Jose Mourinho has a Chelsea squad at his disposal that’s bursting with quality and depth in all departments, and as a result, we’ve seen plenty of peculiar and unrhythmic selection choices from the Portuguese this season.
Andre Schurrle up front against Manchester United didn’t provide the desired counter-attacking threat, Ramires deployed as a right winger to face Tottenham was hardly the masterstroke the Special One envisaged, and the Stamford Bridge faithful have been left rather bemused by the regular exclusion of Juan Mata.
But there’s one member of the Blues’ squad whose absence has gone relatively unnoticed this year amid the excitement of Mourinho’s return and debates over Mata’s immediate future – young full-back Cesar Azpilicueta, commonly referred to for ease of pronunciation as simply ‘Dave’, is yet to play more than ten minutes of Premier League football this year, despite being one of the West Londoners’ most impressive performers last season.
The right-back slot has been handed to the sturdy and ever-dependable Branislav Ivanovic; the powerful Serbian is the human epitome of the Jose Mourinho ethos. But would the Spaniard, being younger, faster and more technically gifted going forward, be a better option for the Blues?
Chelsea have been accused of a lack of width on more than one occasion this season, and you only have to watch coverage of any particular Premier League fixture the Blues are involved in to witness a pundit bring up a freeze-frame of a Chelsea attack and highlight how all of their players are operating within the width of the penalty box.
Having three attacking midfielders tucked-in appears to be the way the Premier League is going nowadays – the majority of English sides play a variation of 4-2-3-1, with the width on the most-part provided by overlapping full-backs.
Therefore, despite a vast wealth of punditry attention being placed on Chelsea’s illustrious list of attacking midfielders, who all seem to favour cutting inside and taking up central positions rather than hugging the line, I’d suggest we should be examining the role of Chelsea’s full-backs, and whether or not they could be contributing more to the Blues’ efforts going forward.
Ashley Cole’s position in the first team remains as secure as it’s ever been – the England international may not be the impressive attacking influence he was in his mid-twenties, but Cole remains one of the leading No.3’s in world football, and one of the most experienced, having already claimed three Premier League titles, seven FA Cups, a Champions League title, a Europa League title and a centenary of caps for the Three Lions throughout an illustrious career.
But if Cole is to remain a cemented figure in the starting XI, then perhaps it’s time to shake things up on the other flank. Ivanovic is by all means a top quality defender; he’s proved it time and again throughout his Chelsea career, and who can forget his exceptional over-the-bar clearance, facing his own net and preventing an almost guaranteed goal just a few weeks ago.
Yet his weaknesses are no secret either. The Serbian is amongst the slowest right-backs in the English top flight, and for what he provides in defence he inevitably takes away from in attack. It’s safe to say the over-lap just isn’t his gig, being by no means inadequate but certainly inconsistent on the ball, whereas Azpilicueta on the other hand possesses all the pace, dynamism, technical ability and creative flair to be a significant contributor in the final third.
Last season, being a first team regular and making 27 appearances in total, the 24 year-old provided four Premier League assists to the Chelsea cause – not that his right-back rival’s five Premier League goals should go unnoticed either.
As previously stated, you can see why the Serbian has already made 10 appearances at right-back under Jose Mourinho this season, including seven Premier League starts, whilst Azpilicueta has played less than ten minutes of top flight football, despite the fact the former was regarded as primarily a centre-back option under Rafa Benitez last term.
He provides that consistency, physicality and mechanical efficiency that has become synonymous with the Portuguese and the Blues over the years, and with the Chelsea boss already concerned over Juan Mata’s apparent lack of defensive work-rate, it’s understandable that he’s reverted back to the most sturdy and assured backline at his disposal.
But Ivanovic is very much a throw-back to the old days of No.2’s, being a formidable physical foe who is more than happy to make his presence felt and get involved with the dirty nitty-gritty of the beautiful game, whilst his Spanish team-mate is far more in line with the modern trend of full-back.
The likes of Luke Shaw, Danny Rose, Pablo Zabaletta and Leighton Baines are quickly emerging as the more favoured option for Premier League clubs for their ability to contribute at both ends of the pitch, underpinned by the speed and stamina to do so for a full ninety minutes, as well as enough guile and flair on the ball to present a considerable attacking threat in their own right.
Not that Mourinho’s too concerned with whatever is considered to be the current footballing vogue. But in the long-term, by my estimations at least, Azpilicueta should be taking priority over the Serb.
Ivanovic is now 29, having arrived at Stamford Bridge some five years ago, and at this point in his career, despite being a fine athlete in all other respects, he’s only going to get slower and less capable of joining the Chelsea attack without leaving dangerous gaps behind him in defence.
Azpilicueta on the other hand, has already shown great potential in a Blues jersey, even if there were evident weaknesses to his defensive game last season. The Chelsea defender is just 24, five years Ivanovic’s junior, and under the watchful and nurturing eye of Jose Mourinho, I believe he has enough raw pedigree to emerge as a leading Premier League right-back over the course of the next few seasons.
He’s become an occasional fixture in the Spain national team fold since February this year, with four senior caps to date as well as countless appearances at junior levels, and he’s already made solid progress on the better-with-experience defensive learning curve, having made 228 career appearances thus far, spanning over three of Europe’s leading top flights.
At the same time, Ivanovic’s Chelsea career won’t have to come at the expense of the Spaniard’s first team exposure – the versatile defender still has many years left at Stamford Bridge as a decent centre-back option.
In my humble opinion, Azpilicueta remains the better choice of No.2 for the Blues. Granted, Ivanvoic is quite clearly a Mourinho player, and is currently in the Chelsea gaffer’s favour, but the West London outfit’s narrowness in attack should be a lingering concern for the Portuguese, and the Spaniard has all the ingredients to remedy his side’s blunted efforts going forward.
But most importantly, I can easily envisage the 24 year-old emerging as a better right-back, all aspects of the role considered, than his Serbian counter-part in a few years time, and thus, there’s no time like the present to start instigating the process.