For a long time after Cesar Azpilicueta joined Chelsea, it was difficult to know what to say about the defender.
At the time of Azpilicueta’s arrival in the summer of 2012, Chelsea were the reigning champions of Europe. Roberto Di Matteo was manager. Eden Hazard and Oscar had joined as the sexy signings. The squad still contained that revered old guard of Petr Cech, Ashley Cole, John Terry, Frank Lampard and, in Azpilicueta’s position, Branislav Ivanovic.
Why would anyone talk about an uncapped Spanish full-back, signed for just £7million from France, other than to point out the #bantz that he went by the moniker ‘Dave’ because…well, because he had to share a changing room with John Terry.
For a while it stayed that way. Twenty-three-years-old at the time, he didn’t make his first Premier League start until November. Nobody ever grew too attached to Asier del Horno, did they?
But things began to change upon the second coming of Jose Mourinho. Suddenly Azpilicueta was thrust into the spotlight as the man keeping Cole out of the side after being switched to left-back.
“I think a team with 11 Azpilicuetas would probably win the competition because football is not just about the pure talent,” Mourinho said of the player ahead of a Champions League knockout tie in February 2014.
“Football is also about character and personality and Azpilicueta has all the traces of that winning personality.”
Azpilicueta's reaction to Pedro's goal against Tottenham 🙌 the man loves Chelsea! pic.twitter.com/p6odviqRyB
— SNM (@JackCook95) February 28, 2019
By the end of Mourinho’s first season back in charge of Chelsea, Azpilicueta was named the Players’ Player of the Year at Chelsea and had established himself as Spain’s first-choice right-back for the World Cup.
A first Premier League title followed in 2014-15, but it was under Antonio Conte that Azpilicueta marked himself out as a unique talent.
Starting the season at left-back, he was converted into a right-sided centre-half after Conte switched to a 3-4-3. Off the ball, what Azpilicueta lacked in physical prowess he made up for intelligence and sheer competitiveness. On the ball, he provided Chelsea with a rare weapon as a central defender that could bring the ball forward and pick out a dangerous cross.
“In this position as a central defender he is one of the best in the world,” Conte said in September 2017.
Yet personal accolades rarely came his way. Despite excelling in such a range of positions for two title-winning sides, Azpilicueta has never been named in the PFA Team of the Year, whereas the meat-and-potatoes defending of Gary Cahill has earned three separate selections.
That seems unlikely to change. There is a growing sense that Azpilicueta’s best years are now behind him, which should come as no surprise given he has played in an outrageous 97.8% of Chelsea’s total Premier League minutes since the start of 2015-16, a tally that will no doubt take its toll on his body.
Any limitations have only seen the now-30-year-old adapt his game once more. A player so loved by Mourinho was always going to have to be a bit of a bastard, and he has now embraced his inner-shithouse. A cynical and nasty streak has become increasingly more evident.
As club captain and a rare experienced head in an otherwise young team, it’s almost admirable the way Azpilicueta takes it upon himself to be the first to snarl at opposition players and referees alike.
It takes commendable needle to provoke the usually unflappable Harry Kane into a headbutt or jokingly offer to pay Neil Warnock’s fine after your blatantly offside goal threatened to make Colin spontaneously combust. What’s more, it’s all delivered with an understated lack of pantomime that Chelsea’s previous chief-shithouse, Diego Costa, could have learned a thing or two from.
There is a more serious point to this all. As Chelsea’s old guard have gradually left the club, Azpilicueta has stepped up as a leader, as shown by his composed and measured response to the racist abuse team-mate Antonio Rudiger was subjected to at Tottenham on Sunday.
While the Stamford Bridge faithful can be forgiven for focussing on the excitement of seeing their talented crop of youngsters finally being given a chance, there should always be a place in their hearts for the win-at-all-costs bloody-mindedness of Apzilicueta: Captain. Leader. Shithouse.