“When you’ve got average players causing you a problem, you know you’re in trouble” the words of Gary Neville when speaking about the closing days of his career in a Manchester United shirt.
And like Neville, who pinned down his place as one of the first names on Sir Alex Ferguson’s team sheet at right back, Chelsea’s captain Cesar Azpilicueta might be in the same thought process as he sits back during the international break . The opening weeks of the season have been challenging for the 30-year-old as the Blues have shipped 11 goals in 5 and questions are being asked of the Spaniard.
Signed from Marseille in the summer of 2012 for £7.5m, months after the Blues were crowned Champions of Europe, not many would’ve suspected how much of an established member of the dressing room the defender would go on to be seven years later.
Breaking properly in under Jose Mourinho in 2013/14, utilised in a left-back role as the fan-beloved Ashley Cole was phased out of the first team. Labelled “Dave” by the Chelsea faithful, Cesar would soon become one of the club’s best performers in a solid backline.
A season later, he would keep his place in front of a naturally left-sided player in Filipe Luís who had been brought in during Chelsea’s busy summer transfer business. Which also added two fellow Spanish internationals to the squad in Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa.
Azpilicueta would be central to Chelsea’s resolute defence, which ran away with the Premier League title and claimed a League Cup to add even more gloss to an impressive campaign. It was during this period the aforementioned Neville, now a pundit for Sky Sports, would label the fullback one of the best defenders in the league.
It would be hard to see any Chelsea defence moving forward for the next few seasons that didn’t include the No.28’s name. You could argue Azpilicueta’s best work would come under the tutelage of Antonio Conte when the Italian moved to a back three, which Dave was a part of.
Once again central to the base of a solid core that lead the west London club to a Premier League crown in 2016/17, it seemed the fullback, now turned central defender had grown in stature, even though in reality he was smaller than his defensive peers in David Luiz and Gary Cahill.
In truth, Azpilicueta has only ever played one full season in the actual position he was bought for in 2012, and that was under Maurizio Sarri.
Probably his most challenging nine months in Blue, the fullback came under scrutiny for a lack of end product from the right flank when Chelsea’s lack of attacking potency floundered in the winter months. Now under Frank Lampard, Chelsea’s present looks set to be building for tomorrow and with the exciting prospect that is Reece James nearly back to fitness, the Spaniard might find minutes limited.
Not all of this is Dave’s fault. Just like he displaced Cole, just like Neville realised his time was up, the pinnacle of competitive sport is a relentlessly evolving and brutal beast. The game moves on and the demands of it also change.
The “modern fullback” is not only expected to be reliable in defence, good in one-on-ones against his opposition winger and able to put a strong tackle in, the position like many in defence now has moved on with higher physical demands to assist in attack and have the same quality on the ball as a central midfielder.
Trent Alexander-Arnold is probably the poster boy for this evolution.
Under Jurgen Klopp, the academy graduate has emerged as a vital part of Liverpool’s threat moving forward. The 20-year-old racked up 17 assists in all competitions, second was his fellow fullback, Andy Robertson with 13.
In comparison to Azpilicueta, who only racked up 6 in 57 appearances, the disparity is there to see between two ends of the spectrum. It is fair to note the England international plays in a more buoyant and higher performing side which has been guided under one manager’s vision for nearly four years. Whilst the Spaniard is now being coached by his seventh manager since arriving in SW6.
The stats still speak volumes as to where the Blues need to improve to catch up with both Liverpool and Manchester City in the same area.
Even the likes of Leicester City in the rapid Ricardo Pereira adds a threat which Chelsea experienced first hand when the Foxes earned a point at Stamford Bridge a few weeks back.
Creating goals isn’t the only reason for concern as in the second half collapse against Sheffield United, both of the Blades goals emanated from the same area. Azpilicueta was easily beaten by wingback Enda Stevens who would then cross to find Callum Robinson to easily tap in only a minute into the second half.
The leveller a minute from time came once again from the right, as the first scorer Robertson would easily shrug off Azpilicueta and swing in the cross which Kurt Zouma would inadvertently divert into the back of his own net.
A bit like the start of Chelsea’s disastrous 2015/16 campaign, the right side of the defence became an easy target as Branislav Ivanovic became isolated and easily exploited on many occasions.
Lampard’s young Chelsea side have struggled to keep the ball and show composure when the game has turned against them. With the likes of Fikayo Tomori, Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and Christian Pulisic – all under 23 on the pitch, it is the responsibility of the wiser heads to steady the ship. However, the skipper gave possession away 20 times, three times more than any other player on the pitch.
In a season where youth and inexperience is at the core of Chelsea’s image, Lampard needs his older heads to show the way in rocky moments and Azpilicueta hasn’t shown this ability.
There were many other issues surrounding the club at the start of that horrific period but the similarities are there to shine a light on and Frank Lampard needs to find a solution. That solution to many will come from the 19-year-old in Reece James who shone in a poor Wigan side last season.
Will James provide that answer? Time will tell but it is certain Chelsea’s manager will give players a chance, regardless of age.
That isn’t to say Azpilicueta has nothing to offer this season. His defensive awareness, versatilely and professionalism is one of the best at the club and can help a younger James to break in, during a transitional period.
His time at the club will go down as an overwhelming success and an amazing servant to Chelsea. There won’t be many bad words said about him by any fan worth their salt, though every player’s time comes to an end and for Chelsea to move forward, there should be no room for sentiment.