Chelsea have been gifted with a wonderful servant in the form of Cesar Azpilicueta, who has been a terrific defender for them. Under current coach Maurizio Sarri he’s being deployed at right-back, as Chelsea hope to unleash Sarriball. But is ‘Azpi’ the optimal fit for the Italian? This analysis will use statistics to take a look.
This probably is not the best time to present these views, as Azpilicueta had a stellar game on Saturday. He turned in a mammoth defensive performance as the Blues prevailed over Manchester City 2-0. The Spaniard made 13 tackles in the game to lead Chelsea‘s resolute defensive display.
However, the problem is Chelsea and Azpilicueta don’t have to produce such displays often. Sarri’s footballing ideology stresses the principles of possession, pressing, and fluid attacking play. The Italian likes his full-backs to fit a certain mold, and Azpilicueta perhaps does not fit the bill perfectly.
Chelsea’s average ball possession is 61.8% in the league, which is only bettered by Manchester City. The Blues play the majority of games in the opposition half, and the full-backs provide the real width. Inside forwards like Eden Hazard, Pedro and Willian drift into the central regions.
Here is the average position of the Chelsea players in home wins over Fulham and Crystal Palace.
Look at how Hazard, Willian and Pedro maintain their narrow positions and the full-backs move into the wide areas. More often than not, the opposition manager prefers a compact backline against Chelsea. Maintaining width is therefore crucial, and Azpilicueta does not seem to do it as effectively as compatriot Marcos Alonso.
It’s not his fault either. As an orthodox defender, Azpilicueta is one of the best in the world. He excelled as a left-back under the pragmatic Jose Mourinho. Then he did the same under Conte, lining up as a centre-back in a trio. But Sarri’s full-back role demands something else.
Detrimental to the attack?
Alonso has taken 1.4 shots per game in the league this season, compared to Azpilicueta’s 0.3 per game. Alonso’s dribbles and key passes are more as well. In the recent home game against Fulham, Alonso made 23 passes in the final third. Azpilicueta, meanwhile, made just 14.
Aside from the statistics, Azpilicueta’s attacking weaknesses often slow down Chelsea’s play. Hazard loves to come in on his right foot, draw defenders towards him, and play the ball on the right wing which is open as a result. The Belgian used to spread the ball to Victor Moses to great success last season. But now he often has to beckon to Azpilicueta to go forward.
What could be done?
Despite these shortcomings, Azpilicueta is still vital to this Chelsea side. The skipper’s leadership, composure, and defensive nous are irreplaceable. But if Chelsea really want to become an elite side, recruiting a well-suited right-back is not a bad option. Napoli man Elseid Hysaj is apparently on Sarri’s watchlist.
Azpilicueta is still the best man for the high-pressure games like the ones against City. Chelsea’s attack, however, could benefit by signing someone like Hysaj. David Luiz’s erratic performances could open a door for Azpi to move into the centre-back role as well.
Hazard’s contract and bringing in attacking players is arguably the more pertinent task for Sarri. Discussing Azpilicueta’s role at the club may be classified as nitpicking at this point in time. But if Chelsea want to purr like Napoli did last season, then they must address the issue sooner than later.
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