Where can you play César Azpilicueta and not watch him exceed expectations? When Chelsea acquired him for a miserly £7m six years go he was a run-of-the-mill right back. Soon, he became a security blanket at left back, the best in the Premier League. A bit later, he stunned the footballing world with his excellence at centre-back in a three-man line under Antonio Conte.
And now Maurizio Sarri has him as a high-pressing, at times even attacking right back — and Dave loves it.
Clearly, this is not a man deterred by risk. He embraces it, no matter how obvious the dangers of a high line are and how little he’s played it in his years at Stamford Bridge.
“I prefer to defend as far as possible up the pitch. It’s different and you can see we press very high, the defensive line is very high but that’s what we want. We want to be dominant in the game and recover the ball as quick as possible and enjoy the ball when we have it.”
And that bit about quick attackers breaking the line?
“You have the striker where you want him, as far as possible from the goal. These days, even when you are in the box you cannot feel safe because the quality the strikers have. It’s more complicated to defend there.”
In the last few months we’ve come to learn that although the attacking end of Sarrismo is the most attention-getting part of his tactics, it’s the defending that will take the longest to learn. That’s because it asks players to break instincts they’ve relied on since their youth days.
Traditional defending, the defending of Conte and Jose Mourinho, protects space. But Sarri-ball doesn’t defend space, it defends against the ball. Defenders — indeed, all ten outfield players — position themselves not to defend areas of the pitch, but to attack the ball wherever it may be.
“It is different. But it helps that he (Sarri) tells you very clearly what he wants and we analyse every game to see where we can improve. Defensively he says we want to be looking at the ball the whole time, high pressing. We’re all working in training to get it as good as possible.
“Even though we had a good start, I think we can still improve. We’re a very good team. We’ve been working very hard to get into that new idea of football. It is still September so hopefully there is some room for improvement.”
Speaking of improvement, Azpilicueta sees the same thing we’re all seeing when he watches Eden Hazard play this season; same old quality, brand new attitude. That long-missing killer instinct, the greed of a goal scorer, has finally surfaced, with five goals and two assists in just three full games and two substitute appearances.
“I know Eden, we came here together and I played against him in France so I have seen him for a long time but, yes, I’m sure he can be the best. He has that quality of eliminating defenders. It’s amazing. But this season he is adding goals and assists. Sometimes he was playing very good but maybe not selfish; he always gives passes to team-mates.
“Messi, Cristiano, they score 50 goals a year and that is very difficult in England. But from his point of view, if he’s more aggressive in the box by scoring goals and making assists, he will be the top of his game. In normal play he can create chances. It looks very easy. He goes quick, he scores with both feet.”
A new mentality has changed Eden’s game. And Azpi thinks mentality will also be the key to Chelsea’s success this season. The Blues are underdogs, an unusual position for a club that won two of the last four Premier League titles. But when we slump, we slump hard. Last season City were thirty points clear of us. That’s a lot of ground to make up.
“It’s up to us to close that gap. We have to work hard and if we keep working the way we are doing, we can be close to City. We have to show it on the pitch. Off the pitch it’s silly to talk about. Two years ago, when we won the title, it was opposite. We were top of the table and they couldn’t get us.
“Mentality is key in winning the league. It’s a very tough league and you have to fight against very good teams. No team give you any gifts. The moment to tell about this is on the pitch — and in May.”
-César Azpilicueta; source: Daily Mail
You listen to this stuff and you appreciate why Sarri has given Azpiliucueta the captain’s armband so often. Would anyone have a problem if he made it permanent?
Azpilicueta gave this interview to the Mail to help promote the work of the Chelsea Foundation, who were putting on an education and coaching session at Fulham Primary School as part of this season’s Premier League Primary Stars Kit and Equipment Scheme.
Despite playing professionally for Osasuna while he was in still high school, Dave still finished his schooling and even began courses at Pamplona University before the demands on his time became too great. He’s a big believer in the value of a proper education.
“I stayed at school until 18. When you’re a kid, Osasuna is your club, from your home town. I was going to them every game. And then I was a 17-year-old making my debut when I was at school. Of course, all my friends were watching. I would go to the stadium with my school friends to watch the games and then a few days later, I was playing!
“They had to help me and I made a big effort to finish high school and it was worth it.”
A good man on the pitch. A good man in the dressing room. And a good man in the classroom.
A role model.