Cesar Azpilicueta reached the impressive milestone of 400 Chelsea appearances at the weekend, so we spoke to our skipper about some of his memories from that time, how he has changed during his nine years at Stamford Bridge, and the development of the full-back position.
Azpilicueta is just the 13th player to reach 400 games for the Blues, and only the second from overseas to do so, after Petr Cech. He is not far off breaking into our all-time top 10 appearance makers.
This phenomenal achievement is testament to his work ethic, consistency and physical fitness, as well as his versatility - remember he played most of the 2014/15 title-winning season at left-back, and his other Premier League triumph, 2016/17, on the right side of a three.
There is a lot for him to reflect on, and we start at the very beginning…
Cesar, tell us the story of you signing for Chelsea, and how it came about?
I was under contract at Marseille, but as soon as I know a great club like Chelsea were interested in signing me, I tried to move to the side trying to get an agreement between the clubs. I spoke a bit with Juan Mata who was at Chelsea. When I signed I was so happy. I walked through the door for the first time and was sitting next to legends of the game, and then was on the pitch with them.
I could see straightaway the ambition and desire of the club. It was a big step forward in my career. The club had just won the Champions League and I wanted to be part of that success in the future.
What do you remember of your first day?
I did the medical check, I went to the hotel and signed in the afternoon. I visited the training ground, where I met Roberto Di Matteo, who was the manager, for the first time, and the next morning I trained with the team. It was a good start!
How long would you say it took you to become completely accustomed to playing in the Premier League?
I knew I was coming into a club that had high competition. I was 22, and I knew I had to work hard to learn. I remember my first game was actually a friendly game for the Under-23s against Charlton on the Academy pitch, but my first few months I spent mostly on the bench. That gave me a chance to see the pace of the games, my team-mates playing, and to learn from the manager. Day by day I learned more about the competition.
I took it all on board. I wanted to play as soon as possible, but I felt the confidence from the manager and the club who gave me time. I had to be patient and wait for my chance. My first official game was against Wolverhampton in the League Cup. I remember we were winning six-nil and I kept going up and down, up and down, I didn’t want the game to finish. I was enjoying it so much I wanted to keep playing forever!
I knew I had to take every chance I could, but I used the time when I wasn’t playing to learn and adapt to the Premier League.
If we had told you after your first game against Wolves that by the end of the decade, you would be the captain, what would you have said?
You couldn’t imagine it then. When you first sign, you see such great players who have won the Champions League, you just want to be part of it and win trophies. I won trophies with Marseille but this was a step forward.
I try to improve. I always analyse my game, and am sometimes harsh on myself. As a perfectionist you always want more. To be the captain now, I’m really proud, but if you had asked me that back in the day, it would have been difficult to predict.
Give us some ways in which you are different as a player and a person from the Azpi who played that first Chelsea game…
First of all, I came to London with my wife and our two dogs. Now I have three kids, so that has been a big change in my life! We settled very well in the city and the country, and we really enjoy it here.
As a footballer, the chance to play at the top level, with top players and top managers, gives you experience in the way you live football: when you go into training or step out at Stamford Bridge, with the titles we have won, and also when you have bad moments. Experience gives you that bit of calm. I try to stay positive, and I know by working hard you can go further.
Without tempting fate, are there any factors you believe have been important in the lack of injury problems you’ve had?
Well, I was never injured until I did my anterior cruciate ligament at Marseille. It was hard because I had recently signed for Marseille, I had a tough start and then when I was playing better and the team was doing better, I got the injury.
Until then, everything in my career had been fine, but at that moment I realised I had a challenge ahead of me I had to overcome. Every day I was going to the hospital and doing eight or nine hours of rehabilitation on my knee. I had good physios and medical staff at Marseille and everything went well, luckily.
It was in that period I learned about the culture of working before or later, and the discipline you needed to invest in your body. I did stretching at home; ice baths every day. I knew my body had changed. My knee was different. So I took that routine forward, stretching, yoga, and training hard every day like it is a game. I have been lucky to be available for most of the time.
How has the full-back position changed in the Premier League generally over your 400 games?
Football has changed a lot since I arrived here. There is a different pace and it’s become more and more physical. Now we see a lot of full-backs nearly like wingers, very quick and they go up and down. Back in the day we saw more centre-backs who could adapt to right and left-back and were more defensive. Now we see former wingers who are becoming full-backs and doing well.
When during your Chelsea career have you played it most defensively, and when most offensively?
It depends. For example, when I played under Jose Mourinho at left-back, I knew I had Eden [Hazard] playing in front of me. I had to cover him and work extra defensively. I had to give that security to the team so he was as fresh as possible to attack and win us games. We worked with Nemanja [Matic] to keep the balance on the left side, where we knew we could be stronger than the opposition.
Offensively, even that season [2014/15] I had a couple of assists. The year I got the most was 2017 with Alvaro [Morata], and I was playing centre-back! It’s not just about the numbers but the solutions you can provide. I had to adapt over the years, but I always considered I could offer things at both ends.
Favourite Chelsea assist?
The one to Alvaro for his header against Manchester United was good, but I have to go for the Michy [Batshuayi] one when we won the league at West Brom in 2017. It wasn’t the most technical, but it meant the most.
How much does winning the Champions League remain an ambition? Would you be happy with your career without it?
It’s the biggest trophy, and being a Chelsea player you have the biggest ambition for trophies. That’s one that I would like to achieve. We know it’s a new competition that starts in February, seven games, and every detail counts. We have to learn from the Bayern Munich games last season, make it right and hopefully go as far as possible.
What’s been your favourite Chelsea memory so far?
Hopefully it is yet to come!