In the first part of an exclusive post-season interview with our captain Cesar Azpilicueta, the defender reflects on the positives of the recently-completed campaign, assesses what we must do to close the gap in 2020/21 and insists that the early integration of our new two signings could be key...
As he prepares to start his ninth season at Stamford Bridge, Cesar Azpilicueta is still going strong, stronger than ever perhaps. In 2019/20, he started 36 of our 38 Premier League games and played 3,230 minutes of league football, both comfortably more than anybody else in the Chelsea squad.
Mason Mount was the nearest outfielder to the Spaniard on both those measures and the midfielder is almost a decade younger than his 30-year-old skipper. While the FA Cup final did not go the way he had hoped, with Azpilicueta leaving the Wembley field with his hands nursing a stricken hamstring rather than lifting aloft the famous old trophy, the captain’s campaign reflections indicate the positives have clearly outweighed the negatives this term.
As team-mates from Azpilicueta’s arrival in the summer of 2012 to Frank Lampard’s departure two years later, the pair shared a similar drive for self-improvement and silverware. Standards must always be kept high, targets must be reset, second-best should never be celebrated.
Six years on, now as manager and captain, the pair are plotting how to keep the Chelsea momentum rolling and how to close the gap on the teams above us, both in England and on the European stage.
‘His attitude and his application every single day is an absolute standard for any young player,’ Lampard said recently when talking about Azpi, as the defender is known to the players and staff at Cobham. ‘He is the epitome of the club. He is the one the fans look at and say “that is how we feel about Chelsea.” He is captain for that reason.’
Like Lampard, Azpilicueta is also refreshingly honest when he assesses both his own and the team’s performances. He accepts that encouraging progress has been made in SW6 over the past 12 months but also acknowledges there is a lot more work to do.
‘When you look at the end of our season, they were not the results we wanted to get,’ he tells the official Chelsea website in an exclusive interview as we catch up at the conclusion of this drawn-out campaign. ‘We missed the chance to lift a trophy and obviously we had a bad result against Bayern as well.
‘We had our good moments during the season and our difficult moments as well but we couldn’t find that consistency to have better results. We know that as a team we have to keep improving and we are all looking forward to working hard from the beginning of pre-season to be ready for the next one.’
The change in head coach last summer brought with it a new playing style, a greater urgency to play forward quicker and take more risks. It is an approach that has often paid dividends and has garnered praise for its attractiveness on the eye but one that equally brings its own jeopardies when defensive discipline is lacking.
'We started with a new manager this pre-season and with a different style of play, which obviously we all tried to implement from the beginning,’ Azpilicueta continues. ‘We know it’s still just the beginning and we have to keep improving as a team.
‘We have had very good games against big teams in which we have performed very well but then sometimes we didn’t find a way to win games even when we were not playing that good. That’s the consistency that we need as a team.
‘It has been very difficult for us to find defensive solidity but once we do that, I can only see the team growing and improving moving forward.’
As captain and practically a veteran in the dressing room, Azpilicueta has watched on proudly as a number of young, homegrown Academy products have taken their opportunities on the big stage this season.
Tammy Abraham has finished as our top goalscorer, Mount became the first graduate to play 50 games in a debut campaign and there were other important contributions from Reece James, Fikayo Tomori and Callum Hudson-Odoi.
Azpilicueta has long known about the excellent work going on across the road from the men’s team setup at Cobham and he is delighted that is now bearing fruit by transferring into minutes and milestones on the senior stage.
‘It’s been a very good season for them,’ he notes. ‘Over the last years, the Academy has been really successful - they have won trophies and been one of the best teams in Europe and the best Academy in England but we didn’t have enough players jumping into the first team.
‘This year they have been given the chance and they were there because they have had good spells on loan last season or they had good spells in the Academy like Callum Hudson-Odoi, who went straight from the Academy to the first team.
‘Others like Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Reece James and Fikayo Tomori were on loan and they had very good seasons there so they deserved to come back and be involved in pre-season.
‘At the beginning, the manager showed great confidence in them but he was tough as well and he was clear that if they are there it’s because they deserve to be there. They show it every day. They’re very young, very talented and with more work I’m sure they will keep improving.’
Much of the inter-season conversation has and will be dominated by what Chelsea need to do to finish closer to the teams above them in the Premier League. In the past three seasons, the Blues have finished 33, 26 and 30 points behind the champions so this is clearly not a gap that can be closed easily but Azpilicueta believes consistency is the key to unlocking a more serious challenge.
In order to be more consistent, thereby winning more games and accumulating more points, the captain believes an improvement in both boxes is essential.
‘The story of a lot of games this season has been that we were not clinical in the boxes,’ Azpilicueta explains. ‘In the attacking box, we have missed chances but I think the big problem was that sometimes we were playing well but we were not strong enough in our box.
'We know that as a team we have to keep improving and we are all looking forward to working hard from the beginning of pre-season to be ready for the next one.’
— Cesar Azpilicueta
‘I always think of the offensive and defensive phases as a team and as a unit we know we have to keep improving at the back. We have to reduce the numbers of goals conceded if we want to close the gap because it’s a big difference. I’m sure we will work hard to reduce the gap and be close to the top next season.’
Chelsea’s 2020/21 squad has already been bolstered by the signings of Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech, both of whom trained with the group in the final few weeks of the season and caught the eye. However, according to Azpilicueta, it is the fact the pair are both fully integrated already and therefore more likely to hit the ground running next month that bodes most promisingly.
‘Both of them have shown their quality in training in these past couple of weeks,’ he adds. ‘We have seen their potential offensively, the way they can create chances and the way they can score goals so they are big additions to the team.
‘The quicker and easier they can adapt to the Premier League, the better it will be for everybody so it was good to have them with the group for a few weeks at the end of the season. They are already integrated and know everybody so it’s been a very good time for that and now we’re all looking forward to seeing them on the pitch.’
In part two tomorrow, Azpi reflects on his first 12 months as the skipper, stepping up as the face and voice of the club in this most extraordinary of seasons, as well as explaining how his relationship with Frank Lampard has changed and how he’s looking forward to his ninth campaign as a Blue…