Earlier in the week, it was heartening to hear Gary Neville single-out Cesar Azpilicueta for praise. To the naked eye, the Spaniard doesn’t really stand out amongst Chelsea’s quality-laden squad, but the twenty-five year-old has become one of the most important figures in Jose Mourinho’s second spell at Stamford Bridge.
If, as a player in the company of Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas, you display your value by simply not making mistakes rather than by producing highlight-reel moments, then you are always likely to remain slightly under-appreciated - thankfully for Azpilicueta, though, that’s a tide which is beginning to turn.
Seeing a right-footed player used as a left-sided full-back is rare. Generally, it happens when a squad in the throws of an injury-crisis and when a manager has no other option. The result is usually the same: an awkward, unconvincing performance during which the reassigned player loses a 90-minute battle between his tactical instructions and his natural tendencies.
A right-footed player will always feel more comfortable close to the right touchline and vice versa. When used on his less natural side, a player will not only typically creep in-field with the ball at every opportunity - reducing his side’s natural width - but, when not in possession, he will also be vulnerable to opponents who target his outside shoulder.
Having a weaker foot is, of course, relevant to how a player performs without the ball as well as with it - tackling off that non-dominant side is potentially as problematic as passing from it. The angles that need covering are inverted and the way a player needs to distribute his weight changes - it’s a lot harder than it looks.
Everyone who has ever played a competitive game of football knows this, which makes it all the more surprising that Cesar Azpilicueta is routinely short-changed of the recognition he’s owed.
Yesterday was a very good example of what he does well.
Chelsea’s defensive strength is in their unity, so it’s slightly contrary to separate one player from the group. John Terry and Gary Cahill are currently the most secure centre-back pairing in the country and Branislav Ivanovic - another greatly undervalued player - has been similarly excellent over the past eighteen months. Amongst those players, however, Azpilicueta is the only one being used in a non-orthodox way and that’s really what elevates him above his teammates.
At Anfield, the side’s fleeting periods of vulnerability were created by the midfield and Cesc Fabregas’ periodic lapses in concentration. In normal defensive situations, though, Chelsea were characterised by how impenetrable they looked. On the flanks, especially, it was noticeable how rarely Liverpool were able to get beyond either full-back and manufacture a threatening crossing angle - that highlighted not only how well that part of the pitch was screened, but also how disciplined the two full-backs were and how effectively they read the game as it developed around them.
Neither of the two were turned around at any point, neither of the two ever had to resort to last-ditch, error-compensating tackles.
But, like Ivanovic, Azpilicueta’s value isn’t just in his own half. In the move which led to Diego Costa’s winning goal, it’s easy to dismiss the Spaniard’s contribution on the basis that he only managed to beat the attack-minded Philippe Coutinho and the disinterested Glen Johnson, but how often do you really see a right-footed left-back attack down the touchline? Denis Irwin used to do it for Manchester United and the right-footed Gael Clichy has had some success during his career, but generally it’s very rare - and, when you see it combined with reliable defensive play, it’s extremely impressive.
He should be a square peg in a round role, but it’s immensely laudable that he isn’t and that, in fact, Chelsea are enhanced by their unnatural left-back rather than restricted by him.
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