R.A. (the4thjuliek) wrote in ontd_football,

Azpilicueta: The Wind Beneath Hazard's Wings

'Dave' seems a strangely appropriate nickname for Cesar Azpilicueta. His style is founded on such a deliberate lack of flamboyancy that there is an aptness about the moniker given to him by his Chelsea teammates. Anything polysyllabic would seem superfluous.

The actual reason for the pet name is a little less poetic. "Cesar's not even that hard, but some said my name was too difficult to pronounce and could they call me Dave. It's stuck," Azpilicueta told the Daily Telegraph in 2013. "But I suppose Azpilicueta is tricky," he concluded, with more than a touch of generosity.

Of all Chelsea's transfers over the last five years, few can have caused less of an initial ripple than Azpilicueta, an uncapped Spaniard signed for £7m from Olympique de Marseille. L'OM had just finished tenth in Ligue Un, 34 points behind Montpellier.

Arriving four days before his 23rd birthday, Azpilicueta was intended to be the back-up right-back to Branislav Ivanovic. Eleven players have since joined him at Stamford Bridge for higher fees, but none have displayed his consistency and professionalism.

Gary Neville takes these compliments further, describing Azpilicueta as the best defender in the Premier League. "For technical defending, not making a mistake, not being in the wrong position, not getting caught out... I don't see him making a mistake," Neville said. "When I watch him, he's as near to perfect as possible when it comes to defending; he's immaculate." High praise indeed.

Look at the list of Chelsea's most regular Premier League starters since the day Azpilicueta made his league debut: Branislav Ivanovic 92, Eden Hazard 86, Gary Cahill 76, Cesar Azpilicueta 75. A back-up full-back has become one of the club's key players.

Chelsea have won 74% of their matches with Azpilicueta in the side this season, but just 50% without. The opponents for those seven victories in his absence: Maribor, QPR, Hull (2), Swansea, Shrewsbury and Sporting Lisbon. 'Dave' doesn't miss the big games.

The stereotype modern full-back is a player closer to attacker than midfielder. You could even go stronger still: The full-back is the ultimate modern footballer. They are the only position on the pitch with space in front of them, the advent of 4-2-3-1 and the double pivot in central midfield given them greater licence to roam forward. The emergence of high pressing strategies and renaissance of counter-attacking dictates that full-backs are expected to sprint back as quickly as they venture forward.

Glen Johnson describes it perfectly: "The modern full-back is very much an attacking outlet: as midfields get narrower it's us who have to get up and down and offer width. Embrace it, you're action man."

Roberto Carlos, Dani Alves and Maicon were three Brazilian standard-bearers for the revolution, but their success was replicated in countless other countries. England can boast a plethora of options: Luke Shaw, Nathaniel Clyne, Kieran Gibbs, Aaron Cresswell, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose. This is the next generation, phasing out those with similar traits. You could not wish for a more adventurous full-back pairing than Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson.

The Premier League is now littered with full-backs who are more comfortable moving forward than back. Their performance is now measured in crosses completed, assists provided and chances created, rather than tackles made or crosses blocked.

Azpilicueta is the exception to that rule. He is a relic of the time when defenders defended and attackers attacked, an anachronism of the modern full-back. Whilst Shaw, Rose or Clyne could make competent wingers (and Gareth Bale moved even higher up the pitch), you would rely on Azpilicueta at any place in the back four.

"We have to be strong defensively to give the attacking players the confidence to play with freedom," is his assessment of his role. That quote could be Jose Mourinho's managerial epitaph, sitting just above the dates of the trophies he has won.

It is this defensive reliability that explains Mourinho's decision to convert Azpilicueta to a left-back so early in his return to Chelsea. On the right wing, the discipline of Willian allows Ivanovic to maraud forward, explaining the Serbian's eight goals and assists combined in the league this season. On the left, Azpilicueta stays deeper to provide Hazard with the licence to stay forward. An average touch map for this season shows Ivanovic one side of the halfway line, and Azpilicueta the other.

Hazard is not excused from Mourinho's demand for high-energy commitment, but is permitted to operate with greater liberation than any other Chelsea player.

"I played against him [Hazard] in France and when I came here we knew each other a little bit," the Spaniard said when explaining the on-field connection between the pair. "The relationship is good because we're more or less the same age and we speak French. I know every time I give him the ball he's going to do something different." Sometimes football can be a simple game.

"Eden is a great player, younger than Messi or Ronaldo, and therefore has more capacity for improvement, Azpilicueta says. "I think in the future he could win the Ballon d'Or, he has the quality." The left-back is unlikely win any personal accolades of his own, but behind every superstar is a facilitator. Azpilicueta is the wind beneath Hazard's wings.

Things have not always been easy since arriving from Pamplona via the Cote d'Azur. Azpilicueta drew four and lost two of his first six matches for Chelsea, and saw Roberto di Matteo sacked in the middle of that run. He had three managers in his first year at Stamford Bridge, and also saw Filipe Luis arrive to challenge his first-team place last summer.

The Spaniard simply takes it all in his stride. "I tried to get as quick as possible into the new role," he said on playing on the left flank. "It is more or less the same [as right-back], but I play with different players and use my left foot more. I did work on my left, I tried to improve and be better. In the big teams, there is always competition and the competition helps us to improve. I like the competition and fight for my place every day." It's easy to see why he is well-liked at Stamford Bridge.

A similar pattern emerges. Azpilicueta is meticulous, hard-working and hungry to learn. In almost three years at Chelsea he has seen off the notable competition of Luis and Ashley Cole. The signing of the Brazilian for £16m seemed to indicate disbelief from the club that Azpilicueta could sustain his form of last season. In fairness, he hasn't; he's got better.

"Azpilicueta is unbeatable," says Mourinho. "For many, many matches I haven't seen one player beat Azpilicueta in an individual duel." It's true, too. You struggle to think of a time when a winger truly got the better of him over the course of a match.

With a new five-year deal signed in September, Azpilicueta could be a long-term fixture in Chelsea's defence. It's a status quo that his manager is more than comfortable with. "Champions League is the competition I think everybody wants to win in football," says Mourinho. "It is not just about the pure talent. Football is also about character and personality.

"I think a team with 11 Azpilicuetas could win the Champions League," the Portuguese concludes. You'd struggle to think of a greater compliment.

Tags: club: chelsea

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  • Thursday

    News ⏰ RESULTS ⏰ Goals, goals & more goals! What. A. Night! 🔥 🤯 Sébastien Haller…

  • Wednesday!

    News ⏰ TUESDAY'S RESULTS ⏰ Goals, comebacks, drama ✅ 🔝 Best performance? #UCL— UEFA Champions…

  • Tuesday — Champions League

    News 🚨 Exclusive: Paul Pogba leaning towards…