When thinking of Chelsea defenses in the previous decade, the first name that comes to mind is John Terry. But when thinking of Chelsea defenses in this decade, the first name that probably comes to mind is César Azpilicueta. While he didn’t join the club until after our Champions League victory, it feels like he’s been with Chelsea forever. Now onto his seventh different manager (Di Matteo, Benítez, Mourinho, Hiddink, Conte, Sarri, Lampard), he’s proven versatile enough to play on either the left or right as a fullback, or even in central defense. Unfortunately, these miles have taken their toll on César — or Dave, as we often affectionately know him — and the cracks in the visage are starting to appear.
The Early Years
A Young Start
Born in Pamplona, Azpilicueta joined his hometown club CA Osasuna as a youth, and made his La Liga debut in April 2007 against Real Madrid. He became a regular the following season, as an 18 year old, playing right back. He played three full seasons at Osasuna, amassing 2764, 3192, and 3359 overall minutes, respectively.
He also played with the U19s for Spain in 2007, winning the UEFA European Championship, and joined the U21s for the 2009 European Championships. He made the provisional cut for the 2010 FIFA World Cup senior squad, but did not make the final list.
Viva La France!
He transfered to Olympique Marseille in the summer of 2010, and immediately began collecting both Ligue 1 and Champions League minutes, before rupturing the ACL in his left knee. That put him on the shelf for six months. He returned strong for Marseille, playing big minutes the following season (3821 overall), and starting to gather interest from other clubs around Europe, including in the Premier League. Azpilicueta agreed to a move a week before the end of the 2012 summer transfer window, with Chelsea paying just £8m to acquire the then 22-year-old’s services.
Like A Rock...
Dave has played big minutes for the club ever since joining up. His lowest total from 2012-13 to 2018-19 is 3367 (during the 2014-15 season), but he’s averaging 4148 minutes per season overall. He’s actually trending up as he’s entered his prime years, hitting a peak of 4867 minutes overall last season, due in part to our successful Europa League run and our deep EFL run.
This is color coded to show the club/league trend, with reds for La Liga, greens for Ligue 1, and blues for the Premier League. European Competitions get the pink/purple flair.
As his involvement increased, so have his responsibilities, and he’s taken on more of a leadership role in the clubhouse as well. He became Vice-Captain for the 2017-18 season, maintaining that role in into last season as well, while also being de-facto Captain in place of Gary Cahill. With Cahill gone, Azpilicueta has been evidently promoted to captain by Lampard.
Where He Stands
Between all of the minutes, and all of the responsibility, not to mention all of the trophies earned, Azpilicueta has become Chelsea’s defensive foundation. To put that into perspective, he’s now 28th on the all-time appearances list, one ahead of Ashley Cole’s 338.
Depending on how Frank uses him this season, Azpilicueta could quite possibly move into the Top 15 and the high 300s by this time next year, joining the likes of Mikel (372), Ivanović (377), and Didier Drogba (381). And he would still just be 30 years old. He could conceivably become the thirteenth player in the 400 club, and perhaps even the sixth player in the 500 club, if he keeps going at the current rate.
However, with Azpi getting such an early start to his professional career, he’s now just a hair under 44k minutes played altogether. He will be pushing close to 50k in about a couple years, so around the age of 32 or 33. That’s a lot of minutes. For comparison, Ashley Cole’s full career tally sits at around 59k minutes while Branislav Ivanović is currently at around 46.5k and counting.
And as a full back, a role that requires a lot of running back and forth, the step down from the top level happens right around this time. Ashley Cole finished his Chelsea career with 29k minutes, Ivanović with 31k. Azpilicueta is pushing past 29k as we speak. Neither Mikel nor Drogba hit such heights in minutes either, despite their many appearances, finishing their Chelsea careers with a little over 25k and a little over 27k minutes, respectively. Only Čech, Lampard, and Terry have significantly exceeded those totals in the last couple decades for the Blues, and none of them played in such dynamic positions.
The following chart lacks much of the historical data before the Premier League (blame Transfermarkt), but is a good indication of just how high up Azpilicueta is already.
...and All That
So what comes next for César Azpilicueta? With young Reece James anxious to recover from a minor injury and make his place at his boyhood and hometown club, where he’s been since the age of six, all signs point to our current Captain handing over the reins for that right full back spot sooner rather than later. When that does happen, perhaps as soon as this season, he’ll be applying his leadership from the sidelines and in the clubhouse, and hopefully helping young James learn and develop into the promising full back he almost certainly will become.
As for beyond this season, he’s still under contract at Chelsea until the end of the the 2021-22 season, so it’s not likely we sell him or move him on next season, either, as he makes a dependable backup on either side of the pitch — and perhaps in central defense as well — and is still quite able to provide mentorship and leadership from behind the scenes. It would be nice to see him end his career with Chelsea, if at all possible however, simply to reward his service to the club over the years.