Chelsea have consolidated their position at the top of the league after making it eleven successive victories in the Premier League. After back-to-back defeats earlier in the season against Liverpool and Arsenal, Antonio Conte decided that the 4-2-3-1 formation wasn’t working out. The Italian opted to move to a 3-4-3 system that he has become known for during his coaching career. There have always been doubts in England about formations containing three at the back and that caused some to be sceptical of Conte when he was appointed. However, the former Juventus and Azzurri coach has led Chelsea on one of the best runs in the club’s history and deserves a lot of credit for that.
One reason why many doubted Conte’s reputation before the season was because people didn’t think Chelsea had the players to suit playing three at the back. John Terry is set in his ways and would struggle to adapt; Gary Cahill has never played in such a system and David Luiz is an unpredictable maverick. None of them are suited to the system, but Conte has formed a defence that is formidable with two of them in it. The players that is used alongside David Luiz and Gary Cahill is one of the stars of Chelsea’s season and that is Cesar Azpilicueta.
The Spaniard arrived as a right back in 2012 and was quickly transitioned to left back as there was a gap in the squad after the departure of Ashley Cole. He was a revelation on that side of the pitch, showing his adaptability and tactical awareness, which have also come to the fore this season as he has been moved to a centre back role. The 27-year-old is playing on the right hand side of the back three and he has played a key role in Chelsea’s success, while helping the other two defenders learn the system. Azpilicueta is an intelligent player, who is happy to learn and that is the main reason he has become a prominent figure under Conte, which has seen him rewarded with a new contract.
His new role suits him, as he has the freedom to express himself and join attacks on occasion, as he did on Saturday to provide Diego Costa’s goal with a great cross. However, there is less expectation on him to attack and he can focus on defending. This is important for Chelsea as the Spaniard is their most reliable defender. Although he has changed positions, he has always been able to compete physically with the strongest players in the league and he showed that on Saturday as he came up against Christian Benteke.
Azpilicueta is an excellent reader of the game and is rarely caught out of position. The pace at which he has adapted to his new role is impressive and it has helped Chelsea build a significant lead at the top of the table ahead of Christmas day. His mentality also needs to be mentioned as some full backs would have dropped intensity had they been moved to a central role, but it has been the opposite with Azpilicueta. He appears determined to become even better in this role than he was at full back and that shows the qualities that have impressed Conte.
The Chelsea defence has kept nine clean sheets since the formation change, highlighting how solid they have become at the back. Every player on the pitch has contributed, but it is difficult not to see Azpilicueta as being the side’s best defender during this period. He is excellent at retrieving the ball, competes well in the air and has distributed the ball effectively to begin attacks. His transition to a new role has been seamless and it has gone relatively unnoticed. Although every Chelsea player has done well, the majority are operating in areas of the pitch that they are used to being in. Azpilicueta isn’t and that is why he has stood out most for me.