Everything changes but César Azpilicueta. Coaches, team-mates and competition: for the first time since he arrived in London, the Champions League is just something he watches on the television. Results have changed, European absence compensated by domestic dominance. His diet has changed – he has been doing porridge for over a year now – and so has his nationality – sort of. “Sometimes people say to me: ‘Ah, you’re not really Spanish, you’re British,’” he says. Even his name is changing: most call him César now, if only to distinguish him from Chelsea’s bus driver. And yet somehow “Dave” remains “Dave”, the man you can rely on.
“I’ve had five managers and I’ve played with all of them,” Azpilicueta says. In fact, if you count Steve Holland’s two days in charge, he has had six different managers from five different countries, men with their own ideas and personalities, but he plays all right. For five successive seasons he has made at least 27 league appearances; this season he has already started 28 – every match, in other words. Last year he missed one. Systems have switched and so has his position, from one side to the other and into the middle, but his performances have not dipped. Still Dave, still dependable – if “dependable” is even the word. As compliments go, “reliable” can feel a little backhanded, after all.
Azpilicueta is a defender who defends, for sure, but that is not all. Though it is not easy to improve when you are so consistent, he has. José Mourinho once said a team of Azpilicuetas could win the Champions League – “maybe on penalties”, he replied, a little bashfully – and Jamie Carragher recently judged him the Premier League’s best defender. “It’s flattering coming from people who have had careers like his and it means I’m playing well now,” he says, “but it doesn’t change the way I am. I’ve always tried to give everything to adapt to the league, the culture … ”
And the system. Antonio Conte describes Azpilicueta as “incredible in this new role” to the right of a back three; there his manager considers him “one of the best in the world”. It happened against Hull. “At the start of the season things were a bit 50-50: we were winning but …” Azpilicueta starts. “Every coach has his own ideas. Antonio is very keen on working on the tactical order in every session, with the emphasis on being united on the pitch. Before changing system I don’t think he was completely satisfied. The team didn’t have the identity he wanted but since then we have put in an awful lot of work and it’s translated into results.”
The pieces fit and the system works. “If you analyse [Gary Cahill, David Luiz and me] as individuals we have different qualities that complement each other and that means we can help each other out on the pitch,” he says. “Each of us does certain things with greater ease than the other two, and that gives us confidence as a unit. We cover each other. We tend to play quite close together and we’re there for each other.”
As for N’Golo Kanté, he is there for all of them. That must help. “Joder,” Azpilicueta smiles, a wide grin of gleaming white teeth. It translates roughly as: bloody hell, yes. “It helps enormously,” he continues. “He’s a great player who has adapted very quickly to playing here – people forget it’s only his second season in England. You can only admire what he did last season and what he’s doing this season. He covers so much ground and he’s fundamental. His work-rate is incredible, not just in games but in every single training session. ”
The signing of the season? “He was a vital piece in the puzzle for the manager and the club did fantastic work in signing him. Moreover, they did it early. It wasn’t last minute. They brought him in early so that he had time to train with the team and adapt, which he did quickly. I think that’s very important. His performances have been fantastic. He started well and he has kept getting better.”
Together they all have. Azpilicueta’s adaptation was vital, central to the shift that satisfied Conte at last; the coach’s “flexible friend” as Paul Doyle put it on these pages. He made possible the systematic change that should make Chelsea Premier League champions. An FA Cup semi-final awaits too and, if they reach the final, it would be Azpilicueta’s first in a competition he admires, talking fondly of Brentford and Peterborough, the atmosphere at Wolves. “I love that,” he says.
“The manager asked me about the possibility of playing in a three: I had no worries because I knew he would work with us on it on the training ground and that I’d be able to adapt,” he says. “As long as I’m playing, I’m happy. I don’t mind changing position [but] I’ve now played a lot as the right-sided centre-back and that’s the position that comes easiest. When you’re a full-back, you’re more open, wider; now I have more presence in the area. I’m comfortable there, I have more possession, I’m more involved in bringing the ball out and I’m enjoying it.”
The stats bear that out: this season only Jordan Henderson has made more forward passes and Thiago Silva is the only defender in Europe to have completed more. More important still are the other, collective stats: a 10-point lead with only 10 games to go – and all in Conte’s first season.
Evidence of how difficult that is comes from Manchester. “It’s not so easy. People think you can win the league before it’s even begun,” Azpilicueta says. “They’re two great clubs with two great coaches and with big money invested. They have great squads. But it’s hard to win. Every single game is difficult. It’s also difficult to arrive and adapt so quickly and Antonio has done that.”
How? “From the first moment he has pushed himself to the limit, speaking English, giving everything. I knew a bit about him from playing against him, I had a sense of how his teams played, the unity they had, and I liked that. Here he has done everything to adapt to English football and to know the players. He never had demands made of him and there are people at the club who helped. You need that when you arrive – people that know the league, all the players, who have experience in certain types of games. He’s intelligent: he likes to observe and evaluate. Of course the manager takes decisions but he asks other people’s opinions.”
Conte encountered an underachieving team, fallen champions who were not in the Champions League. Not even in the Europa League. Perhaps that helped: only 14 players have started league games, and there are five who have started at least 26 games: Azpilicueta, Thibaut Courtois, Cahill, Kanté and Diego Costa.
“Well, I wish we were still playing in the Champions League,” Azpilicueta says. “The team that won the Premier League two years ago was also more or less the same [as this season]; it’s true that not having European competition allows you to keep roughly the same team, although everyone matters. We have a good understanding on the pitch and the manager’s done great work.
“A bad season left us out of [Europe] and there’s there is nothing we can do about that now. I’m watching the Champions League at home and of course I want to be there, involved. This is the first year since I signed for Marseille [in 2010] that I’ve not been there and it’s hard. Last season we found ourselves in a position that Chelsea shouldn’t be in. We knew we had to come back in the Premier League first and we’ve done that,” he says.
“Winning the title is very, very difficult. Every season I’ve been here teams have got better. The type of players that have come from abroad, and the English players too, have improved hugely. There are better coaches and because there’s more money teams are better. It keeps getting stronger. Every point’s hard to win.
“We’re now in a good position although we know there are still 10 games to go and we have to go step by step, starting with Palace. We know it’s not over. But let’s hope we can finish the season with the title. And from there get back into European competition and do as well as possible, while maintaining the same level in the Premier League.”
But can they? They have gone from champions to failure before, the memory still fresh. And the demands will be greater – more fronts opened, resources more stretched. “One more challenge,” Azpilicueta says. “And we have really, really wanted to go back ever since we were eaten by PSG.”
Then there is the risk of a break-up: the futures of Costa, Eden Hazard and Courtois have all come under focus. “It would be a shame because we have a great team,” Azpilicueta says. “But the club will work on it with the coach and the technical staff. They will know what he wants. We need to get this season finished first. Then there will be all sorts of rumours. In the end I’m sure we will have a very competitive team again.”
That “we” stands out, not least because he has. So good have Azpilicueta’s performances been that his name too has spun round the rumour mill – linked to Barcelona, no less. “The truth is right now I am only thinking about Chelsea and I feel loved here. I’ve been here five years now and I extended my contract not long ago,” he says.
“Of course it’s flattering to be linked to Barcelona: it means you’re playing well. I wasn’t hearing those sort of stories last season. That’s a consequence of us being top of the Premier League, things are going well. My objective since I arrived was to grow as a player and a person. I’ve adapted to the city, to the country. I feel settled, I’m comfortable with the language, my family is very happy. Right now my only objective is to continue with Chelsea.”