Eden Hazard is understandably the toast of current-era Chelsea. John Terry has been under global football’s searing spotlight for nearly a decade. Diego Costa and Cesc Fàbregas, and more recently Nemanja Matić, monopolized English - and indeed European - headlines for months at a time during last year’s season-long Premier League coronation.
At Chelsea Football Club, to be a lodestone for acclaim (and criticism, for that matter) is expected. Yet there is César Azpilicueta, rarely in the broadsheets or on the tele; the diminutive Spaniard’s sheer existence goes against what’s expected of a regular first-team player at a club the size and with the ambition of Chelsea.
Unlike his teammates, Azpilicueta goes about his business in relative obscurity. Though it must be said, that business is of the highest quality. He is, to broadly generalize, every Chelsea supporter’s second favorite player.
Azpilicueta is also, in what can only be described as some kind of farcical irony, England’s second favorite fullback, having been overlooked in successive award seasons by the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) despite being the best left-back in the league during that time by a significant margin. Unheeded in favor of Luke Shaw for the 2013-14 PFA Team of the Year and former Chelsea starlet Ryan Bertrand for the 2014-15 edition, Azpilicueta remains one of football’s best kept secrets.
How that is even remotely possible beggars belief.
Azpilicueta’s third season in England was unequivocally his best. The soon-to-be 26-year-old made 40 appearances for the club, hardly putting a foot wrong in the process. A new-age simpleton adept on either flank, Azpilicueta skips the eye-catching and the elaborate for the effective. Marking, tracking, distribution - it’s all done with what seems like effortless assurance. Coupled with both physical and mental strength, selfless commitment and a big-game appetite rarely seen amongst today’s crop of player, Azpilicueta is manager Jose Mourinho’s archetypical fullback.
Don’t believe me? Just ask Gary Neville: “When I watch him, he’s as near to perfect as possible when it comes to defending; he’s immaculate,” the former Manchester United fullback said on Monday Night Football in November.
Neville certainly isn’t his only admirer. Mourinho clearly loves the player - recall his “11 Azpilicuetas” comment in February 2014 - and Chelsea moved to ensure Azpilicueta’s long-term future at the club by extending his contract by another five years at the beginning of September. As if there was any doubt, Azpilicueta’s end-of-season form showed exactly why Chelsea locked him down, the Spaniard first straightjacketing former Blue Juan Mata in a 1-0 home victory against Manchester United before dominating Arsenal’s right flank in an imperious 10-tackle defensive clinic the next week at the Emirates.
In perhaps his finest performance of the season, Azpilicueta helped guide Chelsea to its first of two trophies in the Capital One Cup final. He was arguably the best player at Wembley Stadium on March 1, registering eight tackles and five interceptions in the Blues’ 2-0 victory over Tottenham - this without committing a single foul and playing the final 15 minutes a bandaged bloody mess following a thwack to the head from Eric Dier.
In fact, Azpilicueta finished the season with just two bookings, one of the yellow variety and the only red of his career (against Crystal Palace in October). Chelsea conceded just 0.69 goals a game with Azpilicueta on the pitch - a statistic no regular first-team Premier League defender can match. The most consistent defender in England? It’s hard to argue otherwise.
And to think, prior to the start of the season, many wondered if Azpilicueta would continue to even start, much less develop to the extent he has. The arrival of Filipe Luís in July 2014 for just under £16million left even the staunchest advocates of Azpilicueta cautious. The then 29-year-old Luís had just played a pivotal role in Atlético Madrid’s extraordinary run to the La Liga title and to the cusp of lifting the UEFA Champions League trophy, and was considered by more than one educated party to be the most complete left-back in the world at the time.
The Brazilian’s touchdown in London a season removed from serving as a pillar of Europe’s meanest defense, coupled with Branislav Ivanović being entrenched on the right, left Azpilicueta’s first-team place in question. Well, not really. So flawless was Azpilicueta that Luís hardly featured and has since left the club to return back to Madrid.
Azpilicueta may remain Ivanović’s long-term successor on the right, but his immediate future undoubtedly is at left-back, where he continues to astound. His skillset and reliability is essential to Mourinho’s game plan and, moreover, provides Hazard with the freedom to express himself on the attacking end, which, as any Premier League defender will tell you, is frightening.
Understated, indispensable - that’s César Azpilicueta. Continued excellence is guaranteed for the defender as we enter the 2015-16 season; becoming the best fullback in world football, meanwhile, seems more of a “when” than “if.”
We Ain't Got No History's 2015/16 season preview was edited by Joe Tweeds and designed by Graham MacAree. If you've enjoyed the work of the authors who generously donated their time to this project, please share with your friends and consider supporting The Chelsea Foundation as a way of saying thank you.Credits