When two of Premier League era’s best defenders, Gary Neville(Manchester United) and Jamie Carragher(Liverpool), were asked about who they think the best defender is at the moment, their answer surprised quite a few. They named 25-year-old Spaniard Cesar Azpilicueta as the league’s best. Neville went on to praise the full-back saying he was “near to perfect”. You know you’re doing something right when your ex-peers heap praise on you, and that is nothing more than what Azpilicueta deserves.

Affectionately called “Dave” by Chelsea fans owing to his hard to pronounce (even harder to type, mind you) surname, he has become the apple of their eye. His tremendous work-rate, tackling and overall defensive abilities have made him every manager’s dream player. Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho recently said that if he had eleven Azpilicueta’s in his team, that team would win the Champions League because “not everything in football is about talent”, he added.

Born in a city famous for its “running with the bulls” festival, Pamplona, no wonder then that Azpilicueta has learned to take the bull by its horns. He began his career as a youth player at local club CA Osasuna, where he quickly graduated to the first team. Initially starting out as a midfielder, he only played at right-back as a stop-gap owing to injuries in the squad. Making his league debut in 2007 as an 18-year-old, he spent three seasons at his local club before moving to Olympique Marseille in the summer of 2010. Having spent a trophy-laden two years at the Stade Velodrome, Azpilicueta moved to the bright lights of London at Stamford Bridge in 2012.

Rafa Benitez

Rafa Benitez has to be credited for introducing Chelsea fans to Azpilicueta

While not many fans remember Rafa Benitez’s time with the club fondly, they do like to thank him for introducing them to Dave. He became a regular starter under Benitez and began to perform consistently under him. While it wasn’t an all-round popular decision, he slowly began to displace Ashley Cole as the regular left-back at Chelsea. Although it wasn’t his favoured side of the pitch, he wasn’t the one to complain. That trend continued under Mourinho and has now surely become one of the first names on the team sheet.

Since the 2012/13 season, he has averaged 3 tackles a game, making 2.6 of them successfully – a ball-winning percentage of 87. Also, since that season, his interceptions have gone up from 1.7 per game to almost 2 this season. Another impressive stat is that of his ‘duels won’, averaging at almost 50% in his Chelsea career so far. His pass accuracy of 85%, his excellent disciplinary record and perhaps the most important, his zero defensive errors in the Premier League have endeared him to both Benitez and Mourinho.

Beyond the numbers, what Chelsea fans love about him is his “running the socks off” routine every match. A hard worker off the ball, good in the air and an excellent reading of the game is what makes him exceptional. If not anything, the Bridge faithful know that their own Dave will try his heart out, whether it is a League Cup match away at Shrewsbury or the Champions League final for that matter.

While it seems wrong to credit only the Spaniard with the “best defender” tag, it is what Chelsea do as a defensive unit that is impressive. Over the last few seasons and especially with Mourinho in charge, Chelsea’s defensive numbers have been outstanding. Traditionally being built around a solid defence, Mourinho’s teams also have another quality – players with a great work-rate. Not only do the defenders defend but also the attackers track back and help press the ball thus helping out the defenders. Azpilicueta ticks all of the above boxes. His partners in defence, especially Gary Cahill and John Terry, may not be gifted in the pace department as much, and that is where he comes in.

Cesar Azpilicueta

Apple of the Blues’ eyes: Cesar Azpilicueta

The only chink in an otherwise flawless armour is his attacking play. Like his defending, he puts his heart in it, but unlike his predecessor Cole, he is not as good attacking wise. To say that against a benchmark like the former England international is a compliment in itself, which means that compared to the rest of the full backs in the Premier League, Azpilicueta will give almost all of them a good run for their money. Hence, it is not as much a ‘chink’ as it is an area for improvement.

So, does Cesar Azpilicueta really deserve to be called the “best defender in the league” at the moment? Very much so. Not only his stats suggest that, but also it is quite clear to the footballing public in England who watch him week-in-week-out that the Spaniard is highly talented. Then again, in a league that is filled with top quality defenders from all around the world, Dave has his work cut out if he wants to stay at the top.

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