philipp Lahm are still a way off his overall style of play is moving closer and closer to the Munich stalwart. Lahm has been the perennial sign of defensive excellence for a number of years: Azpilicueta should use the German as a model of what he can eventually hope to become.
That said, Azpilicueta’s attacking quality is certainly an area he can look to improve. While his instincts seem slightly diminished playing on the left, we can expect a more assured attacking presence when he shifts to the right. Ivanović is often guilty of firing aimless crosses into the area and while this has noticeably declined since the infamous West Ham 0-0, Azpilicueta offers more subtlety in the final third.
It is his ability to link-up and not hinder the intricate football of Chelsea’s attacking trio that makes him an asset. Capable of keeping up with their one-touch football and not dwelling in possession are essential for Chelsea’s continued evolution under Mourinho.
Azpilicueta might remain an unsung hero for the remainder of this season. However, you can fully expect a meteoric rise to prominence when he is regularly deployed at right-back. It will be a travesty if his lack of Match of the Day exposure means he is not voted into the Team of the Season.
His ascendancy to Mourinho’s trusted option should serve as a reminder for everyone at the club. Hard work, professionalism and dedication will be rewarded – but most importantly take your chance when it arrives.
Oh, and stop calling him Dave.
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