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Azpilicueta identifies the defense as Chelsea’s ‘big problem’

‘Essential’ improvements needed across the board, but especially at the back

Arsenal v Chelsea - FA Cup Final Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

César Azpilicueta’s first season as Chelsea captain ended on a rather disappointing note, on just about every level, in the 2-1 loss to Arsenal in the FA Cup final.

Faced with a fantastic opportunity to lift his first trophy as club captain after 386 games in Chelsea blue, Dave was not only shockingly average in his defending and marking of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, he was also unable to see out the full game due to just the second major injury of his career — the literal injury to the insult. (The first was a torn ACL back in 2010, when he was still with Marseille.)

He’s played through broken cheekbones, broken fingerbones, and probably a minor strain or seven, but the hamstring gave out just before half-time at Wembley, and there was no way for him to continue. And we had one more match left in the season after as well.

As far as I can tell, that Bayern game was just the second ever game he’s missed through injury for Chelsea after a January 17, 2015 match against Swansea City (and certainly the first since then) — though he was back three days later for the dramatic League Cup semifinal against Liverpool, so there was probably plenty of precaution in that decision. The sign above Azpi’s locker about days missed through injury had stopped being able to count a long time ago.

UPDATE: Azpi also missed an FA Cup tie against Middlesbrough in late February 2013. Many of us figured that was just precaution at the time, and sure enough he was again back just a few days later.

Incidentally, Azpilicueta’s flawless Premier League attendance that stretches back to that missed Swansea match — 206 straight matchday squads, 198 starts, including 176 of the last 180 — is not under threat. He should be back by the time the new season starts a month from now.

What could threaten his playing time instead is a much more mundane proposition: Chelsea need to improve in defense, perhaps even more so than we need to improve in attack. That issue is certainly not lost on the captain either, as he explained in a recent interview with the Chelsea official website.

“The story of a lot of games this season has been that we were not clinical in the boxes. In the attacking box, we have missed chances but I think the big problem was that sometimes we were playing well but we were not strong enough in our box.

“I always think of the offensive and defensive phases as a team and as a unit we know we have to keep improving at the back. We have to reduce the numbers of goals conceded if we want to close the gap because it’s a big difference.”

-César Azpilicueta; source: Chelsea FC

Couldn’t have said it better myself. But while Azpilicueta is far from the weakest link at the back, he is by far the oldest. Not even 11 Azpilicuetas could stop the passage of time.

I’m of course not saying we should write him off. That’d be a foolish bet to make, especially with two years still left on his contract. But he will turn 31 in a couple weeks, and time waits for no man. That I can tell you for a fact.

As one of the few elder statesmen left, the captain and active appearances leader — he has more than twice as many as the next player on the list, N’Golo Kanté with 170 — Azpi will be needed to help guide and nurture the new generation into the winners we all want them to become.

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