Cesar Azpilicueta lifts Chelsea via the underrated art of not taking any sh*t
Cesar Azpilicueta can be excused for feeling like the odd one out at Chelsea.
After a season in which Frank Lampard entrusted the youth and a summer in which Frank Lampard entrusted Roman Abramovich’s chequebook, Azpilicueta is something of an anachronism at Stamford Bridge.
At 31, Azpilicueta is by no means one for the future. A €7million signing from Marseille 10 years ago, nor is he the type of name to set supporters’ pulses racing.
Alongside Kurt Zouma, six years his junior, Azpilicueta is one of only two players left at Chelsea to have featured regularly under Jose Mourinho in west London. But when it comes to this Chelsea squad, perhaps being something of a throwback is not quite the backhanded compliment it seems. When you think of where Chelsea have been and where they are now, it’s actually very bloody valuable.
Reinvention is nothing new for the Spain international. Initially signed as a right-back, he initially established himself in the side as a left-back, ushering Ashley Cole out of the door and winning the Players’ Player of the Year award in 2013-14 before adding Premier League and League Cup winner’s medals the following season.
Upon Antonio Conte’s arrival, Azpilicueta then evolved into one of the Premier League’s most underrated creative forces from the right-hand-side of a back three. And under Maurizio Sarri and now Lampard, Azpilicueta has once again taken on a new persona, this time as a snarling shithouse, always first in the ear of the referee and the face of the opposition – in other words, the ideal club captain.
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While Chelsea try to forge a new identity under Lampard, having a link back to the days of serial winning under Mourinho and Conte among the playing squad could prove valuable to a group of young players yet to develop the same mentality. Even if his days as a fixture of the starting XI are no more, Azpilicueta can still pass on a crucial lesson; namely, don’t take any shit, whether that’s from the opposition or each other.
The evidence has been there in recent weeks. First, Azpilicueta was forced to watch on from the bench as Thiago Silva’s Chelsea debut descended into farce as West Brom scored three times in the opening half. Handed the captain’s armband in Azpilicueta’s absence, Silva was embarrassingly robbed of the ball by Callum Robinson, leading to the Baggies’ third.
Azpilicueta was parachuted in at half-time, taking the armband back off Silva, and was pictured giving the former Brazil and PSG skipper firm instructions before the game kicked back off. For all that is made of Lampard’s tactical acumen, or lack thereof, sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to send on a player who is going to tell his team-mates, ‘Lads, let’s stop playing like dickheads.’
Marcos Alonso & Kovacic are OFF ❌
Hudson-Odoi & Azpilicueta are ON ✅
Two changes for Chelsea at half-time 🔵 pic.twitter.com/IvfbZkByIB
— Football Daily (@footballdaily) September 26, 2020
With Azpilicueta on the pitch, Chelsea kept a clean sheet in the second half to provide the foundations for their comeback in salvaging a 3-3 draw.
The full-back even registered an assist for Mason Mount’s stunner which kickstarted the recovery, albeit with a straightforward five-yard pass, but he provided a much more skilful assist for Timo Werner in Chelsea’s next fixture, against Tottenham in the League Cup, sending compatriot Sergio Reguilon back to Madrid with a cheeky dummy.
After conceding three times in 45 minutes at The Hawthorns, Chelsea have now conceded just once in 180 minutes since Azpilicueta was restored to the team. His first Premier League start of the season coincided with Chelsea’s first clean sheet in the league this term in the 4-0 victory over Crystal Palace, but once again it was his control of dressing room egos that caught the eye.
Tammy Abraham initially insisted on taking Chelsea’s second penalty of the game just four minutes after Jorginho had converted from the spot towards the end of the game. Abraham refused to budge when Werner asked to take the penalty instead, so Azpilicueta averted a potentially awkward situation with a simple solution: neither player would take the penalty as Jorginho is the club’s designated taker. Jorginho scored.
Tammy Abraham is not happy about this 😠
César Azpilicueta has to pull the striker away from the spot as he wanted to take the penalty…
Jorginho makes no mistake (again) 👊 pic.twitter.com/l4dQylb5Y5
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) October 3, 2020
“It’s been dealt with in the dressing room,” Lampard told BT Sport after the match. “No problems, it’s been dealt with. I want leaders and I don’t mind a little conflict.
“If Tammy wanted to take it and wants the goal, then he can get put in his place a little bit. I appreciate his eagerness because his performance deserved a goal, but those are the rules.
“You don’t jump the list at any moment unless someone is on a hat-trick. We are so comfortable that I decide.”
As he’s got older, Azpilicueta has got quite good at putting people in their place. Maybe that’s part of what makes him the odd one out at Stamford Bridge. Maybe that’s exactly what Lampard needs from his captain right now.
By Rob Conlon