Few would have expected Cesar Azpilicueta to feature too often this season. His competition at right-back, Branislav Ivanovic, is very much a ‘Mourinho man’: a strong, no-nonsense defender who is effective in his position without the unnecessary frills of flair. Azpilicueta, the precocious, young Spaniard, didn’t seem to stand a chance.
And in many ways this has proved to be the case. Ivanovic has been as hard to shift from his position as he is on the pitch. However, what even fewer would have expected would be for Azpilicueta to displace Ashley Cole at left-back. But such has been the Spaniard’s form that the calls to reinstate to the Chelsea stalwart died out long ago.
Cesar Azpilicueta had a largely underwhelming first season at Chelsea. He came with an air of expectancy. He was first-choice at Osasuna from the age of 18, and by 22 had played three full seasons in La Liga and two in Ligue 1. He was young, and quick, and good on the ball, and Spanish. At £7m he appeared a steal.
But it soon seemed that he merely fitted the mould that many modern full-backs are all too snug in: flatter to deceive going forward and by-passed easily at the back. His athleticism meant he could get into good attacking situations but his crosses rarely found their target. Similarly, at the back, his pace meant he was rarely caught out of position but was still found himself beaten too easily when square with his man.
It appeared Chelsea had replaced Jose Bosingwa with Jose Bosingwa. And one can only assume this was not the intention of the club.
The Spaniard started the season where most expected: on the bench. But Azpilicueta’s chance would eventually come in the unlikeliest of places. When Ashley Cole picked up an injury before Chelsea’s Champions League game with Schalke, Ryan Bertrand was the obvious deputy. However, Mourinho opted to deploy Azpilicueta at left-back instead.
At the time this felt like a serious indictment on Bertrand. But it appears that Mourinho had seen something in the right-back that few else had and Azpilicueta has more than repaid this trust with his performances ever since.
One of the reasons for Cesar Azpilicueta’s vastly improved form this season is the system employed by Mourinho. Chelsea have defended deeper than in recent years and looked to hit teams on the counter. This reduces the need for the full-backs to get forward as often as they would in a more possession-centred game, in which wing-backs are required to offer the extra man in attack.
This system has allowed the Chelsea defence to do a lot of their defending with their back to goal, which has been a major factor in team’s recent record of 4 goals conceded in their last 10 league games. But even in the context of improved general defensive stability, Azpilicueta has performed well above how many would have expected him to do at right-back, never mind the fact that he’s being played out of position.
The Spaniard has been most conspicuous in his absence this season. When Ashley Cole was given the chance to regain his position in the team he only managed to highlight what a good job Azpilicueta had been doing.
Such have been his performances this season that he appears likely to beat Raul Albiol to the position of right-back in Spain’s team at the world cup despite barely featuring there this season. And he may just be the first non-left back to earn the position in the Premier League team of the season.
But then maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised. Azpilicueta always had potential. It just took the confidence of a manager like Jose Mourinho to bring it out of him.