When Jose Mourinho returned to Chelsea, few expected him to keep César Azpilicueta. The right-back had only demonstrated his worth for Chelsea in occasional flashes, and, behind Branislav Ivanović in the pecking order, things were looking gloomy for the young Spaniard.
Fast forward several months, and nobody could have predicted how things would turn out for Azpilicueta. He is now one of the most established players in Mourinho’s new-look Chelsea side, having started 17 Premier League games this season, and has become a key part of the team. Instead of playing in his favoured position on the right-hand side of defence however, Azpilicueta has succeeded in displacing the stagnating Ashley Cole at left-back, and has adapted seamlessly to this new role. So much so, in fact, that he is now a Mourinho favourite.
In an interview last month, the Portuguese manager described how ’11 Azpilicuetas would probably win [the Champions League] because football is not just about pure talent, football is also about character and personality, and Azpilicueta has all the traces of that winning personality’. High praise indeed.
Above all, Azpilicueta is a team player, and Mourinho has taken a shine to him for precisely this reason. Some have compared his situation to that of Álvaro Arbeloa, who, despite not being the most flashy of right-backs, was largely consistent during Mourinho’s tenure at Real Madrid, and consequently became one of the manager’s favourites. However, comparing Azpilicueta to Arbeloa is futile. It is true that Arbeloa occasionally played at left-back for Madrid, but that is about as far as the comparisons go. The Chelsea full-back offers much more in terms of attack, and arguably more in defence as well.
Azpilicueta has sometimes been criticised for this feature of his game, but it seems that his defending is improving at left-back, where he has rarely been caught out this season, making an average of 3.6 tackles every Premier League game. Attacking remains one of Azpilicueta’s key strengths, but it is disappointing to see that the 24-year old has yet to register a single goal or assist this season in the league. On the other hand, it could be interpreted as a sign that Azpilicueta is adapting to his role as a team player. He has tended to stay back this season, preferring to leave the marauding to fellow full-back Ivanović. The signs point to Azpilicueta maturing and becoming a more complete player under Mourinho’s tutelage.
Right-back has become a problem position for Spain recently, with Arbeloa declining and seemingly out-of-favour at Madrid, and so there is every chance that Azpilicueta could be called up for La Roja ahead of the World Cup if he keeps up his current form. Del Bosque is assessing his options at right-back in the run-up to the tournament, demonstrated in the way that he decided to play Azpilicueta against Italy on Wednesday. The Chelsea full-back was outstanding, and the likelihood is that Arbeloa is now an outside bet to make the Spain squad after Azpilicueta’s performance. He faces stiff competition from the impressive Atlético right-back Juanfran to cement a place in the squad, but if he continues to mature in the way he has done over the last few months at Chelsea, a call from Vicente Del Bosque is highly likely.
César Azpilicueta has been one of Chelsea’s unsung heroes this season. While he may not be the long-term solution to replacing Ashley Cole (Mourinho seems to be interested in signing Luke Shaw), it will be interesting to see whether he is moved back to his more familiar position in the future, or whether Mourinho sees his future at left-back . From looking as if he might be offloaded at the beginning of the season to becoming a key player, Azpilicueta is simply making the most of each opportunity.