Should Chelsea look towards a future beyond Cesar Azpilicueta?
Background image: Ben Sutherland, CC BY 2.0
Frank Lampard’s reign at Chelsea has seen its highs and lows, but the negatives are threatening to berate the positive developments. There’s no doubt on his influence in amplifying their attacking intensity, but his leaky-as-an-unstaunched-wench backline is beginning to cause unrest.
The fact they conceded thirty-nine goals in the whole divisive Premier League season under Maurizio Sarri, having already conceded nine is a worrying sign. Ever since their opening weekend thrashing to Manchester United, they’ve looked in sixes and sevens defensively.
However, what’s utmost bewildering is how their senior figure in defence is the root of many problems. Indeed, Cesar Azpilicueta, often regarded as Mr Dependable, has endured a breakdown. At a time when his younger counter-parts need him the most, the captain’s noticeable errors are beginning to impact the team morale.
While the Basque has amplified his effectiveness going forward in the new system which encourages him to surge further afield with the inverted wingers, he’s sacrificed his defensive strengths. He’s highly involved in games, averaging more than sixty passes per match. Even though a mediocre 44% crossing accuracy might tell otherwise, but he’s very involved in their electric attacking style.
But the constant errors at the back have overshadowed his offensive work. Be it breaking the offside trap rhythm, allowing wingers to trot past him or failing to stop assisting crosses, Azpilicueta has made glaring errors in judgement. Being outpaced by Marcus Rashford or outfoxed by Callum Robinson, he’s really slowed down in the defensive third.
For someone revered as the cornerstone of Chelsea’s recent success, watching him break down repeatedly ponders worrying questions on Lampard’s tactics. There’s little doubting his influential work on evolving Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham into Premier League-pedigree. However, the same is yet to be reflected on Kurt Zouma, Andreas Christensen or even recent debutant Fikayo Tomori.
It’s somewhat understandable it's taking time adapting to new things. David Luiz’s joined Arsenal and Antonio Rudiger’s injury problems are plaguing his return. Zouma’s still transitioning into this new system after excelling at Everton last season, while Christensen’s also finding his feet. Emerson’s been integrated a new more attack-minded role, but he’s pretty solid defensively.
However, despite occasional hiccups, those two have handled themselves pretty well. Azpilicueta, although, has often undone their hard work. The confidence is at a real low in the Chelsea backline. It’s the captain’s role to restore their solidity. The International break probably comes at a perfect time for the 30-year-old to reevaluate his performances. Lampard must pinpoint the surmounting issues to his former team-mate and come up with a solution quickly.
As the senior-most figure in the back-line, continuously being wrong-footed is having a negative impact on his younger peers. A side can just be as good as their leader and Chelsea’s is struggling to impress. Rather than trying to bring a new dynamic to the attack, he must work hard in finding back his vibe in stopping wingers.
The Basque is naturally a solid defender. While not the quickest, his reflexes, timely challenges and game-reading ability have been his biggest strengths in recent years. Now having lost them, he must go back to square one to find back what made defined his biggest assets. Even last season, when Chelsea kept fifteen league clean-sheets, he was a dependable figure in defence. He couldn’t have lost his form indefinitely.
Time, however, isn’t on his side. As Lampard’s side gets younger, he’s quite aged for a Premier League wing-back. Reece James, the fiery young right-back from their academy, will make his bow soon. Davide Zappacosta is also returning from Italy in January.
The manager won’t hesitate one bit to give the younger full-backs more opportunities to shine if he doesn’t see improvement. Unless he fixes his error-prone tendencies and finds back his influential form, Azpilicueta’s regular spot is running on borrowed time.