While Reece James has had a great start to his Chelsea career, Cesar Azpilicueta should still be the regular starter at right back.
From Steve Clarke to Ashely Cole, Branislav Ivanovic to Eddie McCreadie, Chelsea has always had good fullbacks. Those former players were all part of title winning sides at various points in time with Cole’s mere 338 appearances for the Blues being the lowest of the four.
While there can be some discussion about who the best fullback Chelsea has had over the years, there can be no discussion involving the Blues’ defence for the last decade that does not heavily feature current captain Cesar Azpilicueta. Azpilicueta has more appearances than both Ivanovic and Cole and as he is just a few caps shy of 400 appearances for the Blues, will likely overtake both Clarke and McCreadie before the end of the 2020/21 season.
Forget best fullback—judging by his stable of work—it wouldn’t be hard to suggest Azpilicueta has a shout to be one of the best defenders ever at the club, period. He has certainly been the most consistent performer for the Blues since he arrived in 2012, with former manager Jose Mourinho famously saying a team of 11 Azpilicueta’s could win the Champions League.
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This all bears repeating because Reece James has found a vein of form. The Englishman just recently made his full England debut and as a result, most have been quick to ignore Azpilicueta and what he brings to the team. Not even a year ago, it seemed unfathomable that Azpilicueta would not be the first name on the team sheet.
There comes a time in every manager’s career where they have to make the decision whether to play the veteran or the kid. Do they go with the tried and tested version or put their faith in the youngster, allow for some more mistakes, but know that the kid can only get better if he plays? Frank Lampard is facing that exact conundrum now between Azpilicueta and James.
Now this is not a James versus Azpilicueta debate, nor will it turn into one. Lampard needs to find a good balance between the two, despite the fact it is obvious that James is the future. He is the better crosser, finisher and faster player with excellent vision and buckets of promise.
Meanwhile, Azpilicueta is 31 and because of his consistency, he has barely had a break from the pitch, the longest of which came just recently with his injury in the FA Cup Final last season. He has been worked to the bone and then some for Chelsea. Azpilicueta can no longer be expected to play 50-60 games a season at the level he has for the past nine years, nor does he have to anymore because of James’ talent.
Yet, to simply do away with the Spaniard would be a massive error on the part of Lampard and the Chelsea coaches. This is not to say that there have been any murmurings about moving on from Azpilicueta, but as players continue to leave on loan and Chelsea’s squad depth gets thinner, the importance of Azpilicueta only increases.
When it comes to Chelsea’s back line, Lampard’s evidently been studying religiously from Claudio Ranieri’s School of Managing. Ranieri got the nickname ‘Tinkerman’ because he liked to change his team frequently and that is exactly what Lampard has been doing with his back line since he arrived as manager. There has been no consistency and as a result, the back line has looked shaky. It needs leaders and consistent players—the exact reason for bringing in a 36-year-old Thiago Silva—but still there is no better embodiment of that than Azpilicueta.
Lampard needs to find a way of keeping Azpilicueta in the fold because he is reliable, accountable and versatile. He is one of the best leaders on the pitch and the defence is all the better for it. While individually, James may be a better player than Azpilicueta now, a defensive line is not the place for individual talents, but rather a collection of parts that compliments each other.
Look at Manchester United’s £150+ million defence, there is no mesh between the talents. Lampard faces that same issue if he does not find a group of players that play well together, rather than just the best players at his disposal for each position. Right now, the Blues need a back line that is the best collection of players and styles rather than the sum of its parts.
At this point in time, the best Chelsea defence—as in the one that looks the most composed and defensively sound—puts Ben Chilwell on one flank and Azpilicueta on the other. In time, undoubtedly, James will get there and hold down that position with ease. Yet, to assume the 20-year-old can do that all by himself now is not only foolish, but placing an unnecessary burden on a player that doesn’t need to be put in that position.
This is also not to say that every defensive issue has been because of James’ play. In many instances, he has been one of the better defenders. Therefore, if Lampard does not need to unnecessarily work him, why should he? He is not the leader that Azpilicueta is yet. While far from being a rash player, James does not bring to the pitch the same air of calmness at this point in his career that Azpilicueta does. It is not a criticism of the young Englishman, but a statement of fact that Chelsea’s back line with the Spaniard at right back looks more assured and risk averse than with James in that position.
Do not forget that Chilwell is still coming back from a lengthy spell on the sidelines. With Azpilicueta’s versatility—and Marcos Alonso and Emerson seemingly fighting over who can be more unfit for the left back role—the Spaniard will have to be cover on the left, as well. There is every chance that a re-injury to Chilwell could see Azpilicueta slot in on the left and James on the right, so once again, the door for James opens up. Perhaps that will prove to be the best back line over time, nobody knows. James will definitely get a lot of game time this year, as he should. For sure, next season, expect James and Chilwell to be staples of this Blues defense.
However, to be so focused on the future often results in neglecting the past and worryingly in Chelsea’s case, the present. If Lampard is looking for a stable back line right now, his best bet is to swap Azpilicueta for James until his hand is forced to do otherwise.