Antonio Conte’s astute tactics and masterful style of play was one of the major reason behind Chelsea’s title-winning run last season. The meteoric rise of Victor Moses as a genuine wingback, the revelation of Eden Hazard, the ball-winning ability of Kante; all of these was duly noted and given the fair share of the limelight. However, one player slipped under the radar despite being the key to Chelsea’s success was Cesar Azpilicueta.
After the defeats to Arsenal and Liverpool, Conte shifted to 3-4-3, the formation which brought him much success at Juventus. Many players were handed new positions as the Italian found the correct balance between attack and defence. Cesar Azpilicueta, a right-back by trade had played a large chunk of his Chelsea career as a left-back before Conte deployed him as a right-sided centre-back.
The Spaniard took it like a duck to water and has thrived in the centre-back role since.
The 28-year-old Spain international was involved in every minute of Premier League football for the Blues last season. Along with David Luiz and Gary Cahill, the versatile defender formed a formidable backline. Despite having individual flaws, the three nullified their weakness with each other’s strengths. They conceded 33 goals, bettered only by Tottenham’s back four with 26 goals.
Victor Moses, another player who was given an unfamiliar role by Conte rejuvenated his career as both his offensive and defensive display was a pleasant surprise to the fans. Nevertheless, there were occasions where he was caught out of position. Fortunately for him, Azpilicueta was there who rarely failed to cover and fill in the spaces left behind.
“Last season Azpi was one of the most important players for us. I think in this position, as a centre-back he is one of the best of the world. I think this about him. He is very good with the ball and without it. He is a fantastic guy, he is always positive. In the training session, he works in a fantastic way. Azpi is a fantastic player, for a coach to have him is a dream.” Conte after the 6-0 win over Qarabag.
More than a regular centre-back
The seamless transition from a left-back to a centre-back in a turbulent and hostile English environment is not something many players can survive. To think he has positively thrived exhibits his quality and adaptability as a defender.
There are many other qualities which makes him all the more impressive. His one-on-one defending is second to none. Along with this, his positional sense is another huge asset as he always seems to be a step or two ahead of his opponents.
The arrival of Alvaro Morata from Madrid has shown his creative side. The versatile defender along with the former Madrid man is the top assist-to-scorer combo (4) in Europe’s top five leagues. The Spaniard has already notched four assists in just seven games, equalling his assist tally of last season. Being a natural fullback, his ability to move into attacking positions and deliver delicious through balls and crosses has been seen a plenty times since last season.
The Spaniard has demonstrated the ball-playing ability of the highest level completing 2097 successful passes, highest in the Premier League last season. His performance has been nothing short of outstanding, the stats flaunting the same. The former Marseille man made 71 interceptions last season, more than the likes of Jan Vertonghen and Eric Bailly.
A crucial factor for determining a good centre-back also includes his aerial ability. Azpilicueta has been tantamount to this task as he won an impressive 72 aerial duels last season. To add on, he made zero defensive errors which goes on to demonstrate how well he adapted the centre-back role.
(The stats has been taken from Squawka.)
Chelsea’s number 28 looks set to play a decisive role for the blues as they look to retain the Premier League title in the coming months.