Cesar “we’ll just call you Dave” Azpilicueta came to Chelsea in the summer transfer window of 2012 as a rather unknown entity. Having just released Bosingwa, and with Paulo Ferreira seemingly present for emergencies only, it seemed as if Ivanovic would be the number one Chelsea right-back at that time; however, Azpilicueta made more of an impact than expected. In fact he was one of the revelations of the season not just at Chelsea but in the Premier League and was certainly an underrated footballer. As such, he started at right-back for the vast majority of games throughout last season.
It is surprising then for Chelsea fans, and even disgruntling for many, that Azpilicueta has had a minimal role to play this term. He has so far been limited to 3 Premier League substitute appearances, amounting to only 32 minutes of football; also, he started out of position at left-back in the Champions League, and finally got to start at right back, that came with an impressive performance, against Arsenal in the Capital One Cup. There has not been as great of an uproar over Azpilicueta losing his place as there was for Mata, but there have nonetheless been many calls for the former Spaniard to get a run in the team.
Ivanovic is the man preventing this for the time being, and so I shall examine Azpilicueta’s performances from last season and compare them to Ivanovic from this year. Given that they have not have played the same amount of minutes, in this context it is only relevant to deal in averages and percentages, rather than totals. I should also make the reader aware that although I shall be writing in the present tense on Azpilicueta (implying his statistics are from this season) I will be referring to his stats from 2012/13.
In defence there are three leading categories in which to judge a defender, they are: ground 50-50s, tackle success %, and aerial 50-50s.
Ivanovic has so far won 57% of his ground 50-50s in the Premier League, and has entered into one every 13.85 minutes. Azpilicueta is slightly ahead of the Serbian here, having won 61% and attempted one every 13.9 minutes. Similar statistics for each of them, but Azpilicueta’s small advantage likely comes from a greater agility and acceleration, which in a 50-50 will have a large part to play in determining the winner.
However, Ivanovic is more effective when in the tackle. He has a success rate of 91.3% and he manages to successfully make a tackle every 39 minutes. Azpilicueta’s tackle success is, on the other hand, 82.61%, although he makes a successful tackle more often than Ivanovic, winning one every 32 minutes. He may not be the better tackle, but again his actual speed contributes to him being able to make more tackles every game.
There is a clear winner when it comes to aerial defensive duties. Ivanovic has won 67% of his aerial 50-50s this season and has entered into one every 14.75 minutes on average. Azpilicueta is behind in both departments having a success rate of 44% while only attempting an aerial 50-50 every 38.53 minutes.
There is an argument that Azpilicueta is the better defender on the ground. He is a more effective ground 50-50 winner and although he is not as efficient at tackling as Ivanovic, he still manages to make one more frequently than his counterpart. Ivanovic does, though, have outstanding ability in the air that must not be undervalued. Terry is ahead of him in headed clearances this season, but only just, and Terry also has the advantage of playing in the centre. Ivanovic is, for all intents and purposes, the best player in the air at Chelsea, which is not just vital in defending from open play and set-pieces, but which has also seen him become a significant goal threat from his team’s own corners and free kicks.
Full-backs will often be heavily involved in the build up of attacking plays. Not only this but their general ability to retain the ball on the flanks is very important.
Both right-backs are fairly even on their general pass completion statistics, Ivanovic having a pass completion of 81% and Azpilicueta 82%. Furthermore, both players’ passes go forwards exactly 38% of the time and backwards 44% of the time (freaky).
Where they can be separated, is in their passing success in different zones of the pitch. Ivanovic’s defensive zone pass completion is 94% while Azpilicueta’s is 87%. The Serb is a little more reliable in possession it seems in defence, which will ultimately lead to less defensive errors.
That said, Azpilicueta’s passing is more accurate further up the pitch. In the opponents half, Azpilicueta’s passing accuracy is 74%, while Ivanovic’s is 66%. Moreover, the former players’ passing success actually rises when he moves into the final third (75%) while the Serbian falls even further to 62%.
What these statistics represent is one individual who is more reliable when in possession in his own defensive zone, and another who is a more dangerous passer when going forwards. It is also worth giving mention to the fact that a lot of Chelsea’s passing game has taken place along the back four this season, in attempt to make the opponent bite so that they abandon their deep and compact defensive positions. In doing so, each of the Chelsea defenders’ defensive passing success is higher than it would usually be, since they will making simpler passes amongst each other more often. In light of this it is reasonable to say that Azpilicueta’s statistics in this department would have been better this season than they are from his time last year.
A full back’s ability to go around players with the ball at his feet and to cross are the two most important attributes from an attacking perspective – as they are for any wide player.
It may surprise you to learn that Ivanovic has a dribble completion percentage of 57%, compared to Azpilicueta’s 28%. The latter does, however, attempt more dribbles (every 87.84 minutes) compared to the former (every 128.57 minutes), although neither of them enter into take-ons particularly often. When they do however, it is Ivanovic that is typically more dangerous.
Azpilicueta is the better crosser of the ball, with 29% of his crosses finding a Chelsea player; only 16% of Ivanovic’s do the same. Considering that they both cross the ball with similar frequency, Ivanovic every 24 minutes and Azpilicueta every 25 minutes, it is clearly Azpilicueta who is the dominant footballer in this department.
This is likely what has contributed the most (along with his final third passing accuracy) to Azpilicueta being the more creative of the two. He creates a chance every 92 minutes while it takes Ivanovic more than double this on average to create a goal scoring opportunity (every 225 minutes).
It is very useful to compare the statistics from these two players, although I should probably remind you at this point that all of Azpilicueta’s stats have come from the 2012/13 season (not this season!). Since it is uncontroversial that Mourinho and Benitez/Di Matteo play a different system, philosophy and style, it is quite possible that Azpilicueta’s stats, for better or for worse, would not have been the same were they taken from as many minutes under Mourinho this season.
Nonetheless, they should certainly not be discounted and Azpilicueta certainly has a good case to be given a run of games in the Premier League, a point many Chelsea fans will tell you.
Going on this analysis alone, he is clearly the better right-back in attack, with his passing, crossing and general creativity far superior to Ivanovic. He is also not a lot worse at defending; you could even make the argument that he is better, but what Ivanovic does have that the Spaniard doesn’t is incredible aerial ability. This is important not only in defence, but as an attacking threat from set-plays and there is no doubt that it would be missed were Azpilicueta to take his place.
There is of course a solution to this, or at least a semi-solution. Ivanovic could always be moved back into central defence, (what he and many others would consider to be his natural position) this way you would not lose any of his aerial defensive strengths. This would, however, mean dropping an in-form Gary Cahill, as well as pushing David Luiz further down the pecking order.
Certainly this has been a difficult article to write since both players have such even quality – and there is also the fact that I had to type “Azpilicueta” 26 times…