Now at the midway point of his second season at Stamford Bridge, Cesar Azpilicueta sat down with the official Chelsea website to assess his time at the club, reflect on his recent run in the side and outline his hopes for the remainder of the campaign…
For Cesar Azpilicueta, the first half of the season probably did not followed the pattern he would have imagined back in August when the first ball was kicked.
The Spanish full-back had to wait until our Capital One Cup match at Swindon Town, seven games into the campaign, for his first start under Jose Mourinho, and three days later, when we made the trip across London to face Tottenham Hotspur, Branislav Ivanovic was restored to the starting line-up at his expense.
His fortunes were to change, however, in unfamiliar circumstances. On Tuesday 22 October, in Gelsenkirchen, with Ashley Cole still nursing a rib injury which he sustained in our win at Norwich nine days earlier, Azpilicueta was given the nod to deputise at left-back against Schalke in the Champions League, and it was a move which would go on to shape the next couple of months for the 24-year-old.
He produced a confident, assured display as we ran out comfortable 3-0 winners; a week later he scored his first goal for the club at Arsenal in the Capital One Cup, and when the manager decided to ring the changes following a disappointing defeat at Newcastle, Azpilicueta was chosen to play at left-back once again.
Since then, he has flourished, establishing himself as a regular in the side, albeit on the opposite side of the back four than he has been accustomed to over the years, up until Branislav Ivanovic picked up an injury in the recent win against Liverpool.
‘Obviously I’m used to playing as a right-back but when the manager asked me to play at left-back I just wanted to do my best,’ he tells the official Chelsea website. ‘The role is very similar, although of course there is more need for me to use my left foot.
‘I’m trying to improve my performances there with every game but up to now I’m pleased with how I’ve played.
‘Because competition within the squad is very high, when you play, in any position, you feel good, and you just want to do everything you can to help the team. Since I came to Chelsea, all I’ve wanted to do from the very first day is improve my game, even when I wasn’t playing very much.
‘I’ve always felt the manager’s confidence and I’ve tried to repay his faith in me by working hard every day and playing as well as I can. All you can do as a player is make sure you give 100 per cent and that’s what I try to do.’
Friendly and personable, Azpilicueta is a popular member of the squad. Seldom do you see him without a smile on his face in and around the training ground, but when it’s time to work he takes his responsibilities as seriously as anybody.
In a recent interview Gary Cahill cited Azpilicueta as the most dedicated trainer he’d ever worked with, explaining he had taken on the nickname of ‘the rat’, due to his high energy levels and determination to achieve his targets.
‘It’s very nice to hear because it means the work I do every day, which my team-mates obviously see, is well thought of,’ he says. ‘I have always trained hard since I was young and I don’t know any other way. I feel it’s important to give 100 percent in every training session because you will then have the same approach when the game comes around.’
Of late, Azpilicueta may have been the choice at left-back, but he says having the opportunity to train alongside the likes of Ashley Cole and Ivanovic has helped significantly in terms of his personal development.
‘It’s amazing for me to work every day with Ashley and Branislav. Since I’ve been at the club I’ve learnt so much from them because they are top players and top men,’ he explains.
‘I have a very good relationship with them both and I try to take as much as I can from the way they play. I have a chance to work alongside them regularly which helps me improve, and for the national team I’m in the same position.
‘It’s important for every player to always try to improve, I watch these players very closely and I think it’s helped me so far.’
For any player, the importance of building relationships on the pitch cannot be understated, and Azpilicueta is no different. Playing at left-back regularly this season has seen him, more often than not, occupy a position behind Eden Hazard, and it was his run which enabled the Belgian to score the first of his two goals in our 4-3 win at Sunderland earlier last month.
‘I tried to read the game, at that moment I felt that if I made the overlap it would create some space for Eden,’ recalls the Spaniard. ‘He’s right footed so obviously the best thing for him to do is cut inside and shoot at goal. You have to assess the situation; sometimes it’s important to make a run and help put your team-mate in a better position, but other times it’s better to stay back.
‘It’s always important to build a relationship on the pitch with the players who you play near you, which for myself, as a full-back, means the winger or the central defender.
‘It’s true that sometimes, depending on who you are playing with, you have to play a different way. That’s very positive though because it means we have many different options and it helps you adjust and improve your own game.
‘With each match, you get to understand how certain players like to do things, and you develop combinations and understandings.’
Now at the midway point of his second season at the club, Azpilicueta is in a good position to reflect on his time at Chelsea thus far. Mourinho is the third manager he’s worked under since making the switch from Marseille, and he has grown in confidence under the guidance of the Portuguese.
‘I’m really enjoying my time here, since the day I arrived I’ve always felt comfortable and welcome, not just in the dressing room, but with all the staff and the country generally,’ he says.
‘There is a great atmosphere here, we have a great squad and everything is in place to help us improve as players.
‘Since I’ve been here I’ve played a lot of games and learnt a lot. You have to learn how to perform well under pressure and obviously last season we won the Europa League, my first trophy with Chelsea and an important European trophy for me. I believe I am a better player than when I joined the club but I’m only 24 so there are many ways I can improve.
‘I’m really happy working under Jose, every day you have to give everything and I’ve learnt a lot about preparing yourself to win trophies. As a player, you always need to be ready for when the team needs you and, as a group, we have to meet our objectives, which is to win trophies at the end of the season.
‘I feel good but I know I can improve. I’m still young and I can give much more to the team, but I’m very happy at the moment. The manager seems to be happy with me but the most important thing for me is the team, and when you are part of the group the overall aim is to win titles.’
With a World Cup on the horizon next summer, there is inevitably an added incentive to play well at club level for those with aspirations of performing in Brazil.
Azpilicueta has been involved with the Spain squad since being handed his debut last February against Uruguay, and featured in the final of last summer’s Confederations Cup final.
Smartly, though, he knows the key to international success lies slightly closer to home.
‘It was a very good experience to play against Brazil at the Maracana in a final,’ he reflects.
‘Obviously the result wasn’t good but it’s important we learn from it. Prior to that game Spain had won the last two European Championships’ and the World Cup, but we need to make sure we improve before next summer.
‘The most important thing, if you want to be selected for the World Cup, is to perform for your club. If you don’t do the right things at club level it will be difficult to make the national squad.
‘It’s a target obviously because the World Cup is a massive event for footballers. It’s a dream so I will try to do my work at Chelsea as best I can and then see what happens in the summer.’