As the latest round of international fixtures draws to a close, Pat Nevin takes time in this week’s column to look closely at one Chelsea player emerging onto the world stage…
The internationals carry on with almost every Chelsea player travelling around the globe representing their countries. Having said that Oscar and David Luiz for once haven’t had the longest of trips, nipping back down to Stamford Bridge last night for Brazil’s friendly against Russia.
Apart from that there have been a few highlights already including Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne both getting on the score sheet for Belgium against Macedonia at the weekend. A lot of focus has also been on Spain as they slipped up against Finland at home much to everyone’s surprise. Any team that feels able to leave Juan Mata on the bench for 76 minutes in an important qualifier must be pretty special, and of course they are.
In fact when I looked up the teams for that game I considered the side and thought they were good enough to beat just about anyone. It was only then I realised that I had scrolled down too far and that this was only the subs bench I was checking out. Have a look when you have a second and consider how strong a team their ‘B’ side is, it is incredible. It underlines just what a remarkable result it was for the Finns to manage a 1-1 draw.
While looking at the Spanish subs I realised that it wasn’t only the likes of Mata, Alonso, Javi Garcia and Pedro who couldn’t muscle their way in, but a certain Cesar Azpilicueta was also sitting this one out. I mentioned in passing in last week’s column just how impressed I have been with our right full-back, but it was only in passing and that is really a bit unfair considering how he has almost made that position his own.
His rate of improvement has been exponential this season as far as I am concerned. There is no longer an eyebrow raised when Branislav Ivanovic is left out and the Spaniard is in our team. He is of course more of a specialist right-back than anyone else at the club, but even so you can hardly say that Ivanovic is normally less than world class anywhere in the defence.
So what has Cesar added to his game? Well he has slowly but surely been more offensive in his play after a sensible and restrained start. This shows great football intelligence because most young players who get a chance at a top side panic a little. They often try too hard, take too many chances, do everything to impress and forget to do the basics well, not so Cesar. It has been a controlled improvement based on getting the defending right and then building from there, great maturity for a 23-year-old.
He also seems to enjoy the art of defending; his positional play has been almost perfect of late. You can take this for granted but there are plenty of supposedly top-level full backs who get themselves caught in no man’s land far too often, usually because they are too intent on being wingers before they check out the dangers behind them.
Another thing worth watching out for is his style when he is one v one against a winger. First he tries to engage them early so as not to allow them to get running with the ball. This also ensures they do not have easy space so that they can get in an easy cross without working hard for it. Any young budding defender should take a look at his positioning, not just when the ball arrives at the man he is on, but when the play is on the other side, he always seems aware of exactly where the opponents are drifting to.
Another thing for youngsters to watch is his body position when he closes down, he gets very low, almost crouched to ensure he is not easily unbalanced. Again this seems a simple thing, but it is amazing just how many players are too upright when they try to tackle out wide. The best compliment I can pay him is that I would imagine I would have had a very tough time playing against him in my day; he doesn’t have any really obvious faults that I would immediately try to exploit. If you get past Cesar Azpilicueta, trust me you will have worked for it.
So as he plays for Spain with all the superstars around him, just as he does with Chelsea, he will rarely be grabbing the headlines. The creators and the scorers do all that every week, but the defensive connoisseurs will be loving his dependability and that is what you want more than anything else from players in that position. Last week I compared him to Ashley Cole in his dependability but it wasn’t quite the right fit and after further consideration there is someone else who I think he reminds me of more and that is Stevie Clarke.
Steve was obviously a legend at the club on and off the field and I had the pleasure of playing in front of him for a few years at Chelsea when he first arrived. Later in his career he showed he was just as comfortable at centre-half and in the modern game he would have been a phenomenal deep-lying midfielder because of his football brain. That brain is being very successful now obviously but back then he was a steady and ever-growing full-back who had few if an weaknesses and just improved constantly over time.
If Cesar can follow in his footsteps, which he has every chance of doing, he will grow to become one of the most admired players at the club, not bad for a boring old right-back.
Last week I asked if you could you tell me who Frank Lampard scored his first ever league goal against? Well of course it was a little bit of a trick question as it wasn’t against Bolton Wanderers, that was his first league goal for Chelsea. Neither was it against Barnsley for West Ham United because Frank had been out on loan before that with Swansea City and it was there that he scored his first ever league goal. That was against Brighton & Hove Albion in a 2-0 win on 31 October 1995.
Many did of course figure that out of course, as you always do, and the lucky winner with the right answer chosen at random for the prize is Nazmus Sakib, from Dhaka, Bangladesh.
I didn’t mention the fact that Stevie Clarke is Scottish, but if you have ever heard him speak you probably knew that anyway. So in an international week when Scotland lost to Wales (again), can you tell me the name of any Chelsea full-back who has played for Wales? Answers to me at [email protected] and the lucky winner will receive a Munich Champions League final picture signed by one of the players.