9th December 2016. By Edward Stratmann.
It really is difficult to find a more consistent player in the Premier League than Cesar Azpilicueta. Over the past couple of seasons especially, whether at left-back, right-back or more recently centre-back, Chelsea's durable utility has hardly put in a subpar shift.
And this season has certainly been no different. Although he's a player whose dedicated, crucial work often goes unnoticed, there's no doubting what an integral component of Antonio Conte's high flying Chelsea he is. Even when the Blues battled with some turbulent results in the early stages of the season, Azpilicueta stood strong and kept up his relentlessly high level.
But ever since Conte switched to his 3-4-3 formation, following the 3-0 thrashing by Arsenal, Chelsea's form has been imperious, and the 27-year-old's been key in this. Deployed on the right side of Chelsea's three man backline, the versatile defender has been nothing short of exceptional here too, as he's been magnificent in Chelsea's wicked eight match winning streak since Conte's tactical tweak.
He's smoothly managed to transform his unwavering reliability, concentration, discipline and quality into his new role, and his manager's been hugely impressed with the Spanish international. "Azpi is a fantastic player because he can play different roles but I think the role that he's playing now is perfect for him," mused Conte.
"He's playing very well because he's fast, has good technique and he's a clever player. He can play in different roles but this role I think is perfect for him."
True to form, in arguably Chelsea's biggest match of the season against Manchester City, the ever dependable Azpilicueta was yet again brilliant. Having to deal with the likes of David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne is never a walk in the park, but Azpilicueta dealt masterfully with Pep Guardiola's wildly gifted attacking unit.
Silva and Aguero were the two men he predominantly had to deal with, however. With Aguero persistently buzzing around looking to make diagonal runs into the box from Azpilicueta's area of operation and Silva drifting in between the lines, the former Osasuna and Marseille man had to be well and truly on his toes. And he most definitely was, with his concentration, judgement and clarity in his decision making process seeing him perform his duties hugely effectively.
By constantly scanning and checking his blindside, where Aguero usually attempted to make his runs from, in combination with his astute reading of the play and awareness, he was able to successfully nullify the exploits of these two men when he faced off against them. In addition, his rapid pace, aggression, physicality, body positioning and balance served as additional reasons why he's always such a challenging opponent to beat 1v1.
Another aspect of his play was that he regularly vacated his post to push across and help out his fellow defensive partners. Aided by his covering speed and aforementioned anticipation, Azpilicueta never hesitated, within reason, to jet over and snuff out any dangerous moves in the middle or on the left.
One moment especially stood out in the first half, though, where Aguero had dropped deep looking for possession and David Luiz had followed him. This inherently created a huge gap in the Chelsea backline, and, with Gary Cahill occupied by a marking assignment of his own, De Bruyne saw a fantastic opportunity to surge forward down Chelsea's left wing. Azpilicueta was having none of it, as the Spaniard sprinted 40 metres across to stop the move dead in its tracks, making a vital intervention that emphatically halted the Belgian's intentions. Indeed, a moment that showed off his undeniable importance.
Moreover, by providing customary excellent cover in behind his wing back, Victor Moses, this gave the Nigerian flyer an ideal platform to venture upfield from, while also giving his side structural stability.
Accomplished, resolute and unwavering in his approach, while Azpilicueta didn't draw the headlines like Eden Hazard, Francesc Fabregas and Willian did, his performance was every bit as important as his attack minded counterparts. His three tackles, two interceptions, three clearances and one goal bound blocked shot aptly accentuated his immense efforts.
All in all, having a player like, Azpilicueta, who's essentially bereft of any glaring weaknesses, has been decisive in Chelsea's formidable form, which has seen them only concede two goals in their last eight matches.
When Chelsea face off against Tony Pulis' ever improving West Bromwich Albion outfit, expect their defensive specialist to exhibit all of his endearing qualities to great effect once more.
After all, he hardly ever has an off day, he's just so incredibly consistent.
Chelsea's unheralded defensive specialist, Cesar Azpilicueta.
9th December 2016. By Edward Stratmann.