Cesar Azpilicueta put in a trademark performance against Norwich City, hopefully muffling the untoward criticism that came his way after the first few Chelsea games.
For a player who was never much known for his speed, Cesar Azpilicueta certainly covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time to set up Tammy Abraham for Chelsea’s opener at Norwich. Azpilicueta is not even in the frame when Christian Pulisic brings down Mason Mount’s cross-field pass. By time Pulisic takes his second touch, Azpilicueta has closed the distance to about 20 yards behind Pulisic, heading for the overlap. A few touches towards the inside later, and Azpilicueta passes behind the American right as he plays the ball towards the touchline. Not breaking stride or decelerating until he has to avoid a cameraman, Azpilicueta and the ball come to a stop at about the same time: Azpilicueta near the advertising boards, the ball in the back of the net.
Par for the course for Chelsea’s captain. Azpilicueta was a frequent source of overlapping runs and crosses throughout the game. This gave Chelsea two ways to widen the pitch on the right (the other being Christian Pulisic), which was important given how centrally the Blues played on the left in the absence of a true left wing.
Azpilicueta’s role on the right also balanced how the Blues used Emerson on the left. Emerson played more direct, dribbling the ball in or coming near the top corner of the box for long-range shots, not unlike the best days of Marcos Alonso.
On defence, the burgeoning rapport between Chelsea’s centrebacks meant Azpilicueta did not need to drop deep and central to cover them as he had in previous games.
The communication between the defenders still needs work. Norwich’s opening goal partly came from a miscommunication between Azpilicueta and the centre-backs. Azpilicueta did not come out far enough to close down Teemu Pukki nor stay tight enough to Todd Cantwell to block the pass at either end.
Azpilicueta led the team with four aerials won, bringing his total up to 11 for the season: four more than the much taller Kurt Zouma. While one of Azpilicueta’s lost aerials resulted in a goal from a set piece earlier in the season, this stat speaks to Azpilicueta’s sense of positioning and tenacity. It’s one thing for a tall centreback or striker to win an aerial. It’s another for a relatively diminutive right-back who spends most of the game reinforcing the centrebacks and defensive midfielder in addition to his actual duties to do it.
Those are the qualities and skills that will keep Azpilicueta on the pitch, in the best XI and wearing the armband for some time to come. He leads by example at all times, and knows how and when to vent his anger and frustration. He exerts command, not hissy fits, both in 1v1 situations with the opponent (or referee) and in directing his teammates.
The early season Azpilicueta slander insulted him and embarrassed the rest of us. Any early season stumbles were part of regaining fitness and match-sharpness. They were not signs of terminal decline.
Not that he had anything to prove or anyone to shut down other than yammering yahoos on social media, but his performance against Norwich City did just that.