There was a moment in the dying seconds of the first half of Saturday’s draw with Wolves that hit home why this season should be Cesar Azpilicueta’s last in a Chelsea shirt.
Going for a loose ball after a Chelsea attack had broken down, Azpilicueta messily attempted to shut down the faster Pedro Neto, seeming to be first the ball, the defender bizarrely turned his attention to the man. Eventually fouling Neto but the official playing advantage as Willy Boly played in Rayan Ait-Nouri who fortunately blasted over.
It was only one of several recent errors in judgement from the club captain which has brought his growing frailties into sharp focus. Deciding to grab onto Bukayo Saka against Arsenal, giving away a penalty that sealed a defeat. The lapse in concentration at Goodison Park that directly led to Richarlison’s winner. But these are not isolated, nor can they be easily dismissed.
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Azpilicueta has so often during his Chelsea career set the standards for his teammates. The level of precision, ruggedness and determination to maintain his spot in multiple formations under different coaches. But now his errors are symbolising something else, a slow crawl towards the end of a testing season, and one that should herald a much-needed squad overhaul under new ownership.
Thomas Tuchel’s decision at the interval on Saturday to switch Reece James into the back-three, moving Azpilicueta instead to right wingback felt more like an act to mitigate the damage, as in the first half, Wolves’ speed was overwhelming the experienced defender, leaving gaps that Wolves should’ve made more of.
In turn, this alteration limits one of Chelsea’s most creative sources in James. And although you can argue Chelsea scored two through Romelu Lukaku and created better looks at goal, the longer-term repercussions feel frustrating. Is James now a centre back by default in order to protect Azpilicueta? Rather than the England defender being let loose to charge forward as he did so brilliantly at Old Trafford.
Azpilicueta’s ongoing inclusion despite error only heightens the questions surrounding Trevoh Chalobah. An unused sub again on Saturday, drafted into the crucial Under-23’s league game on Sunday against Spurs with Malang Sarr. Probably most damning given where Chalobah was at the beginning of this season.
The valuation on his head by CIES football observatory of up to £34milliion could be a touch low for an academy talent that arguably saved the club £60million last summer when he became a regular in Tuchel’s defence before Christmas. But now, as the team continues to falter and a once stern defence crumbles, why is Chalobah not getting a significant look-in?
Little about this situation makes sense and it is only naturally going to prompt questions and criticism of Tuchel’s selections as performances, and equally, results don’t go in Chelsea’s favour.
The most damning thing I could say about Azpilicueta, a player who fans have rightly adored and respected for many years, is it feels like we are witnessing a sudden drop of the scale witnessed with Branislav Ivanovic at the beginning of the 2015/16 season. Where a once outstanding player suddenly looks behind the game and there is nowhere to hide.
No one will ever question Azpilicueta’s commitment to Chelsea, almost 10 years of service says as much and his longevity will stand the test of time. He really has little left to accomplish or prove in west London. But there is a sense this is the final chapter with Barcelona lurking.
With younger, faster and more dynamic targets being looked at in the market, or the next generation like Chalobah showing that there is fresh blood to step forward, Tuchel needs to make tough choices in order to rekindle some life back into a season is quickly reaching a depressing conclusion.