When the PFA Team of the Year, containing four Chelsea players, was revealed last week, it omitted the Premier League leaders’ best defender: Cesar Azpilicueta.
Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kante were shoo-ins, but the other two Blues to make the XI play at the other end of the pitch.
Gary Cahill has captained Chelsea with poise this season, providing a different brand of leadership to John Terry, though his goal in Tuesday’s 4-1 defeat of Southampton replicated his erstwhile partner’s taste for the big occasion. Meanwhile, David Luiz, the central man in Antonio Conte’s core defensive trio, has been able to assert his qualities in bringing the ball forward and show English doubters that he is not the unreliable maverick he was painted as during his previous spell at Stamford Bridge.
Both of them, though, owe much of this season’s success to the adaptability and dependability of their other partner. Azpilicueta is far less flashy, but is no less accomplished than those alongside him.
On Saturday, with Cahill absent through sickness, it was Azpilicueta who Conte asked to captain the team at Wembley in a 4-2 FA Cup semifinal defeat of Tottenham that looks to have turned the tide of the season back in favour of the west Londoners.
The 27-year-old Spain international is now a senior player at the club he joined from Marseille in August 2012 for £7.5 million. Not counting goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois (who spent three years on loan at Atletico), aside from Cahill and the imminently departing Terry, only Hazard has been at the Bridge for as long.
“We are all part of the players who help the new players who come to this club to understand the standards of Chelsea and show them what it is to be in this club and to fight for trophies,” Azpilicueta told reporters at Wembley. “This is something you cannot buy. It’s something you earn.”
Such motivational sentiments might have come from Terry himself. With the “captain, leader, legend” leaving in the summer and Cahill’s continuing selection not set in stone should Chelsea be able to purchase a player more suited to his left-hand side position, then Azpilicueta might even find himself a more regular captain for Conte.
“We found players not to adapt, but to play in different roles compared to the past,” Conte said in March. “Like Azpi, he is incredible in this new role. He is one of the best in the world in this role.”
Azpilicueta had previously been a full-back of significant distinction, serving as Spain’s first-choice right-back at the 2014 World Cup before being displaced by Atletico Madrid’s Juanfran, and as an ultra-consistent performer in Chelsea’s 2014-15 Premier League title win. Jose Mourinho was a confirmed admirer of a player who fit his coach’s preferred template of a hard worker.
“Football is not just about the pure talent,” Mourinho, who mostly employed Azpilicueta as a defensively-minded left-back, said back in 2014. “Football is also about character and personality and Azpilicueta has all those traces of a winning personality.”
There were even putative links of a Mourinho-Azpilicueta reunion at Manchester United, but such a deal was always unlikely. At Chelsea, Azpilicueta is a true unsung hero — literally, because of the difficulty of crowbarring his surname into a chant (though goes by the affectionate nickname of “Dave.”)
Wider recognition has been slow in coming, though Azpilicueta’s absence from this season’s PFA team was surely only a matter of it being selected in the orthodox 4-4-2 formation that has not been in wide use for the last five years or so, something that may need to be rethought.
Back in the 1970s teams were selected in 4-3-3, while Conte’s usual 3-4-3 — though he started with a 3-5-2 on Tuesday — has been used by each of the Premier League’s top seven teams since he rolled it out in September. Even Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger abandoned the habits of 20 years by reverting to the same approach in winning 3-1 at Middlesbrough last week and then defeating Manchester City 2-1 in Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal.
Chelsea’s recent defensive record — no clean sheet in the Premier League since Jan. 22 — suggests that Conte’s system has definite imperfections. Yet it was their late-2016 run of 13 successive wins, with just four goals conceded, that drove them to the top of the table. Azpilicueta’s adaptability was crucial to that and, while his performances may have slipped under the radar, the full-back turned centre-back has been one of the players of what may end up being a double-winning season for the Blues.