For a while, it looked like Chelsea had a real problem at right-back. When Jose Mourinho first arrived at Stamford Bridge all those years ago, he brought with him Paulo Ferreira. The Portuguese international had just won the Champions League with Mourinho at Porto and he set about as the main right-back for the next few years. As he aged and declined in ability, he was replaced. First temporarily by Michael Essien, and then by compatriot Jose Bosingwa, the latter of which was nothing short of a disaster.
Interestingly now, Chelsea have three very promising options at right-back. Branislav Ivanovic helped fill the gap when it became apparent that Bosingwa was next to useless. The Serb was voted into the PFA Team of the Year at right-back a couple of seasons ago but many disagree over his best position. Jose Mourinho has hinted he sees Ivanovic as more of a right-back and that he’ll be in direct competition with the player in focus in this article, Cesar Azpilicueta. The Spaniard moved to Stamford Bridge from Marseille last summer and although he is still just 23, he has made big impressions at Stamford Bridge. He impressed the coaching staff and fans alike last season especially after Rafa Benitez took over as interim coach. The final option for Chelsea comes in the shape of 19 year old Wallace who has just joined from Fluminese. He is definitely one for the future and although he has looked promising pre-season fixtures it has been confirmed he will go out on loan for this season.
In the next six or seven years, it will probably be Wallace and Azpilicueta competing for a starting berth but for now, in the present I’d like to focus on the latter. There is no doubt that he is seen as the future of the Spanish national side, Vicente del Bosque has said as much but can he become a true great of the game? Phillip Lahm is probably the finest right-back in world football and whilst he isn’t near retiring he is entering the final three or four years of his peak. What sets Lahm apart from others is a) his consistency and b) his supreme talent that means he could probably play just about anywhere on the pitch. Azpilicueta probably lacks that natural talent but then again few players will have that versatility. In the Premier League there are a number of talented right-backs, both younger and more experienced. How does Azpilicueta compare to these right-backs though? The players that I’ll be comparing to Azpilicueta are Liverpool’s Glen Johnson, Manchester United’s Rafael, Manchester City’s Pablo Zabaleta and Tottenham’s Kyle Walker. In my opinion, Arsenal’s Bacary Sagna hasn’t been consistent enough over the last season and his team-mate Carl Jenkinson needs a season or two more to develop.
All five players made at least 27 appearances last season and the other four are arguably established first-team choices, but Azpilicueta still faced competition from Ivanovic last season. If we look at defending stats to start with we can see that Azpilicueta has the best tackling success rate of all five players with 82.61%. He narrowly edges out Johnson and Walker who had 81.11% and 80.72% respectively. The Manchester duo doesn’t even get to above 75% but it is worth pointing out that Azpilicueta performed less tackles than every other full-backs. This can be put down to the fact he played fewer matches and his higher success rate shows he is already more efficient in the tackle than his rivals. The Spaniard was also the most successful in ground 50-50s, he was the only player of the five to get a success ratio of over 60%. Kyle Walker made the most defensive errors last season with five, highlighting the fact that his form has dropped horrendously from the 2011/12 season. Johnson, Zabaleta and Rafael all made one defensive error each but Azpilicueta didn’t make a single one.
In terms of total accurate passes, Azpilicueta made a very healthy 1,213. Rafael and Zabaleta made a few more passes than the Chelsea man but it is Walker (1,599) and Johnson (1,740) who made the most. Interestingly, despite having the second lowest number of passes Azpilicueta does make the most passes per minute. He does have the second worst passing accuracy and this is probably an area he needs to work on. In the Chelsea set-up he would have been expected to make short passes forward to someone like Mata or Lampard who could then get attacks going. That can explain why he made less passes than most and if his accuracy improves he might start making more and more passes.
Johnson and Walker lead the pack in terms of total attacking zone passes and that isn’t too surprising because they are both (Johnson in particular) very attacking full-backs. All five get forward extremely well and they could probably all double as wingers but if you watch Johnson he gets forward so often and so well. He has become famous for his mazy runs from right-back where he bursts forward and often cuts inside and shoots on his left foot. He benefits from Liverpool’s front three that draw defenders to them, creating space. At Chelsea Azpilicueta was often playing with Oscar in front of him. Although the Brazilian did cut inside a lot he doesn’t as regularly as his opposite winger, Eden Hazard. Azpilicueta has to make do with what is in front of him but he will probably get more confident in his second season with the club.
Amazingly, Zabaleta only made ten dribbles across the whole season and Azpilicueta (25) and Rafael (30) didn’t do too much better. Once again Kyle Walker beat the aforementioned trio but it is Glen Johnson who wipes the floor with everyone. He made 117 dribbles which was over double Walker’s 57. Walker made the most crosses (126) and what goes to show is that Walker and Johnson really are a class apart when it comes to attacking play. Interestingly, Azpilicueta (who made the second most crosses) had the best crossing accuracy and as I said earlier I expect his attacking play to improve even more next season. Johnson and Walker’s attacking superiority is further demonstrated by their dominance in the chances created figures. Walker created 54 chances and Johnson managed 47. By comparison, Azpilicueta and Rafael created 24 chances each and Zabaleta only created 18 chances.
In my opinion the statistics show two interesting things. The first is that Rafael and Zabaleta are perhaps not as strong as people may think they are. Clearly Rafael is under immense pressure to replace an Old Trafford legend like Gary Neville and at 23 he eventually has to up his level of performances. They increased immeasurably this season but he still makes silly errors at times and he cannot continue to blame his youth. Sir Alex Ferguson put a lot of confidence in the youngster and eventually Rafael will develop into one of the best right-backs in the world. That being said if Manchester United are to keep up challenging for the domestic and European glory they will need to be able to rely on Rafael. Pablo Zabaleta won plenty of plaudits this season as he easily displaced Maicon as first choice right-back at Manchester City. I don’t think he is the perfect player though and despite his impressive work-rate I’m looking forward to seeing how he copes with the threat that a fully fit Micah Richards poses. At his peak Richards was one of the most destructive full-backs in England and if he gets back to full fitness this season I really think he should be firmly in the England set-up.
The second thing is that Azpilicueta certainly possesses the attributes required to be a quality right-back. In terms of attacking ability I think he has a way to go before he can compete with either Johnson or Walker. However, in terms of his all-around play I think Azpilicueta is at least on par with his rivals if not better. He is capable both defensively and offensively and at 23 he is perfectly poised to improve even further. Unlike the other four he will still face stiff competition at his club and in Branislav Ivanovic he has a worthy adversary. There will probably be a lot rotation at Chelsea this season with their sizeable squad and I’m certain that Azpilicueta will establish himself as the Blues’ first choice right-back. Given their habit of spending vast sums of money on players the £7 million Chelsea are reported to have paid for Azpilicueta is something of a bargain. All he can do for the next few years is improve and I think in three or four years’ time Azpilicueta could well be one of the best right-backs in the world.
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