EPL 2016/17: Cesar Azpilicueta - Chelsea's unsung hero
The Spaniard played a huge role in Chelsea's dominance this season.
In the second half against West Brom, against the run of play, West Brom broke with a 1 v 1 for Rondon against David Luiz. Rondon evaded Luiz’s aggressive tackle close to the half line and was through on goal against Thibaut Courtois.
Cesar Azpilicueta was in the Baggies’ half when Luiz was beaten. The Spaniard then switched on the afterburners and sprinted 50 yards from the half-way line, outpacing all the Chelsea defenders who were scrambling back, to catch up to Rondon.
He ran with every last breath of energy in him and did enough to make a tackle and put off Rondon, conceding a corner in the end. He was there to deny Rondon; there to make the title-winning challenge in the Blues’ final leg of the race. And boy did he run like his life depended on it.
This was not the first time that Azpilicueta saved Chelsea in the 2016/17 season. Azpilicueta or simply ‘Dave’ – a mononymous nickname given by adoring Chelsea fans who thought his last name was too complicated to pronounce when he first arrived – has saved the Blues in such in-game situations on countless occasions.
An astute defender and one of the cleanest tacklers in the modern game, the diminutive Spaniard amalgamates passion and spirit with tactical efficiency to perfectly complement his aggression, solid defending and timing of tackles, making Chelsea all the more difficult to break down.
Born in Pamplona, Navarre, Spain, Azpilicueta graduated from the Osasuna youth team and was picked up by Marseille in 2010 where he played as a right-back for two seasons. Soon after, in 2012, Rafael Benitez, the then manager of Chelsea, signed the young Pamplona-born Spaniard from the French club for a fee of £7 million.
Chelsea got arguably their best and most consistent defender for a knockdown price and he has since established himself as one of the most versatile and masterful exponents of close quarters defending.
If defending is an art then Azpilicueta is Da Vinci, without the fame. Gary Cahill and Luiz may have gotten into the PFA Team of the Year but it was 27-year-old ‘Dave’ from Pamplona who saved them every time they made a mistake or were exposed for pace.
A quick look at the stats reveals that Cahill tops the list when it comes to the least dribbled past defenders who have played more than 32 games this season at just 0.2 times per 90 minutes. But he has barely made any tackles, averaging just 1.2 attempted tackles per 90 minutes in 2016/17.
While Azpilicueta ranks 15th on the list at 0.9 times per 90 minutes, the key statistic is that the Spaniard makes 3.1 attempted tackles a game. This implies that he goes into nearly thrice the number of tackles Cahill does and still manages a respectable 0.9 average.
That’s massive because, in the Premier League, with the quality of players on show, the Spaniard has attempted the third highest number of tackles among all defenders this season and has a tackle success rate of 70.47%. Only Matt Lowton of Burnley has attempted more tackles and has a better success rate at 71.64% compared to Azpilicueta amongst all defenders who have played more than 32 games in the entire league this season.
The Spaniard has been the pillar for Chelsea while playing in a make-shift centre-back position this whole season. He has put his head down and gone about his job with minimal fuss, delivering time after time. He is the warrior who embodied Chelsea’s grit throughout this campaign and its rather amusing that his nickname at Stamford Bridge is as low key as an average run of the mill defender’s name – Dave. But that’s the kind of guy he is – non-flashy yet highly effective.
The legendary Paulo Maldini once said: “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake”. Azpilicueta though takes the risk and makes them without putting a foot wrong. He commits professional fouls to break up play when needed and is a master at executing tackles which are clean as a whistle. Very rarely will you see him dabbling in the dark arts or dirty tactics if you will, and for the purists, he is truly the defender’s defender.
When you think about great versatile right-backs Philipp Lahm comes to mind and Azpilicueta is without a doubt the new Lahm.
In spite of the wealth of talent Spain have in defence, it’s about time the boy from Pamplona is recognised for his efforts in the Premier League and cements a starting berth in the Spanish national side. Azpilicueta can be as vital for La Roja as he is for Chelsea and can slot in anywhere in that back four with ease.
It’s obvious that Antonio Conte strategically set out player roles in his backline to make sure they played to their strengths. And Azpilicueta’s strengths are his all round game, ability to read in-game situations and react quickly in a telling manner.
He could be seen against Everton marshalling the defence and telling them to concentrate and use their heads. His will to not concede goals is unparalleled and he is right up there with former Blue Ricardo Carvalho when it comes to the best foreign defenders to have played for the club.
Azpilicueta may not grab the headlines like his teammates Diego Costa, N’Golo Kante and Eden Hazard but in that Chelsea team and more specifically in that back three, he has been the most vital piece in the jigsaw.
Hailed by Gary Neville as “the best 1 v 1 defender in the Premier League”, the Spaniard has been asked to play a plethora of positions by every demanding Chelsea manager and has delivered every single season.
Conte’s decision to play Azpilicueta as a wide centre back in a three-man defence has further illustrated the Spaniard’s on-the-ground strengths and highlighted just how good the 5-foot-10-inch defender is in the air as well. Despite the Spaniard's height disadvantage, he features on the list of top 10 Premier League defenders in the air according to the statistics.
Azpilicueta averages 4 headers per 90 minutes while Gary Cahill, who towers above his teammate, averages 4.1. Cahill wins 2.5 headers per game while the Spaniard wins 2.2 and when it comes to aerial challenges lost, Azpilicueta loses just 1.9 headers per game while Cahill loses 1.6. He is at par with the Englishman in the air despite his shorter stature and has made vital interceptions on numerous occasions for his club.
As Chelsea fans will unanimously agree, the little Spaniard has shown his ability to perform at the highest level consistently, and it seems as though the Blues have bad games when he underperforms or doesn’t play. He was let down by his teammates early on in the season when they played a back four against Liverpool and Arsenal but since the switch to the 3-4-3, he has gone from strength to strength.
Also read: EPL 2016/17: Antonio Conte's 3-4-3 explained
In Chelsea's early season losses, Azpilicueta was subject to a 2 v 1 in most instances while he was playing at wing back. This occurred in the 4-2-3-1 which was because of Eden Hazard being unable to track back and the centre-backs marking a single forward.
It was a tactical problem for Chelsea that Azpilicueta had to defend two runners which, on most occasions, left him exposed. Conte's brilliance in creating the 3-4-3 hinged on the freedom for Azpilicueta, Cahill and Luiz to always have a free man in the middle and also have the full-backs Alonso and Moses as part of a back 5 which made them numerically superior in the spaces.
The Spaniard could then press and tackle high up the field or cover when needed, aside from making runs into space to support Moses. The system suited his attributes perfectly given his time as a wing-back.
Coming back to the final game, how telling was it that it was Azpilicueta's assist to Michy Batshuayi that led to the final goal that won Chelsea the title.
Such is the importance of Azpilicueta that when there is a slight dip in his form, the team collectively suffers. He is that vital. He is that important. He is the unsung hero of Chelsea football club.