It probably is not discussed enough how important it is for a new manager, at Chelsea or elsewhere, to win over senior figures in the squad. Thomas Tuchel set about doing that nearly immediately though he noted it was important to play the captain and/or the vice captain in matches. Thus, Cesar Azpilicueta has returned to the starting XI with his usual aplomb.
Cesar Azpilicueta is Chelsea’s own renaissance man, and the only question is for how much longer with his contract running short. The answer to that question was surely easier, or at the very least less complicated, when Frank Lampard was relying on Reece James at the expense of the captain. Now with Tuchel, and Azpilicueta once again key, the path to take forward is murky.
First of all, much of Azpilicueta’s current success surely has to do with Tuchel’s 3-4-3 system. Three at the back can take advantage of a player like Azpilicueta who is not quite offensive enough to be a fullback in the modern game, but who is a bit too good offensively to keep pinned in at center back. As one of the wider centerbacks in a back three, Azpilicueta can defend with coverage, get into midfield to show off his ability on the ball, or even overlap into the attack without having to worry about getting back in time.
All of that is true with Tuchel when it wasn’t true for Lampard. Azpilicueta has successfully reinvented himself time and time again but with the intersection of Lampard and James, it appeared Azpilicueta’s time had finally come. But Chelsea’s managers are a bit like the old adage “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. The switch from Lampard to Tuchel has proven a boon for Azpilicueta, though he never rose a stink about his lack of minutes under the former.
Which brings Chelsea to an awkward crossroads. Azpilicueta will be entering the final year of his contract this summer. Given his age and time with the club, there isn’t an urgency that requires selling him in the summer. But there are a few balls in the air to juggle.
First is whether or not this current level of minutes remains. If three at the back is at Chelsea to stay, then Azpilicueta will surely continue playing. His style will age gracefully in the formation and no one can really match his abilities in the role as of yet.
The question after that will be how long to extend. The Blues’ longstanding 30+1 contract rule might still exist on paper but in practice it has been broken for Olivier Giroud (when he signed), David Luiz (for some reason), and nearly for Willian. If anyone actually deserved more than a year extension without any asterisks, it would be Azpilicueta. It simply remains to be seen if Chelsea does the sensible thing in that regard.
And then there is the final point that no one really wants to think about. Tuchel is the manager now. How likely is he to be when Azpilicueta would theoretically be entering a new contract? Historically for Chelsea, the answer is very unlikely. And if that is the case, there is little guarantee that a new manager might have a place for Azpilicueta. The last thing the player or club will want is for a squad spot to be taken up by a player not getting on the pitch.
Of course, the best case scenario for all would be Tuchel breaks the mold and lasts longer than 18 months as Azpilicueta extends. A decision doesn’t need to be made soon but it is never too early to start thinking about.