Chelsea managed to extend their winning run to nine and consolidated their position at the top of the table ahead of Christmas day. Normally the side that is top at Christmas goes onto win the league, therefore it is a major milestone for this Chelsea side. They have been scintillating at times, as they were against Everton and Manchester City, but over this past week, they have completed three 1-0 victories and that will please Antonio Conte. It shows that this side can dig in and get the three points even if they aren’t at their best. That is the mark of champions.
There have been a number of stars over this winning run, but Cesar Azpilicueta has been one of the brightest. He was excellent again on Saturday and has adapted well to playing in a central role. Throughout his career, he has played in both full back positions, but he has now shown that he can play at centre back as well and that makes him one of the most complete defenders in the league. Although David Luiz and Gary Cahill have both been good since the change in formation, it has been Azpilicueta that has impressed most out of the centre back trio, establishing himself as a firm favourite of Antonio Conte.
The one question mark that existed around the full back was his aerial presence. He competed well at full back, but it is hugely more important when at centre back. It becomes an integral part of the defender’s responsibilities, but Azpilicueta has not shown that he can do well in the air. On Saturday, he came up against a physical striker in Christian Benteke and he marshalled him well when he was required to. The Spaniard won four aerial duels and ensured that the Chelsea defence weren’t dominated. Moreover, at set pieces, he helped his side remain tight and concede few chances. This was important as Palace were most dangerous from these situations.
His reading of the game has been really impressive, as he is rarely found out of position. The Spaniard has adapted quickly to his new role and looks like he has played there his entire career. That speaks volumes about his intelligence and adaptability. He is perfect for a manager like Antonio Conte and it is no surprise that he has become even more prominent under the Italian. Yesterday, he made seven clearances and made two interceptions, helping his side to yet another clean sheet.
The advantage that Chelsea have had after converting Azpilicueta to a centre back has been his ability to contribute to attacks. His distribution is excellent as displayed yesterday by his 87% pass accuracy. The Spaniard is able to launch attacks from deep and that is crucial when playing in a three-man defence. At times, he can foray forward and add another dimension to Chelsea’s already frightening attack. He showed that at Selhurst Park as he got into the final third and supplied an excellent cross that provided Diego Costa with the opportunity to open the scoring. Although he has starred at the back, he remains an attacking threat, even when playing at centre back.
This Chelsea side is on one of the best winning streaks that the Premier League has ever seen and every single player deserves credit for that. However, there are a few that stand out and Azpilicueta is one of those. The speed that he has adapted to not only a new formation, but a new position is impressive. Antonio Conte was quick to extend the Spaniard’s contract, which highlights just how important he is to Chelsea going forwards. Against Palace, he excelled in both halves of the pitch and he is beginning to establish himself as one of the best defenders in the league.
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